Buyer’s guide to tablet PCs
Not too long ago tablets were a niche oddity. Before the Apple iPad came along they were typically heavy, slow and not at all stylish. Now the lowly tablet is a must-have gadget, in fact they’re a prime culprit in the huge drop off in laptop sales over the past few years.
But this explosion in popularity has led to a huge number of devices flooding onto the market, and Apple is no longer the only game in town. That means we have plenty of choice, but the numerous models can be confusing if you're new to the tablet thing.
To help you come to decision let’s examine what you should look for when buying a tablet computer, and how to choose the right mobile broadband package.
iPad vs Android vs Windows
Potential tablet owners now have three major operating systems to choose from when buying a tablet, here’s how they stack up.
The iPad is responsible for kicking off today’s tablet trend and is now on its fourth generation. The latest is the iPad with Retina Display, but the iPad 2 continues to be sold and there’s now a 7.9-inch iPad Mini which is the cheapest model yet.
As well as Apple’s trademark build quality the iPad also boasts an enormous selection of apps and games, including some very impressive creativity tools. The iPad is often more expensive than the competition, however.
Choose an iPad if: you want the very best selection of apps and games, and a huge choice of accessories.
Early Android tablets were often poor, the software wasn’t up to scratch and there was a deluge of cheap slates that tarnished the brand.
However more recent hardware like the Google Nexus 7 is substantially better. Android models can be very powerful and have access to a respectable software library (though there are far fewer tablet-specific apps for Android).
Android’s big advantage is the wide choice of devices. They're made by many companies including Samsung, Asus, Archos, Sony and Motorola, and not only does this result in some very low prices but you can also find unusual extras like full size USB ports, keyboard docks and mobile broadband dongles.
Choose an Android if: you want a cheap tablet, or the option of cutting-edge hardware and features not found on rivals.
Windows tablets have actually been around for a long time, but they were very expensive and had little in the way of tablet-specific features.
Microsoft rectified that with Windows 8, which has a nice touch-focused UI and two different versions: standard desktop Windows 8 for more powerful hardware, and Windows 8 RT for mobile chips.
The latter has far better battery life, but standard Windows software is not compatible, though it does come with MS Office and Internet Explorer. Desktop Win 8 on a tablet enables you to run any of the usual software packages but battery life suffers, and these devices are often much pricier, closer to laptops than tablets.
Choose Windows if: you want access to Windows software or require impeccable MS Office document compatibility.
3G & 4G mobile broadband
All of the tablet offers listed in our comparison tables above include mobile broadband capabilities in addition to wireless networking. This allows you to access the internet wherever there’s a mobile signal. This is particularly useful if you regularly travel around the country and want a device to keep you in touch or entertained without relying on public Wi-Fi.
However, we now have access to 4G mobile broadband in the UK and it’s important to know the difference.
3G is the older mobile data standard. Speeds average around 2-3Mb - which is perfectly fine for web browsing, Skype and streaming lower quality video - though there are now some ultrafast 3G networks which are much quicker, up to 20Mb or more.
3G is affordable and commonplace. Every mobile network (3 Mobile, O2, Orange, T-Mobile and Vodafone) provides a 3G service and all mobile data enabled tablets support it.
If you want a quicker connection though, you’ll need a 4G tablet. 4G is a cutting edge mobile standard that starts at a maximum of 40Mb, but can now reach a theoretical limit of 80Mb thanks to EE network upgrades.
4G is great for downloading large files and streaming high definition content, but prices for both the contracts and devices are much higher.
How to choose a tablet
As you compare the tablet deals listed and delve into the details you’ll find a dizzying array of hardware specifications. Here are a few things to look out for when choosing a tablet.
Recent tablets feature powerful dual or quad core processors (CPUs). If you plan on using it for gaming or demanding apps then a powerful CPU is useful, however slightly older models like the iPad 2 still offer plenty of horsepower and come in at a lower price.
Most tablets feature either 16GB or 32GB internal storage. The more GB you have, the more movies, games, music and apps you can keep there. If you use cloud storage or often move stuff around you could save money by choosing a tablet with less storage, but beware of devices such as the iPad which lack a memory card slot - many Android tablets have a microSD port that can allow you to expand the memory by as much as 64GB.
Tablets are all screen so this is incredibly important, you don’t want to be staring at an ugly display after all. This is only really a concern with cheaper tablets now, though, most mid/high end tablets have excellent high resolution hardware. The only thing you might want to check is that the touch screen is at least 720p (1280 x 720) or 1080p (1920 x 1080) as this will allow you to watch HD video in all its glory.
Tablet PC deals explained
Staggered by the vast range of offers on tablets? We don’t blame you. A few years back free laptop deals were all the rage but they’ve now been replaced by tablets. Here are some key points to consider when comparing.
- Pay now
This is the initial cost of the tablet you’ll have to pay when signing up. Cheaper monthly contracts will normally be offset by a higher ‘pay now’ price, and vice versa. Getting a free or very cheap tablet and splitting it over the life of the contract is a good way to spread the cost, but if you can afford it paying more right now may be better value in the long run.
- Monthly price
Just like a mobile phone contract, this is the standard monthly fee paid to the network for the mobile broadband service. This price should not change month to month unless you incur extra data charges.
The length of your commitment to the network. 24 months is now typical. Cancelling early will mean paying a charge; rolling one month deals without a cancellation fee are available though these involve paying a much higher up-front fee for the tablet itself.
The estimated speed of the mobile internet service. This is the theoretical maximum of the connection given by the provider, and it should be noted that due to factors such as network congestion and signal strength you may experience significantly lower speeds. An easy way to check possible performance before buying is to run speed tests on a smartphone using the same network. You can also check signal strength using the provider's coverage check tools.
This is the monthly data usage cap, and it’s an incredibly important factor when choosing a tablet deal. If your usage is quite light (web browsing, email and some audio streaming, for example) then 1-5GB will be sufficient, however if you regularly download apps, play online games or stream video you need to look at the higher caps in the region of 10-15GB. If you’re unsure we’d highly recommend checking out our guide to mobile broadband data usage for further detail.
Frequently asked questions
Can I use a mobile broadband dongle with a tablet?
Many of you already own dongles and it seems like an obvious solution to buy a cheaper Wi-Fi only tablet and continue to use the dongle, however in most cases it’s not possible.
For starters many tablets don’t have full-size USB ports, and even when they do getting a dongle to talk to them is tricky. It has been done on some Android devices but it’s not easy. For a lot more info and some workarounds check out our blog post on this very subject.
Will my favourite smartphone apps run on a tablet?
Most of the time it isn’t an issue to use the apps on your iPhone on an iPad, or download the same Android software from Google Play. The only exceptions are tools which have been built specifically for phones or those which have not been adapted by the developer for a tablet. The latter is not normally a big impedent, it just might mean that the app does not switch to landscape orientation or looks strange on the higher resolution of a tablet screen. Read the reviews before buying to see if an app is tablet-friendly.
Can I use a tablet instead of a laptop?
This comes down to what you want to do - basic word processing and image editing is perfectly achievable but complex tasks will generally require the raw power of a laptop or desktop machine. There’s also a question of comfort, you can buy keyboard accessories but it’s no replacement for a proper keyboard and mouse setup.