Planning to buy a tablet this year? Whether it's your first
one ever or your fifth, you face a dizzying array of brands, sizes,
and options. Big screen or small? Apple or Amazon? Android or
iOS--or perhaps even Windows?
Allow me to help you cut through the confusion and make an
informed tablet choice. By focusing on three key areas, you'll be
able pick exactly the right model for your needs--and your
1. Screen size
When it comes to choosing a tablet, there's arguably nothing
more important than the size of the screen. It dictates not only
how you'll use it, but also how you'll carry it.
Tablets now come in all kinds of sizes, from the
still-pocketable six-inch "phablet" (which is actually a
phone/tablet hybrid) to the behemoth 13.3-inch Archos Family Pad
Obviously a bigger screen is better for things like playing
games, watching movies, viewing Web pages, and, especially,
working. If you're planning to pair your tablet with a keyboard so
you can do some word processing or the like, you'll definitely want
a screen that's at least nine inches: the Kindle Fire HD 8.9, Nook
HD+, iPad, Google Nexus 10, or Microsoft Surface
On the flipside, if you plan to read a lot of books, or want a
tablet that's lighter and easier to tote, consider something in the
7-8-inch range: the iPad Mini, Google Nexus 7, Kindle Fire, or Nook
My advice: Consider two tablets, one larger, one smaller.
Different occasions merit different sizes!
2. Operating system
A tablet's operating system may seem like an afterthought, but
it's actually quite important. It dictates how you'll interact with
the tablet and, even more significantly, what apps you'll be able
Everyone knows the iPad runs Apple's iOS. This is a great
choice if you already have an iPhone, as the two devices are,
functionally speaking, nearly identical. And you can run pretty
much all the same apps.
Same goes for Android, which runs on lots of smartphones and
most non-iPad tablets. However, while a model like the Google Nexus
delivers a similar interface to what you get on an Android-powered
smartphone, the Kindle Fire and Nook use a heavily customized
version of Android--one that won't look familiar. What's more,
those tablets put some limits on the apps you can run; the Nook in
particular relies on a curated app store I don't particularly like.
(Translation: It lacks a lot of great freebies.)
Meanwhile, if you recently purchased a new PC with Windows 8,
there's something to be said for a Windows 8-powered tablet like
Microsoft's Surface RT. It gives you an almost identical experience
to what you get on your PC. Alas, the Windows app store continues
to be a ghost town compared with most others.
My advice: Figure out what apps are most important to you,
then choose the tablet OS that offers them.
3. Wireless capabilities
A tablet without Internet access is like a car without gas:
You can't do much with it. All tablets have built-in Wi-Fi
capabilities, meaning they can get online when connected to a Wi-Fi
hotspot--typically found in your home, your office, your local
Starbucks, and so on.
What you need to decide is if you also want 3G/4G
capabilities, meaning a tablet that can connect to cellular
networks, same as your smartphone. That will limit your choices
quite a bit, as not many tablets offer this option (Kindles and
Nooks don't; some Nexuses do; iPads are available with and
without). You'll also have to pay a monthly fee for this
However, if you want 3G/4G but your tablet of choice doesn't
have it, most smartphones offer a "tethering" option that lets your
tablet take advantage of the phone's existing 3G/4G. This may cost
extra, but with some models/carriers it's free.
My advice: Don't pay extra for a tablet with built-in 3G/4G.
Instead, rely on widely available Wi-Fi hotspots and, when
necessary, your phone or a mobile hotspot.Veteran technology writer Rick Broida
is the author of numerous books, blogs, and features. He lends his
money-saving expertise to CNET and Savings.com, and also writes for PC
World and Wired.