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Buying Guide: Tablets

By: Tara Tuckwiller on March 01, 2017

What the best tablets have

  • A high-definition display. 1,920-by-1,080-pixel (1080p) displays are commonplace on all but the cheapest tablets. High-end tablets boast even higher-resolution displays, such as the 2,048-by-1,536-pixel display found on the Apple iPad Pro 9.7 (Est. $600 and up).
  • 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. Some cheap tablets come with as little as 8 GB of storage space, but Laptop Magazine recommends getting at least 32 GB if you plan to use your tablet a lot -- or make sure it has an SD card slot so you can add memory that way.
  • 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 extra for the feature, plus extra for the data.
  • Apps and more apps. Both Apple and Android have massive app stores. Apple offers more and newer apps that are specifically optimized to run on a tablet, reviews say -- but 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. However, Windows 10 tablets can also run all standard Windows applications -- something no iOS or Android tablet can do.

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. Slate tablets that run the full Windows 10 operating system have the advantage of letting you use any software that runs under that OS. Some 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 report on 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 and Amazon Fire tablets.

Do you really need a data plan on your tablet? Probably not, experts say. Tablets sometimes come in two versions: a Wi-Fi only version, and a more expensive cellular version (which allows you to get mobile data through your carrier). But it's a lot cheaper to just buy the Wi-Fi-only tablet, and when you're away from Wi-Fi, simply tether the tablet to share your smartphone's bucket of data. However, double-check that your phone and carrier allow tethering before you buy.

How much control do you want over the operating system? Apple's iPads 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 yet customizable interface.

What's to come

There are unconfirmed rumors that Apple is expected to roll out a revamped iPad lineup in spring of 2017, Macrumors.com reports. Analysts predict an all-new 10.5-inch iPad Pro, refreshed 9.7-inch and 12.9-inch iPad Pros, and possibly a new 7.9-inch iPad Pro to replace the iPad Mini 4. Stay tuned, however, because when it comes to technology introductions, rumors and analyst predictions sometimes don't match up well with actual events.

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