How to buy the best tablet

How to buy the best tablet - from an Apple iPad Air to a Samsung Galaxy Tab tablet.

Buy the best tablet with our guide to tablets – from understanding the different types of tablets to knowing what features to look for when buying the best tablet.

Tablet computing has been a huge surge in popularity as Apple iPads, Samsung Gaxlaxy Tabs and Sony series tablets have taken over from desktop PCs and laptops as the go-to device for mobile and general computing. But how can you buy the best tablet for your needs?

Tablets are a half-way house between smartphones such as the Apple iPhone and laptops such as the Apple Macbook Air. Tablets use touchscreens to download and interact with apps. Buying the best tablet should mean the tablet is good for day-to-day computing such looking at web sites, viewing and editing photos and movies,  and thousands of other uses such as paying games such as Candy Crush Saga, viewing catch-up TV such as BBC iPlayer, and reading ebooks.

Read our buying guide for how to buy the best laptop for your needs.

The best tablets such as Apple iPads or Samsung Galaxy Tabs have lots of positives: tablets switch on instantly, making tablets quick access to web browsing without the sluggish wait for a laptop to start. Comfortable to hold, tablets usually have lengthy battery life that makes tablets ideal for long journeys and some include 3G or 4G mobile broadband, keeping you connected to the internet on the go for an additionally monthly fee.

Buying the best tablet: choosing a tablet

There are many types of tablets to choose from, but if you’re looking for the best tablet for you then you’ll need to choose between three main types of tablet: Apple’s popular iPad, tablets that run Google’s Android system such as the Samsung Galaxy Tab, and the Microsoft Windows Surface range of tablets. The difference between them is the operating system (OS) used to control the tablet.

Each operating system has its own unique features, but they have a similar look and feel. All tablets have a series of ‘homescreens’ that are akin to computer desktops, sporting a number of icons on the touchscreen that are your apps. Tap an app icon, and the app software launches such as Microsoft Word, taking over the whole screen.

Buy the best Apple iPad

Apple's iPad range includes the iPad mini with 7-inch high resolution Retina display.

Apple’s iPad range includes the iPad mini with 7-inch high resolution Retina display.

Apple was made tablets popular in the mainstream when it launched the original Apple iPad back  in 2010. The Apple iPad is the biggest-selling tablet and now in its fifth generation and called the iPad Air. The iPad Air has an extremely high-resolution 9.7-inch screen and ‘desktop class’ A7 processor, making it as fast as many entry-level laptops.

The latest iPad is available in 16GB, 32GB, 64GB and 128GB versions, and Apple still sells an earlier version – the iPad with Retina Display with 16GB of storage. If you want a smaller tablet, Apple sells the incredibly slim iPad Mini with Retina display that has a 7-inch screen, and it has the same processors and storage space as the larger iPad Air.

Apple uses iOS 7 to control its iPad tablets, the same operation system found on its iPhone range of smartphones. iOS 7 is easy to use, even if you’re a tablet newcomer. The iPad’s has over one million apps, far more than for any other tablet. There are apps for playing the latest 3D games such as Asphalt 8 (car racing) and Fifa (football game), family board games such as Boogle, and apps such as BBC iPlayer that lets you download and view TV shows

Apple’s Retina display refers to its very high resolution screens. The iPad Air has a resolution of 2,048-x-1,536 showing 3.1m pixels – far more than a high definition TV.

Microsoft has released its Microsoft Office software on the iPad, so you can also use it as a mobile working tablet. Best of all, many apps are free.

Microsoft Office – including Word and Excel – are free to download from the Apple App Store for iPad. You can view documents for free, and you’ll need to subscribe to Office 365 to unlock the editing and creation features of Office in the iPad.

Apps are downloaded to the iPad from Apple’s built-in App Store. Apple checks all the apps sold through the App Store, meaning there is less chance of downloading a virus or malware app.

Buy the best Android tablet

Samsung's Galaxy Tab range of tablets are one of the most popular tablets powered by Google's Android operating system.

Samsung’s Galaxy Tab range of tablets are one of the most popular tablets powered by Google’s Android operating system.

If you want to buy the best Android tablet, you’ll find them a compelling tablet. Similar in features to Apple’s iOS, Android is the most widely used operating system on tablets from a number of big name brands. It was developed by Google, and is popular as an operating system on tablets from Sony, Samsung, Google and Amazon. Popular Android tablets include the Google Nexus, the Amazon Kindle, Samsung’s Galaxy Tab and the Sony tablets.

Android is updated regularly and easy to change how it works, making it attractive if you want to customise your tablet. You’re free to move your apps about, make major cosmetic changes to your homescreen, and add widgets that provide weather and news updates.

As Android it created by Google, it integrates will with its online apps including Google Docs, Google Maps, Gmail and all Google online services. If you’re connected a lot, having access to files stored on a Google Drive is useful.

If Google’s default apps are not enough, you can buy and download a similar range of apps to those found on the Apple iPad. Apps are purchased from the included Google Play store. There are plenty of apps available, including popular games and entertainment programs, but it’s less secure than the iPad’s app store, as the apps on offer aren’t first vetted. There are omissions, such as Microsoft Office is not available on Google tablets.

Apps are programs that work in the same way software does. There are millions apps available, from commercial software such as Microsoft Office to free apps and games such as BBC iPlayer for watching catch-up TV on demand.

However, Android tablets are very cheap, and often far cheaper than an Apple iPad.

Buy the best Windows tablet

Microsoft created its own range of tablets that run a special version of Windows 8 designed for touchscreen tablets.

Microsoft created its own range of tablets that run a special version of Windows 8 designed for touchscreen tablets.

While Microsoft was late the tablet party with its Surface range of tablets, if you want to buy the best Windows tablet it looks as if Microsoft is doing a lot to catch up in the tablet race.

Microsoft has launched the Surface, its own-branded tablet that brings the familiar Microsoft Windows look and feel to tablets – including the familiar desktop found on Windows latops and Windows desktop PCs. It’s range of tablets include the original Surface tablet, the updated Surface 2 tablet, and a Surface Pro 2 tablet that runs the full version of Microsoft Windows 8.

Microsoft’s Windows Surface tablets run a tailored version of Windows 8 designed for tablets, called Windows RT, aside from the Surface Pro 2 that runs the full, normal version of Windows 8. While there are lots of similarities to Windows 8, be warned that you can’t install traditional Windows software. Instead, you can only use apps that come with the tablet – such as Microsoft Office – and buy and download apps designed for Windows tablets from the Windows Store.

Available in 32GB and 64GB versions, the Surface 2 has a 10.6-inch screen with a HD resolution, which delivers sharp and detailed image but it can’t match the iPad’s whopping 2048 x 1,536 retina display.

Microsoft Surface has a 16:9 aspect ratio screen – the same as found on widescreen HD TVs – making it good for watching movies. It has the same Full HD resolution of 1,920-x-1,080 for true HD video playback.

Microsoft sells two unique covers for the Surface tablets – the Touch Cover and Type Cover – and both fold out like a laptop keyboard and include a working keyboard that Microsoft claims makes you more productive. The covers connect magnetically to the tablet, letting you type as you would on a laptop. The Surface has a built-in kickstand that lets you stand the tablet up on a table and type comfortably, or position it to view a slideshow of photos or watch a movie.

What to look for when buying the best tablet

Touchscreens

Apple's high resolution Retina display touchscreen has over 3.1 million pixels.

Apple’s high resolution Retina display touchscreen has over 3.1 million pixels.

Tablets feature touchscreens so you can control the tablet with your fingers directly on the screen. Placing your fingers on the screen, you can use gestures such as tapping and swiping to control the tablet and any apps you are using. An on-screen keyboard allows you to tap the keys to enter text, and all tablets allow optional keyboards to work with the tablet.

Tablet screens vary, but all recent tablets offer HD quality screens with sizes between 7 and 10 inches. Larger screens are useful for sharing content with a group of friends, such as playing digital board games or viewing photos. A 10-inch screen gives lots of room for the on-screen touch keyboard, and for many a tablet this size can replace a laptop.

Resolution is important. Some tablets such as the Microsoft Surface 2 tablets – have a resolution of 1,920-x-1,080 pixels and a 16:9 screen – ideal for watching widescreen videos. The iPad Air’s whopping ultra-high resolution of 2,048 x 1,536 in a 4:3 aspect ratio makes it more suited to viewing web pages, ebooks and digital magazines, with pixels almost invisible to the naked eye. More pixels ensure finer detail, and higher pixel densities (pixels per inch) give a sharper image.

Processors

Tablets are powered by processors, much like computers. Most tablets feature powerful quad-core processors, giving more power to handle tasks such as watching HD video. Some tablets, such as the iPad Air, have powerful 64-bit processors that are similar to ones that power laptops.

Storage

Tablet PCs use solid-state storage, much like an iPod or smartphone, rather than the hard drive found in a desktop PC. You can’t upgrade the storage, although many Android and Microsoft tablets allow you to add memory cards to boost space.

Tablets usually have between 16GB and 64GB of storage, and some go as high as 128GB. If you want to simply use the tablet to access the web or stream Netflix content on your tablet, then 16GB will be more than enough. If you think you’ll need to keep lots of video, photos and store lots of large apps, then buy the tablet with the most storage space you can afford.

Connectivity

Tablets can use 3G and 4G Sim cards for wireless broadband access on the go, such as the Surface 2 from Microsoft.

Tablets can use 3G and 4G Sim cards for wireless broadband access on the go, such as the Surface 2 from Microsoft.

Tablets don’t come with many connectivity options due to their small size, with usually a single cable to hook it up to a computer to transfer files. If you do need to connect other devices, such as a digital camera, look for a USB connection as well. Some tablets have a memory card slot for adding photos and extending the built-in storage space. Most tablets include wi-fi and Bluetooth for wirelessly connecting to networks and gadgets, and some will include 3G or 4G mobile broadband for accessing the web on the move.

Battery life

Tablets generally have a longer battery life than laptops, with the best tablets offering more than 10 hours battery life such as the iPad Air. Be careful, as intensive tasks such as watching films or playing graphically intensive games can drain the battery. Generally, the smaller or cheaper the tablet, the likelihood it won’t have as long a lasting a battery.

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