Tips Before You Buy a Tablet or Slate PC

From operating system to size, here's a list of things you should consider

Tablets from different companies

melenita2012 / Flickr

Since Apple’s launch of its first consumer-friendly tablet in 2010, the sector has spawned a slew of slate tablets from competing companies. The word “tablet” no longer simply refers to niche touch-enabled PC’s or drawing tablets. These days, they mostly refer to iPad-style devices with easy-to-learn interfaces for the average consumer.

Given how much the landscape has changed, the rules for tablet buying are now different as well. On that note, this article will mainly tackle consumer tablets such as Apple’s iPad and its competitors.

The Big Three

When looking for the best tablet to buy, your decision pretty much rests on three factors: operating system, size, and function. Depending on which of the three you consider more important, the rules for picking and choosing a tablet varies. Let’s take a closer look at each one to see where your needs and preferences lie.

Operating System

When the iPad launched, there were basically five main tablet operating systems to pick from: Apple's iOS, Google's Android, Microsoft's Windows, RIM's BlackBerry Tablet OS, and HP/Palm's webOS. These days, only three of those remain viable. If you already have a preference among iOS, Android, or Windows, then the decision gets a lot easier. But if you don’t, here’s a quick rundown for each one.

  • Android — Google’s baby, this OS continues to have the biggest potential for spreading around due to its open-source nature. In addition to budget brands, it's also the OS of choice for some of the best tablets on the market from stalwarts such as Samsung, Lenovo, and even Amazon's Kindle Fire line. Advantages of the Android OS include great compatibility with Google’s suite of services (or “solutions”) such as Gmail, Google Maps and Google Docs. It’s also a more open system that’s more tinker-friendly and has fewer restrictions. This is a good OS for hackers and tech-savvy folks who like to customize their interface or fiddle around with the OS. It’s also a good OS for non-tech savvy consumers who want an alternative to the iPad. Note that some tablets like the Kindle Fire use a skinned custom version of Android and aren't as open as regular Android.

Examples: Amazon Kindle line, Nexus 7, Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, Motorola Xoom, LG G-Slate, Samsung Galaxy Tab, Nook Tablet

  • iOS — As the operating system for the tablet king when it comes to mind share — the iPad — the popularity of Apple’s iOS is undeniable, although it's been challenged by shrinking sales and market share recently. It’s arguably the simplest and most easy-to-learn interface around. While more tech-savvy folks may not like that, average consumers and non-technically oriented folks like grandma and grandpa will. Folks who have already invested a lot of time and resources to their iTunes collection will also prefer the compatibility and convenience iOS provides. Then there’s Apple’s monster selection of apps. Downsides include a more closed system, also known as Apple’s infamous walled garden.

Examples: iPad, iPad 2, iPad 3, iPad 4, iPad Mini, iPad Air

  • Windows — Thanks to its new line of Surface tablets, consumers now have sexier options for a Windows slate including one with a lighter version of its OS or a tricked-out version that runs the full-fledged Windows OS. Some folks might say that full Windows on a tablet is bloated overkill but for power users on the go, it’s still nice to have a full-fledged PC operating system to work with. The biggest upside is that it basically does everything a PC does. Since Windows 8, Microsoft also changed the old Windows look and adopted a more modern smartphone- and tablet-friendly design.

Example: Surface 2, HP Slate, ExoPC Slate

Form and Function

If you value features over a specific operating system, then there are several things for you to consider. Will you be using your tablet for business or pleasure? Are you primarily interested in games or movies? Are you interested more in a travel companion? Here’s a closer look at the potential needs you may have.

  • Apps — When it comes to having a diverse collection of apps specifically for tablets, Apple’s iOS is clearly ahead of the pack. Add the apps for smartphones, however, and Android starts looking like a viable option. In fact, Android accounted for 44 percent of mobile apps downloaded worldwide in Oct. 2011, eclipsing Apple's 31 percent, according to ABI Research. Since we’re considering tablets of different sizes, including smaller ones like the iPod Touch, then I’ll look at all apps collectively. Apple’s tighter control of its app store makes its app environment feel more stable for consumers who desire a certain level of consistency. Android, however, is steadily closing the gap as Google starts to invest more resources into its app environment. It’s more open approach while feeling a bit like a free-for-all feel at times, also results in some interesting apps such as video game emulators that don’t require you to jailbreak your phone. It also has a larger percentage of free apps compared to iOS.
  • Media — When it comes to playing digital music and movies, many of the high-profile tablets basically do a great job. Folks who have their media all set up via iTunes will likely prefer Apple’s tablets. Although the inability to play Flash remains a sticking point for the iPad, Apple’s online store and iTunes combo make it pretty easy to purchase regular movies. The arrival of the Kindle Fire, changes that equation, however, since Amazon offers a nicely curated store as well. Consumers of a more diverse range of media such as Japanese anime also will likely prefer something like Android. Google’s OS gives users more flexibility in playing stuff like MKV files without the need for converting the videos to a different format or jailbreaking your device. There also are free Android apps that let you play MKV subtitles. A tablet that runs a full Windows OS, on the other hand, can pretty much play anything. Apple iPad fans, meanwhile, can still watch MKV files via certain apps or third-party peripherals such as the Leef iBridge or Sandisk iXpand.
  • Business — For pure business use, a full Windows tablet provides the most features hands down. You’re basically taking a portable PC with you on the go. Otherwise, newer apps make the iPad and Android tablets more viable for business use, too, but they won't still match the options of a full-fledged Windows tablet for power users.
  • Travel — Two factors are important when it comes to a travel tablet. One, of course, is how big it is. As far as size goes, displays pretty much range from something as small as an iPod Touch, a mid-range like the 7-inch Kindle Fire, and larger devices such as the iPad, Xoom, and TouchPad. Anything below 7 inches is easy to carry around but the smaller screen also limits your view for things like e-book reading or Web browsing. Conversely, tablets that are 9.7 inches and larger offer the best real estate for reading, browsing and watching movies but are also a bit more challenging to lug around. The 7-inches can be easily grasped with one hand and provide an excellent compromise between portability and ease of viewing. Regardless, make sure you test the sizes so you know which best works for you. The other factor is battery life. Something like an iPad, for example, has a 10-hour battery life, which can last you a trans-ocean flight.