iPads and other tablets open the world of portable computing to just about everyone. But before you spend your money on a tablet computer, take some notes with you to the store. Just for fun, write them down in pen or pencil on an old-fashioned pad of paper—after all, you’ll probably be making notes on your tablet next time!
Tablets are cool gadgets, but they are not created equal. Features and prices can vary, even among diff erent models from familiar manufacturers such as Apple, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Samsung, and Motorola. The trick to selecting and buying a good tablet for your needs is to ask and research some key questions before you buy one.
As is the case with most consumer purchases, your best bet is to chat up a tablet-owning friend, coworker, or relative. Don’t know anyone who owns a tablet? That’s all right—the next time you’re sitting in a waiting room or at an airport and you see a friendly looking stranger using a tablet, don’t be afraid to ask him or her to tell you what they like and don’t like about the gadget. People are usually so excited about their tablets that they’ll gladly give you free demonstrations. Some might even let you hold their tablets and try them out.
If you’re unable to get that kind of first-hand opinion, then it’s best if you write down a few basic questions and buying factors and make a scouting trip to an electronics store. In fact, if you have the time, visit two or three stores in one day and ask the same questions of each salesperson about two or three diff erent tablet models. Write everything down so you can later compare information. Find out as much as you can about the following points.
• Price: The price for an entry-level Kindle Fire or other basic tablet is probably one-third or less of the price for a top-of-the-line iPad. It’s not as simple as thinking that you get what you pay for, but there certainly are trade-off s for buying the cheapest item. Ask your salesperson or a tablet user which features he or she thinks are worth the extra money.
• Screen size and quality: Nearly all tablets have lighted displays—screens on which you view the Internet, pictures, and everything else. The displays appear similar to tiny flat-screen televisions, but there’s a big difference: Most tablet displays have “touch screen” capability, meaning you can type, scroll, change pages or apps, and control the operation of the tablet simply by touching the screen with one or more fingers. Among tablet screens, the most common sizes are seven and ten inches (measured diagonally, like TV screens), but a few are even smaller.
Keep in mind that due to the way screens are measured, a ten-inch tablet screen has nearly twice the physical area of a seven-inch screen. The larger tablets make it easy to read and view documents and Internet pages as soon as you open them, while smaller screens may require you to zoom in on the part of a page you are trying to read. On the other hand, the smaller tablets, which are about the size of paperback novels, are easier to stow in purses or coat pockets. Also, ask a salesperson to see the tablets’ different screen-brightness settings. This information can come in handy if you’re trying to watch a movie in a bright room or are worried about developing eye fatigue when reading.
• The speed of the tablet’s processor chip: You don’t need to be a computer expert or understand technical details of the computer chips that serve as the “brains” of a tablet. It’s good enough to know that the speed of the central processing unit (CPU) is going to affect how fast a tablet starts up when you turn on the power, how quickly it displays Internet pages or documents, and, in some cases, how smoothly it plays movies or music. Faster is better in most cases, so ask the salesperson about processor speeds for several tablets, and ask to see each model play a video or open an Internet page or app.
• Battery life: Tablets use rechargeable batteries, so you don’t need to worry about changing them the way you do with a flashlight. But the duration of a battery’s charge will depend on what you’re doing with the tablet: For example, watching videos will use up the battery’s charge faster than reading your e-mail. People who test and review electronic gadgets run tablet batteries through a variety of energy-draining tests. Some will run for as long as ten hours without needing a charge; others need a boost after only four hours. Which is right for you? A long-lasting battery will be best for you if you expect to travel a lot with your tablet, or if you spend all day away from home on a regular basis. If you’ll only be using the tablet every now and then around the house, a model with a shorter-lived battery is probably fine.
One more thing about tablet batteries: Check out the type of charger that comes with each tablet to ensure that generic charger replacements are widely available. For non-iPad tablets, the best option is a feature that allows you to charge the tablet through a USB cable, a common connector that is likely to remain available in stores even if your tablet model or its manufacturer disappears from the market. Apple requires its own unique charger for the iPad, but it’s still easy to find a replacement for one.
• Which apps are included? Most tablets offer solid sets of basic apps that are preinstalled by the manufacturer. Th ese apps will more than likely include the following functions:
• Connecting to the Internet
• Taking and viewing photos and video
• Storing contacts in an address book
• Specialty uses, such as guided navigation
Beyond a few commonly available apps, each tablet model will probably have a different lineup of apps. It’s worth reading through the list of which are included and asking to see a few demonstrated. If you’re mostly interested in the Internet and reading books on your tablet, you may not want to pay extra for a model that’s loaded with dozens of apps you’ll never use. But keep in mind that there probably will be uses for your tablet that you never dreamed of but will learn to love. For example, if you like to get out your wallet to show printed photos of family or pets to your friends, you may enjoy using an app on your tablet that can organize your photos and even show them as an automatic slide show. Looking for a good restaurant or hotel in an unfamiliar town? Aim your tablet’s camera down the street and it may have the ability to fi nd fellow travelers’ favorites and even suggest what to order for breakfast. As with all technology purchases, think about how you’ll use the gadget, but keep an open mind—there may be applications with uses that you haven’t imagined!
• Cameras: It’s a good idea to know whether or not you would like a camera on your tablet. Some entry-level tablets have no built-in cameras. These models are still good tools for surfing the Internet, reading books, viewing or listening to media, and playing games, but they aren’t designed for taking photos or video, and they aren’t enabled for live video chats over the Internet (computer-based phone calls on which you and the other person can see and hear each other).
The tablets that do have cameras come in two varieties: One has a single camera that faces you as you hold the tablet, allowing for easy video chats. The other has two cameras—one that faces you and the other that faces outward—enabling you to make webcam calls, take still pictures, and record video. If you already use Skype or another video-calling Internet service on your home computer, or have friends or family who enjoy making video calls, you’ll likely want to do the same thing on a tablet. If so, get a device with at least a front-facing camera, or one with two cameras. Each camera installed in a tablet increases its price—another trade-off to consider. Our general advice: If you think you’re going to try video chatting, a device with two cameras is better than a device with one, but one camera is better than none at all. Keep in mind that a tablet camera’s capabilities are limited, and it won’t take as high-quality photos like a regular camera. It should only be used for taking candid photos or video when you don’t have a dedicated camera with you.
• Included and available accessories: Nearly all tablets will come with battery chargers. A few models may include basic slipcovers or other types of protective cases. But in most cases, you’ll want to invest a few dollars into buying a separate case that will shield your tablet’s display screen when it is not in use, provide a little protection if you should drop the tablet or spill coffee on it, and hold additional accessories. Some tablets can be hooked up to lightweight computer keyboards with USB cables, in case you want to type using a more familiar method than clicking letters and numbers on your tablet’s touch screen keyboard. Other available keyboards connect wirelessly using Bluetooth—a feature that’s not available on all tablets.
Look, Ma, No Wires!
Regardless of which tablet or netbook you select, it’s likely you will want to use it to connect to the Internet without wires linking the gadget to, well, anything. One key question you’ll need to answer is whether you want a device that connects to the Internet through one of the major cellular data networks (such as Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, or Sprint) or one that uses only a home- or business-based connection. (Remember that you don’t need an Internet connection to run some tablet and netbook programs, and you aren’t required to have wi-fi to operate such a device. Many useful features found on iPads and other portable devices don’t use the Internet at all.)
Basically, you’ll need to determine how and where you think you’ll use the device. A tablet or netbook that uses a local Internet connection may be sufficient for use at home or in coffee shops, libraries, hotels, or other locations that maintain their own wireless computer networks. If you already pay for Internet at home and have a wireless network there, you may not want to pay to connect your device to the network.
But if you are a frequent traveler or a busy bee who is buzzing around town most days, you may wish to pay for an always-available Internet connection for your tablet or netbook. If you foresee using your device in the car, at the park, in airports, or in other places where wi-fi networks are hard to find or expensive, a data plan for your device may be a good investment. A data plan is a paid subscription that allows you to access wireless Internet anywhere, anytime. Some data plans have flat costs per month with annual commitments; a few data plan providers let you pay as you go or sign a month-to-month contract. Look for data plan discounts when you’re shopping for a tablet or netbook, and ask your cellular company whether it offers a package deal if you add a data contract to your existing account.
Keep in mind that many cellular-ready devices are also wi-fi compatible, which means you can use wi-fi for free when available (and not use up data against your plan). When wi-fi isn’t available, you are still able to access the Internet via the device’s cellular connection. In general, however, a cellular connection is slower than wi-fi.
An Apple a Day: The iPad
You hear so much about Apple’s iPad and see so many of them in the hands of people in coffee shops, libraries, and airports that it would be easy to think the top-selling tablet in the world has been around for a long time. Not really: Th e first iPad model was sold to the public in January 2010. Upon its release, it was so popular that Apple struggled to keep up with demand and sold nearly 15 million of the gadgets that first year. In early 2011, the iPad 2 debuted with certain improvements over its older sibling: It was lighter, and it had a more powerful CPU, two cameras, and other refinements. Further improvements and options were designed for the iPad 3’s launch in 2012, and just like every other popular consumer item—microwave ovens, cars, TV sets, desktop computers, cameras, etc.—the next model will probably have some new features you covet. At this rate, perhaps the iPad 99 will be able to cook your breakfast and drive your car for you!
Whatever the generation, the basic operation of the iPad is the same: You turn it on by pressing a button near the bottom of the display screen. A touch-sensitive picture of a horizontal slider just above that can be used to open the home page of iPad apps, which is the starting point for anything you’ll do with the tablet. There, you’ll see several rows of small, labeled pictures called icons that you can tap with one fi nger to start using the apps associated with them. Further pages filled with icons for other apps can be accessed by touching the screen with your finger and then swiping from right to left, or vice versa. After you start using an app, the same finger-swiping technique can be used to turn pages of a document or perform other basic tasks. Other easily learned touch screen techniques allow you to zoom in or out of a photo or Web page, switch to another app, and type using the virtual keyboard.
- Other iPad Decisions
Topsy-Turvy: The Gyroscope
One of the most striking features of the iPad (and comparable tablets) is that its screen can be viewed in either vertical or horizontal orientation—in fact, the iPad will switch to accommodate your chosen orientation. The device is able to do this thanks to an inner gyroscope that senses how you are holding it. If you’re reading a news article while holding the iPad in a vertical orientation (like a magazine cover) and then rotate it in your hands until it’s “sideways,” the tablet will rotate the on-screen image so it fills the wider, horizontal page you’re viewing. If you find the feature annoying, however, there’s a switch on the side of the iPad that can lock the view so it won’t automatically rotate.
If you don’t connect a keyboard to the iPad, you can type on a touch screen keyboard that is automatically shown on some apps or can be activated by touching an icon on the screen in others. You’ll quickly realize that the screen-rotation ability of the iPad allows both vertical and horizontal keyboard options. If you’re just using the keyboard to enter a few letters or numbers—such as an address in a navigational app or the address of a website—the vertical keyboard is usually fine. But for typing a long e-mail or document, you should probably rotate the iPad to use the horizontal view.
Remember the Memory
In addition to choosing which model of iPad you want to buy, you will also have to decide how much memory, or storage space, you need. If you’re new to tablet computing, the basic iPad model with the smallest amount of internal memory (at the time of writing this book, it is 16 GB) will be plenty. If you’re a power user of iTunes—Apple’s online store interface on which you can buy music, videos and apps— or expect to download and watch a lot of videos on your device or add a large number of apps, step up to the middle- or top-level model. Of course, as with a good-quality used car, there’s always the option of buying a previous-generation, lower-priced iPad model that does everything you need it to.
- Memory and Moving Parts
- Getting Apps onto Your Tablet