What To Look For In A Tablet When Buying

   Prior to April 2010, tablet PC's were a laptop with a touchscreen where one uses a stylus or a finger to make the input. The Apple iPad changed this. As tablets are being released by almost every major, and not so major, consumer electronic and computer manufacturer, consumers will have a wide range of tablets to choose from. For some time, there have been Android tablets built and sold in China. Although the price is great, the quality is poor.   With many choices on the market, how does a consumer pick the right tablet? Well, the answer is not so simple as it really depends on what a person wants. We will provide some guidelines below with what one should expect as a minimum and what one should ideally aim for. Normally, you do get what you pay for but keep these tips in mind when deciding which tablet to buy.

The screen is second most important piece of hardware on a tablet (the others being the processor and the battery being third). I would even say that it should be the most important hardware because not only is it the display but you interact with the tablet using the screen (as an input device). Because of this, you need to consider two things. First, the screen resolution is important. Depending on the size of the screen, the resolution which is expressed as the pixel width and height (e.g. 800x400). The larger the two numbers (assuming the screen size is the same), the sharper the image should be. This would result in a higher pixel density. In addition, the resolution tells you if the display will display widescreen properly. As a guide, a 800x480 screen would be widescreen as opposed to an 800x600.  Higher end tablets will have the best resolution.  For example, an 8.4" tablet may have a 2560x1600 resolution. Second, the screen will either be resistive or capacitive. Resistive screens are not as touch sensitive as capacitive screens. Higher end smartphones and tablets use capacitive touchscreens. They are very responsive and making interacting with the device a more pleasant experience. Resistive screen are less expensive and are use in cheaper tablets that are usually less than $100. We highly recommend you only consider tablets with capacitive screens.
   Another important item to note on the screen/display is to make sure it supports multi-touch (the tablet's ability to register at least three different input touches). Many apps require the use of multi-touch to function well. In addition, multi-touch is required if you are interested in pinch-to-zoom or screen rotation capabilities. No multi-touch means you can only do basic operations (scrolling, tapping icons, etc.). Some tablets (such as the eLocity A7) have 1+1 touch which means that the screen can only register two points of touches. However, true multi-touch means the ability to simultaneously register three or more distinct positions of input touches. This is one area where manufacturers can try to cut cost and consumers may not notice.

   Recommended: This is one area not to skimp on. Choose a capacitive screen with multi-touch capability. The resolution is also very important.  Depending on the size of the screen, you should at the minimum look for HD (say 1200x800 minimum). 

The processor is what I would rate as the second most important hardware on a tablet (the first being the screen). Having a weak and slow processor will make your experience dreadful. If you are going to be playing games or watching movies/videos (especially in HD), you need a fast processor. Even if you will not be doing those things, a fast processor will make apps run faster and make your overall experience more satisfying. The majority of the mobile processors are ARM-based (ARM is a company that designs and licenses the processor architecture to other parties such as Qualcomm, Texas Instrument, Apple, Nvidia, etc.). Without getting into details, there are varying levels of the ARM “family”. Most tablets launching this year will have quad core processors with higher end tablets having octa-core (8 core) processors.
   The family/architecture is generally more important that the processor speed. Consumers tend to only look at the processor speed but nothing else. Chip manufacturers are reaching a limit on the processor speed as the higher the speed, the more heat it generates and the more battery it uses.  Most high end processors top off around 2.0Ghz but tend to have multi-core (from 2 to 8 cores).  In addition, the newest processors are 64-bit processors.  Currently, the mobile processors are 32-bits.  In simple terms, what this means is the number of bits that can be processed simultaneously.  So 64-bits will run faster, deliver better graphic performance including video performance, and will offer better security.  In the next year or two, all processors will be 64-bits.

Recommended: At a minimum, you should choose a 1.2Ghz dual core processor preferably one that has a quality brand (Qualcomm, Nvidia, Texas Instrument, Apple, etc.).  Quad-core processors are becoming the norm with developers are designing apps that take advantage of the multi-core processors. Remember you do not want to buy a table that will be obsolete in a few months. You are paying a lot of money so you want the tablet to last you a few years.

The battery is the third most important piece of hardware on a tablet. Because this is a mobile device, you need one with long battery life especially if you will be watching movies or videos while traveling. The iPad has set a standard with its average 10 hours of battery life. You should look for at least 7 hours of battery life, preferably 8+ hours. An important item is that battery should be user-replaceable.

Recommended: At least 7 hours plus preferably something with at least 8 hours. If the battery is user-replaceable, that is a big plus although it is rare to see this nowadays.

Operating System (OS)
The operating system is what controls the device and allows applications to work. The most notable ones are: iOS, Android, BlackBerry OS/QNX and Windows 8. Of course, a tablet can run Windows 8 but we feel that the others are better suited for tablets. Deciding on which OS to choose is a matter of preference. Apple iOS and Google Android are the two most popular OS. Both have a significant amount of apps although Apple has more specifically designed for tablets. Google needs to update their Play Store in order for customers to search for apps designed to run on tablets. Most Android apps (although designed for smartphones) will run on a tablet. However, the resolution tends to be poor as these apps were designed for a smaller screen. In our experience, the majority of the apps look and work fine on an Android tablet. The number of apps are being updated for a tablet although Android still runs behind Apple in tablet-specific apps.  Google has been optimizing Android so apps can be used for both phones and tablets.  However, some developers do create apps specifically designed for tablets.  Some apps may not work in tablet.  Using the Google Play Store through your computer will tell you which apps are compatible with your devices (assuming you have your phone and tablet connected to the same Google account). 

When tablets first appeared, they came with either 256MB or 512MB of RAM. The higher the number, the better. To explain this in layman's terms, RAM is the memory where data is stored temporarily. The data can be an application or file. Once the power is turned off, all data stored in RAM is deleted. Higher RAM allows one to run multiple apps or tasks at the same time. The tablet is a computer so just as more RAM improves the performance of your computer, it will do the same on the tablet. The OS will dictate how well it manages the RAM. There are mixed reviews on how well Android manages the RAM. Some state it does a poor job as it keeps apps in the RAM until more memory is needed. This tends to slow things down. There are cheaper tablets out there that have only 512MB but you will notice how slow it is.

Recommended: 2GB of RAM is the minimum you should look for. Less expensive tablets have 1GB of RAM but higher end tablets may have at least 2GB with more going with 3GB.

Internal storage is another factor to look at. At the minimum, you should consider at least 16GB of internal memory. This memory is different than RAM. The internal memory is where apps, files and documents can be stored. The tablet should also allow storage expansion through a memory card slot (usually with a SD or micro-SD card).  With cloud storage being pushed, having expansion slot is being eliminated to save cost.  The Kindle Fire and Google Nexus 7 have no expansion slot.  If the tablet does not have an expansion slot, 16GB will probably not be enough.

OK, here is where you need to decide whether you want a 3G/4G connectivity (along with added expense of a data plan) or Wi-Fi only. If you have a smartphone already with a data plan, it makes sense to go with a Wi-Fi only unit as you can tether from the phone. Having 3G/4G antenna will add cost to the device.  Wi-Fi units are less expensive than units with 3G/4G connectivity.

Size is really a personal matter. You basically have two choices: 7” and 9-10” screens. The smaller screen allows for more portability while a larger screen allows one to view more on the screen. Larger screen tablets also tend to be heavier which again limits its mobility. Anything less than 7” or greater than 10” is not really a tablet.

7" screen vs. 10.2" screen - Big Difference
A camera is another feature that is a personal preference. If you want to use it for video conferencing, look for a tablet with a front facing camera. Some tablets will have dual cameras: front & rear. Whether you will be taking pics with your 7 or 10” tablet is up to you.

Other items to consider is whether the tablet has GPS. Many apps offer location-based services so having a GPS may be helpful. Not all tablets include GPS capabilities so definitely look for this if its important to you.  The Nexus 7 includes GPS.

We recommend that you read reviews on the tablets before committing to purchase one. Specs only give you part of the story. How the tablet performs is what is important. This is just the beginning point of the tablet market. If it grows as much as many experts predict, the tablet will evolve dramatically over the next year. As the OS is improved and more advance hardware is produced, tablets will become faster and more powerful. They will be able to do things that we cannot imagine. We have already seen how smartphones have evolved from when the Palm Treo was introduced in 2008 (with a 333MHz processor & 128MB RAM) to the Android phones we now have (with 2GHz Octa-Core processors & 3GB RAM).

One other recommendation we would make is to be an extended warranty such as SquareTrade.  These devices are too new to know their reliability.  If you are buying a tablet with the latest specs (and probably higher price point), protect yourself with an extended warranty.  These devices are expensive to repair.

Originally Published: 2/21/2011
Updated 06/20/2015