How to Buy a Tablet

Updated October 31, 2014

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 2,560- by 1,600-pixel display found in the Samsung Galaxy Tab S 8.4 (Est. $400).
  • Multi-touch gestures. The best tablets support 10-point multi-touch gestures for full-fledged finger control;  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 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. Windows 8.1 tablets can also run all standard Windows applications -- though the experience isn't always ideal.

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 because using a tablet's virtual keyboard is tedious -- 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. Slate tablets that run the full Windows 8.1 operating system have the advantage of letting you use any software that runs under that OS (the Microsoft Surface 2 can only run apps from the Windows Store). Some Windows laptops have screens that detach or that swivel around 360 degrees for use as a tablet, but reviews say that those are best thought of as a full time laptop and only a part-time tablet. See our discussion of laptops for more information on those.

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 only have access to smaller app stores, such as the Windows Surface 2 and Amazon's Fire tablets.

How much control do you want over the operating system? Apple's iPad Air 2 and mini 3 don't have many customization options, but Apple's iOS offers a highly polished interface. Google Android lets you create a highly customized experience full of widgets, alterable keyboards and multiple home screens, but it can be confusing for casual users -- and the interface can vary a little -- or a lot -- depending on the specific tablet. 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.