What the best tablets have

  • A high-definition display. 1,920-by-1,080 (1080p) displays are commonplace on all but the cheapest tablets. You can find even higher-resolution displays as well, such as the 2,048-by-1,536 pixel Retina display found in the iPad Air.
  • Multi-touch gestures. The best tablets support 10-point multi-touch gestures for full-fledged finger control, and onscreen keyboards should be highly responsive.
  • As much storage space as possible. Apps, music and especially video can eat up flash memory surprisingly fast; most tablets now come with at least 16 GB of storage space. A tablet with a memory card slot allows you to expand your system memory after purchase, but others can't be upgraded.
  • Good connectivity options. Tablet computers have integrated Wi-Fi. Most also have Bluetooth. Some tablets come in versions with mobile broadband, but you'll pay a premium for that feature, as well as for data charges.
  • Apps and more apps. Both Apple and Android have massive app stores. Reviews say that Apple continues to have more apps that are specifically optimized to run on a tablet. However, they also report that most Android smartphone apps will look and run perfectly fine on tablets, especially smaller ones. Android users can also opt to add access to third-party app stores, such as the Amazon.com app store, though the process is not always straightforward. Microsoft has been adding thousands and thousands of apps to its Windows Store, but the selection still trails Apple and Android by a considerable margin.

Know before you go

Will you use your tablet for business or pleasure? Though you can find scads of productivity apps for tablets, regardless of the platform most people wind up using tablets for gaming, media consumption, and light-duty tasks such as web browsing and email. If you'll be doing a lot of typing, consider investing in a Bluetooth keyboard as using a tablet's virtual keyboard is rarely very much fun -- at least for extended sessions. Windows RT slates offer a version of Microsoft Office, so if you do want a work tablet, it becomes worth considering. We don't cover slates and convertible tablets that run the full Windows 8.1 operating system in this report, but those have the advantage of letting you run any software that runs under that OS (the Microsoft Surface 2 can only run apps from the Windows Store). See our reports on laptops and cheap laptops for suggestions.

What screen size do you need? Screen size is given as a diagonal measurement and not the size of the tablet itself. Smaller tablets, in the 7- to 8-inch range, can be used one-handed and are great companions for a crowded commute. Larger tablets can get tiring to hold but offer more screen real estate for better visibility and easier use; they are also terrific for gaming and watching movies and video.

Will my tablet run the apps I need or want? The iTunes and Google Play app stores are both massive, but that doesn't mean that a specific app you want or need is available for both platforms so check before you buy. That's even more important for tablets that have access to smaller app stores, such as the Windows Surface 2 and the Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 7.

How much control do you want over the operating system? Apple's iPad doesn't have many customization options, but it does offer a highly polished interface. Google Android lets users create a highly customized experience full of widgets, alterable keyboards and multiple home screens, but it can be confusing for casual users. Windows tablets feature a happy medium, offering a polished and colorful experience that allows users to move, resize and group Live Tiles as they see fit.

Can I save money by buying a subsidized tablet from a cellphone carrier? The short answer is not really. Major carriers have moved away from selling subsidized tablets, instead offering no-commitment plans that let you pay on a month-to-month basis for access as needed, or allowing users to add their slates to shared subscription data plans for a fee.

Back to top