How to buy a tablet device 2011

October 14, 2011

Tablets are the newest form factor in computing, and many people would love to own one to compliment their smartphone and laptop. But which tablet should you buy at this point in time?

Tablets fit snugly in between smartphones and laptops, being a more stylish, portable, and useful version of the humble netbook. They provide the best of both worlds: Large enough to work on, play on, and host digital content such as movies, but small enough to be completely portable and carried with you wherever you go.

There are a few options open to you, with two main contenders vying for your attention this year. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find a full range of tablets to suit all needs and all budgets.

Apple iPad

The chances are you’ve heard of the iPad. It’s likely to be the reason you’re seriously contemplating buying a tablet. There were tablets before the iPad came along, but they were a different beast and not all that usable.

Apple changed the form factor and potentially the whole field of personal computing when the original iPad was released in April 2010. We’ve since had the only-slightly-improved iPad 2. And an iPad 3 – slightly improved again if Apple follows its usual path – is likely to be released in 2012.

The iPad 2 has a 9.7-inch touchscreen, a dual-core 1GHZ Apple A5 processor, 512MB of RAM, a battery life of around 10 hours (playing video), and cameras front and rear. There are 16GB, 32GB, and 64GB versions available, each of which comes with just Wi-Fi or Wi-Fi and 3G. The current version of the operating system is IOS 5.

Buying the iPad would be buying the market leader (by a long way), buying hardware with a guaranteed quality, and in iOS 5 an amazing operating system built with mobile devices in mind. At the time of writing prices start at $499.

Amazon Kindle Fire

The Kindle Fire is the new kid on the block. And thanks to the host of Amazon services it ships with and an unbelievably low price, it’s a big player in a small package.

Released on Nov. 15, and currently available only in the U.S., the Kindle Fire is a tablet on a mission: to host digital content; be it movies, TV shows, music, books, or games. And Amazon is hoping you’ll buy the majority of this content from its online store. There are rumors of a larger, more powerful Kindle Fire on the way but nothing has yet been confirmed.

The Kindle Fire has a 7-inch touchscreen, a dual-core 1GHZ TI OMAP 4 processor, 512MB of RAM, and a battery life of around 8 hours. The Kindle Fire is Wi-Fi-only, has 8GB of storage, and comes with a heavily-customized version of Android 2.3. It’s unclear whether this will be upgradeable.

Buying the Kindle Fire would be buying into Amazon in a big way, with the Android tablet existing mainly to sell Amazon products and services. But it has other uses (including Web Access via the Silk browser) and may prove to be serious competition to the iPad in years to come. At the time of writing prices start at $199.

Alternatives

There are a host of other tablets out there, the vast majority currently powered by Google Android. They range from cheap and cheerful tablets for those on a very tight budget to those which compete with the iPad for features and usability but which cost the same or even more than the iPad.

Cheap Android tablets invariably offer resistive rather than multi-touch capacitive screens, no or very poor cameras, slow processors, and a lack of memory. These elements will seriously limit your enjoyment of using the product, especially when comparing to an iPad. But if you have little money and a serious desire for a tablet they may fill that void in your life. Just be sure to do your homework rather than going for the cheapest option.

There are decent Android tablets out there other than the Kindle Fire, but they don’t come cheap. Recommendations include the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, the Motorola Xoom, and the HTC Flyer. All offer strong hardware coupled with great design, and UIs to rival iOS.

A quick mention for Windows tablets. Although there are none (past the old-style Tablet PCs) available to buy at present, they will be turning up from next year, powered by the new Windows 8 operating system. I wouldn’t advise waiting, unless you’re after a tablet which runs more like a full PC than a cross between a netbook and a smartphone.

Conclusions

The tablet market is currently the Apple iPad followed by everything else. That is just a fact. The Amazon Kindle Fire offers something new, different, and highly affordable, but to compare it to the iPad isn’t fair. These are difference beasts aimed at consumers with different needs and wants from their mobile devices.

Just like smartphones there is no better way to see what tablet is best for you than testing each out for yourself. You can do that with the iPad and the Android tablets in shops, but the Kindle Fire remains, for the time being, an unknown quantity. Buying one before any reviews have even been written would be a gamble.

The iPad it is then, as much as I hate to say it. But in 2012 things may well change, with the iPad 3, a new Kindle Fire, and the first Windows 8 tablets all due to be released.

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