Tablets are down - but not out. Buying tips and five of the best

by Peter Griffin / 22 November, 2018
Take the time to choose the right tablet for you. Photo / Getty Images

Take the time to choose the right tablet for you. Photo / Getty Images

When the Apple iPad arrived in 2010 it created a booming market for thin computing devices without keyboard and mouse.

In 2014, 250 million tablets were sold worldwide, with the iPad, Samsung’s Galaxy Tab devices and a slew of cheaper, smaller tablets selling like hotcakes. Since then, smartphone screens have got bigger and tablet owners have found few compelling reasons to update their ageing tablets.

Sales have fallen every year since that 2014 bumper season. So does that leave the tablet dead as a device? No way, this year’s iPad Pro, in particular, shows what the format is capable of for consuming and creating multimedia content. Microsoft’s Surface has also shown that you can have an effective productivity device in the shape of a tablet.

But you do need to browse the tablet aisles with your eyes open these days, to avoid being left with a dud device that frustrates you or which gathers dust unused.

The Galaxy Tab S4 shines at the top end of the Galaxy range.

The Galaxy Tab S4 shines at the top end of the Galaxy range.

What to look for in a tablet

The tablet has always been more about consuming than creating content. That’s because tablet operating systems based on Apple’s iOS and the Android operating systems, lack many of the features you’d expect from a desktop computer or laptop running Windows or MacOS.

The method for managing files isn't as sophisticated and navigating apps and multitasking isn't as flexible. The key method of interacting with the tablet is by tapping or writing on the screen, which is fast and convenient. You can attach a keyboard, but the form factor is seldom as comfortable or efficient as a full-size laptop keyboard.

For surfing websites, reading books and magazines, watching TV shows and movies and playing games designed for the format, tablets are excellent. They’ve increasingly become useful in the business space as more software has become available. They have replaced point of sale computers and are favoured by mobile workers.

But tablets can be frustrating if you are coming from the Windows world. Simple acts like plugging in devices, transferring files and switching between applications can be frustrating to perform. You need to think carefully about what you are going to use a tablet for. A larger-size phone may be sufficient or a Windows-based laptop could give you more versatility to stay productive.

Screen size

A key decision point is what size screen to go for. Smaller tablets, such as the iPad Mini, typically have screens measuring 6 - 8 inches diagonally. They have really declined in popularity as phones deliver much of the same functionality and often come with faster computer processors. A smaller tablet is great as an e-reader alternative to the Kindle and the form factor makes it easy to carry around or slip into a bag. But don’t expect to get much work done on it.

Larger tablets range in size from 9 - 13 inches. They will usually have higher-powered processors and better screen quality. They are ideal for viewing highly-visual content, such as photos, animations and video and multi-touch access allows you to more easily navigate documents and images than on a smaller screen. Increasingly they are effective for creating content too, so artists and designers use them as a digital easel or drafting board.

Bottom line: For reading ebooks, sending the odd email and surfing the web, a small tablet is fine. For consuming a lot of content and creating documents or artwork, opt for a larger screen.

The Surface Pro 6 is the newest and most powerful addition to the Surface Pro line-up.

The Surface Pro 6 is the newest and most powerful addition to the Surface Pro line-up.

Operating system

Most tablet models run the Android operating system, which is also used on the majority of smartphones. If you are a current Android phone user, that means the look and feel should be familiar to you and you can simply log in with your Google Play account to download apps to your tablet.

Android is well-established, has good app support and updates from Google are regular and free.

Apple’s iPad, iPad Mini and iPad Pro runs Apple’s iOS system, which is the same as the iPhones use and lets you access the same App Store for software. Apple has a reputation for great design and that extends to the iOS operating system, which is simple yet powerful. The app support is very strong when it comes to creative applications and gaming.

Microsoft’s Surface devices run Windows 10, both as a touch-centric tablet version and full-blown Windows 10 like you get on a laptop. Here you enjoy the Windows productivity powerhouse in a lightweight format. But it is relatively slim pickings in the Windows app store. If you are mainly wanting to use the device as a tablet (as opposed to a desktop replacement with keyboard), there are better options.

Bottom line: Your existing phone choice may determine what tablet you go for. Android tablets usually have a lower entry-level price so deliver good value and great apps. Apple has the edge on apps and its positioning of the iPad as a tool for creativity and consuming content will appeal. Microsoft’s Surface - and other tablets running Windows 10 - bring the power of Windows to a thin, mobile device.

Hardware

The tablet is basically a mobile phone with a larger screen and body. You can, therefore, expect similar hardware specifications to the smartphone world. Look for a quad-core processor or late model equivalent from Apple for good performance, at least 64GB of storage - some Androids will let you also insert a MicroSD card for additional storage, and as good a screen as you can afford - ideally an AMOLED display, which will make movies look particularly impressive.

All tablets offer Wifi connectivity, but if you are likely to be out of range of Wifi and need internet connectivity, many of them also offer mobile connectivity using a SIM card inserted in the device.

Ports are worth considering - can you plug in devices such as a USB flash drive or camera, to transfer photos? Can you plug the tablet into a bigger screen through a mini HDMI connector? Tablets vary widely in this regard. Microsoft’s Surface tablets come with USB ports to allow peripherals compatible with Windows 10 to be plugged in. Apple’s new iPad Pro has a USB-C connection making it easier to plug in a wider range of cameras and storage devices than with its older Lighting connector which required an adapter to be added.

Battery capacity is crucial. A tablet is designed to be mobile, so should see you through a day of use. In other words, look for a device with a battery life of 12 hours of standard use or more. Note that heavy use of video, a mobile connection and gaming will drain the battery faster, so bear that in mind too.

Many tablets will have both rear and front-facing cameras for taking photos and videos as well as making Skype or FaceTime calls. This is a very useful tablet feature that shouldn’t be overlooked. You’ll want a decent main camera, at least 12MP (megapixel) resolution and at least an 8MP front-facing camera. It is worth testing these cameras out before buying if you plan on making a lot of calls or taking videos and photos. They are not as adept at these functions as smartphones.

Bottom line: There are big variations in hardware specifications and what you settle on may be determined by your budget. Buy as much tech as you can afford to future-proof your device and get the most out of it.

Apple's Pencil can add to the iPad's creative appeal.

Apple's Pencil can add to the iPad's creative appeal.

Accessories

Many tablets are effectively 2-in-1 devices with a detachable keyboard case which is sold separately. These can add $200 or more to the price of a tablet, so check out the keyboard options before buying.

The other key accessory is the stylus pen. The iPad Pro, Surface Pro and Galaxy Tab S4 all support use of a stylus. This may come at extra cost (around $100). Have a play with the stylus before buying to see if it is an addition you’ll make use of.

Bottom line: Apple, Microsoft and Samsung tablet buyers are well catered for when it comes to accessories such as keyboards, stylus pens and covers. But these can be expensive, so scope out the options before buying.

Five of the best

iPad

The latest evolution of the best-selling tablet continues the legacy of great design and user interaction at a price that makes it affordable for students. Read NOTED’s review to find out more. The additional of Apple Pencil compatibility and augmented reality make it a great tool to fire the imagination of your kids.

Price: from $539

 

iPad Pro

The addition of the new A12X Bionic chip makes it likely the most powerful tablet on the market and designed very much with creative professionals in mind. It is thinner and lighter and has an incredible Liquid Retina display. The Apple Pencil has been improved and charges when clipped onto the screen and a much more versatile USB-C connection replaces the Lightning port. The software options for artists and designers are second to none for the tablet.

Price: from $1,399

 

Surface Go

The cheapest addition to the Surface range and one that does a solid job of offering full Windows 10 functionality in a relatively cheap device (see NOTED’s review). You don’t get the performance of the Pro range and a smaller screen, but for light to medium productivity work on the move this is a great device and the keyboard cover is comfortable to type on.

Price: from $699

 

Surface Pro 6

The newest and most powerful addition to the Surface Pro line-up and the one for Windows power users who want full functionality on the move. There isn’t much new here design-wise, just updated hardware specifications and it is now available in black. With the addition of the Type Cover and Surface Pen it is the ideal productivity device and is nice to hold in its own right as a tablet.

Price: from $1,410

 

Samsung Galaxy Tab S4

Samsung has a wide range of tablets, but it really shines at the top end with the Android 8.1-based Tab S4, which was a much-needed refresh of the Tab line. It has a great 10.5 inch AMOLED display and a nippy processor. There are good video recording options and DeX mode lets you use the tablet while projecting its display onto a bigger screen. With a keyboard, it's a great option for those happy using cloud-based services such as Google Drive, for work.

Price: $1,099

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