What Is a Tablet?

A tablet is like a large phone and small laptop built into one

Tablets can be thought of as small, handheld computers. They're smaller than a laptop, but larger than a smartphone.

Tablets take features from both devices to form a kind of hybrid device, somewhere between a phone and computer, but they don't necessarily function the same way as either.

How Do Tablets Work?

Tablets work in very much the same way that most electronics work, especially computers and smartphones. They have a screen, are powered by a rechargeable battery, often include a built-in camera, and can store all kinds of files. 

two tablets playing music
Heidi Sandstrom / Unsplash

The primary difference in a tablet and other devices is that they don’t include all the same hardware components as a full desktop computer or laptop. There’s also usually a special mobile operating system built-in that provides menus, windows, and other settings meant specifically for big-screen mobile usage. The iPad is one example of a tablet; it uses an operating system called iPadOS.

One exception is the convertible laptop. This is the term used to describe a tablet/laptop combo, where the screen folds down to turn the laptop into a tablet. These devices are different from your typical tablet because they do include laptop hardware like a keyboard and multiple USB ports, and often come with a full desktop operating system—they just also function as a touchscreen tablet.

Since tablets are built for mobility, and the entire screen is touch-sensitive, you don’t necessarily need to use a keyboard and mouse with one. Instead, you interact with everything on the screen using your finger or a stylus. However, a keyboard and mouse can usually be connected to the tablet wirelessly.

Similar to a computer, where a mouse is moved to navigate the cursor on the screen, you can use a finger or stylus to interact with the on-screen windows to play games, open apps, draw, etc. The same is true with a keyboard; when it’s time to type something, a keyboard shows up on the screen where you can tap the necessary keys.

Tablets are recharged with a cable that's often identical to a cell phone charger, like a USB-C, Micro-USB, or Lightning cable. Depending on the device, the battery might be removable and replaceable, but that's less and less common.

Why Use a Tablet?

Tablets can be used for fun or for work. Since they’re so portable but borrow some features from a laptop, they can be a good choice over a full-blown laptop, both in cost and features.

Most tablets can connect to the internet over Wi-Fi or a cellular network so that you can browse the internet, make calls, download apps, stream videos, etc. You can often think of a tablet as a giant smartphone.

When at home, a tablet is also useful for playing videos on your TV, like if you have an Apple TV or use Google Chromecast with your HDTV.

Popular tablets provide access to a huge store of mobile apps that you can download directly to the tablet for everything from checking your email and monitoring the weather to playing games, learning, navigating with GPS, reading eBooks, and building presentations and documents.

Most tablets also come with Bluetooth capabilities so that you can connect speakers and headphones for wireless playback when listening to music or watching movies.

Tablet Limitations

While a tablet can be a perfect fit for some, others might find it less than useful, given that it isn’t quite a full-on computer like you might think of one.

They don't include things like an optical disc drive, floppy drive, extra USB ports, Ethernet ports, and other components that are usually seen on a laptop or desktop computer. Tablets are therefore not a good buy if you expect to connect flash drives or external hard drives, nor are they ideal for connecting to a wired printer or other peripheral.

Also, because a tablet's screen isn't as large as a desktop or laptop monitor, it can take some adjusting to one for writing emails, browsing the web, etc.

Something else to remember is that not all of them are built to use a cellular network for internet; some can only use Wi-Fi. In other words, those types of tablets can only use the internet where Wi-Fi is available, like at home or work, or in more public spaces like airports or restaurants. This means that the tablet can only make internet phone calls, download apps, check the weather, stream online videos, etc., when connected to Wi-Fi.

Even when offline, though, a tablet can still function in many ways, like to compose emails, "stream" downloaded videos and music, play video games, and more.

Some tablets, however, can be purchased with a specific piece of hardware that lets it use the internet with a cell phone carrier like Verizon, AT&T, etc. In those cases, the tablet is even more similar to a smartphone, and might then be considered a phablet.

What Is a Phablet?

A phablet is another word you might see thrown around with phones and tablets. The word is a combination of 'phone' and 'tablet' to mean a phone that's so large it resembles a tablet.

Phablets, then, aren't actually tablets in the traditional sense, but more of a fun name for oversized smartphones.

What Is a Drawing Tablet?

Before you consider whether to buy a tablet, it's important to know that some tablets are built very different from the way they're described above.

Called drawing tablets, these are essentially a second input device, like a computer mouse, but designed for drawing by hand. With a stylus, you draw on the tablet's surface much like you would on paper. This gets translated by the computer it's connected to, and ultimately reflected in the software you're using.

Drawing tablets (aka, graphics tablets, digital art boards, pen tablets) are commonly used by animators and graphic designers.

  • How do you reset a Samsung tablet?

    First, backup any data you don't want to lose before you reset your Samsung device. Then, go to Settings > General Management > Reset > Factory Data Reset > Reset Device > Delete All. When you see the Android Recovery screen, hold the Volume Down button until Wipe data/factory reset option is selected, then use the Power button to confirm.

  • How do you reset an Amazon Fire tablet?

    First, backup your device and any personal data (photos, videos, etc) you want to keep. Then, open Settings and select Device Options > Reset to Factory Defaults > Reset.

  • How much is a tablet?

    A tablet's price varies greatly depending on its operating system, hardware specs, screen size, and storage. A Kindle Fire or Nook tablet costs around $130, while something like the Microsoft Surface 2 is over $500 and the Microsoft Surface Pro 8 is $1,100. Meanwhile, Apple's iPad starts at $329.

  • What is the best tablet?

    Lifewire recommends the Apple iPad Pro 12.9-inch as the best tablet in 2021 overall. It calls the Samsung Galaxy Tab S7+ the best Android tablet, while the Microsoft Surface Go 2 wins high marks for productivity. People looking for the best value should give the 2020 Apple iPad a try.

  • How do you update an Android tablet to the latest version?

    An Android tablet should automatically update as long as it's connected to the internet and has power. If you want to manually update your Android device, go to Settings > Software Update > Download and Install.

  • How do you connect a tablet to a TV?

    The easiest way to connect your tablet to a TV is with an HDMI cable; you can get an HDMI to USB C cable for under $20, for example. If you want to connect wirelessly, you can use the Cast feature on Android or the AirPlay feature on iOS to stream content to a smart TV as long as both devices are on the same network. If you don't have a smart TV, you can use a streaming device like a Google Chromecast.

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