Things to Consider When Buying a Tablet

Picking out a new tablet computer? Here's what to consider before you buy

Tablets bridge the gap between laptop computers and smartphones in terms of size and functionality. They are great for email, web browsing, and travel. Many people also use tablets as a portable gaming platform. They are even substitute for many laptop tasks when high-performance is not required. This guide will look at the key specs and features that you should consider before buying a tablet.

Tablet computers are offered for sale at a Tiger Direct store on April 11, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois.
Scott Olson / Getty Images 

Size and Weight

Tablets are designed to be mobile. Accordingly, the size and weight of any potential purchase must be considered. In some cases, you will be holding the tablet for long stretches of time, so you don't want the device to be too heavy or cumbersome. The lighter the better, but it shouldn't compromise durability in the event the tablet is dropped. The dimensions are also key measures, as they determine how the device fits in your hands. For example, a top-heavy, wide tablet may be difficult to hold in portrait mode.

Display

Since the display is also the main interface on a tablet PC, it plays an important role in your buying decision. Factors to consider include size, resolution, viewing angle, brightness, and coating. The size determines how big the tablet will be, but when tied to resolution it determines how easy or difficult it is to read text on the device.

The resolution matters if you are trying to watch Full HD (1080p) media on the device. A minimum of 720 lines (720p) is required in a portrait orientation. Viewing angles are important when the device is being viewed by more than one person or at odd angles. Brightness is something to consider if the tablet will be outdoors frequently. The brighter the screen, the easier to see when there is a lot of glare. Coatings should be durable so it won't show scratches and be easy to clean.

Software

The tablet market has a larger number of operating systems (OS) to choose from than the smartphone or laptop market. In addition to iOS and Android, there's Amazon's Fire OS and Windows.

Each OS has its benefits and drawbacks. The key is to look at how it will be used to determine which OS best suits your needs. If you want it to be just like a traditional PC, then Windows may be best but even this may have issues. Media watching and gaming are probably best served by iOS, though iPads tend to be pricier. If you want a more open platform with better multitasking, then Android might be the best choice. Beyond the OS itself, buyers should also consider the types and number of applications available for each platform.

Connectivity / Networking

As tablets are mobile devices, their ability to connect to the Internet is critical. There are two types of connectivity to be found in tablets: Wi-Fi and cellular or wireless. Wi-Fi is pretty straightforward as this is for access to local Wi-Fi networks. What matters here is which forms of Wi-Fi the tablet supports. Any tablet should support 802.11n. The best option is to support both 2.4GHz and 5GHz radio bands.

Cellular is a bit more complicated, as one has to consider carriers, coverage, contract rates and whether it is compatible with 3G, 4G or 5G networks. Bluetooth may be used for local peer-to-peer connections between tablets or for peripherals, such as a keyboard.

Battery Life

Since many people will likely carry their tablet throughout the day, battery life is an important detail. This spec is hard to judge for tablets as different applications can draw different power loads.

There are two standard methods for measuring battery life. The first is through consistent web browsing while the other is based on watching video. Video watching tends to draw a bit more power. Of course, if you are multitasking heavily or playing games, expect battery life to be much shorter than advertised. Good running time should be at least eight hours of web browsing or video playback.

Processors

The processors used in tablets can vary greatly. It has to do with the way the processors in most tablets are designed and licensed. Most companies will just list the clock speed and number of cores. Buyers will often need to know a bit more than this, as the architecture that the chip is based on can have big implications on the performance, battery life, and size of the tablet PC. Unfortunately, this is a fairly complex subject so it is recommended to read the full Tablet Processor Guide for further information.

Storage Space

While most people will not be carrying around as much data on a tablet as they would on a laptop, the amount of space on the tablet is still a major feature to consider. All tablets use solid-state storage because of its low power draw, small size, and durability. The downside is limited storage space.

Most tablets come with between 8 and 64GB of space which is extremely small compared to a laptop. For those just browsing the web, streaming video and reading books, storage space won't be too critical. If on the other hand, you are storing high definition movies or lots of games, consider getting a higher capacity model so you don't have to constantly shuffle data around between your devices. Tablets with flash memory slots can easily have their storage space expanded. Tablet storage can also be supplemented by cloud storage, but this is only accessible when the tablet is connected to the internet.