Tablet PCs bridge the gap between laptops and smartphones. They combine the mobility and connectivity of a smartphone with a larger screen and more powerful processor that’s more akin to a laptop. Instead of struggling to run Windows, they run a lightweight, touchscreen-focused operating system.

Tablets are ideal for web browsing, email, reading e-books, playing games and watching video. However, you won’t be tempted to write long essays or reports with a tablet’s onscreen keyboard and it can be tricky (or impossible) to print documents, photos and web pages.

Tablet PCs have been around for a lot longer than you may realise, but it’s only in the last two years that they’ve become worth buying. Apple’s iPad was – and remains – the benchmark that other tablets strive to beat.

The iPad 2, along with the latest version of iOS (Apple’s mobile operating system) is a tough combination to beat: it’s slick, supremely easy to use and has a library of hundreds of thousands of apps to choose between.

Prices start from £399 for the base 16GB, Wi-Fi model, but capacities range to 64GB. If you want to stay connected when out of Wi-Fi range, you’ll need a 3G model. These start at £499 (again, you get 16GB of internal storage).

The iPad has the disadvantage that you can’t add to its internal storage via a memory card, so make sure you get sufficient storage when you buy. Apple’s application installation system is locked down, so new software is only available through the App Store.

If this puts you off, a Google Android-based tablet may appeal. Some have built-in card slots for adding storage (the iPad requires an adaptor). Plus, they’re available in different screen sizes – currently, there’s only a 9.7in iPad.

There’s a wide variety of apps available via the Android Market although unlike Apple, Google doesn’t screen apps for taste or security. This means that quality can be lower and adult material is also present – something to watch if buying for your kids.

Security is increasingly a problem with Android devices, as there is a growing threat of Trojans and other rogue apps that can infect the device; even apps downloaded from Google. Consider installing anti-virus software on Android devices, just as you would for Windows.

Also watch out for cheap Android tablets that don’t have the Market app installed – without it, you’re limited to either the apps that are pre-installed, or those that the manufacturer offers via its own store.

As far as specifications are concerned, most tablets now feature a dual-core processor, and should cope with running multiple apps at once. The graphics processor is important if you plan to play games on a tablet. Screen size is down to personal preference: a 10in screen with 4:3 aspect ratio is the most versatile, but widescreen 16:9 models are better optimised for watching video. Smaller tablets, 7in or less, are more pocketable for travel.

Avoid any tablet with a resistive touchscreen – capacitive versions are far more responsive and should include multi-touch support.

You’ll see 3G tablets available on subsidised data contracts, but these are often a false economy. Calculate the total price for the duration of the contract before signing up for one, as you may find it’s cheaper to pay for the tablet up front and arrange your own data tariff.

Good battery life is vital for all-day use, but tablets don’t have removable batteries like laptops do. What you’ll get from your tablet depends on how you use it. Using Wi-Fi and 3G will drain the battery far quicker than merely watching videos stored on the internal memory, for example.

Cameras may be important to you as well. You might look a little odd using a large tablet to take photos or video, but once captured, the tablet’s screen is great for editing and sharing the content. A front-facing camera is useful for video calling.

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