How to choose a tablet PC. We tell you which tablet to buy: is iPad, Android, Windows 8 or BlackBerry best for you? Plus: how much to spend on a tablet (also see our piece: The 10 best tablets of 2013.)
Which tablet should I buy: 7in, 8in, 10in...
The first choice to make is screen size. Do you want a portable device that will fit in your jacket pocket and sit easily in your hand, or do you want the full value of a 10in display when watching movies? It's not an entirely straightforward choice: bigger doesn't necessarily mean more expensive, and there are benefits to both. If you are going to be reading a lot of eBooks and using your tablet on the move, I'd recommend a 7in device such as the Nexus 7 or iPad mini. For movie buffs and sofa-based web surfers 10in devices such as the full iPad 4 or Nexus 10. See also: Group test: what's the best mini tablet PC?
Which tablet should I buy: how much to spend
Which tablet should I buy: iPad
Although tablet PCs have been around for a long time, they were consigned to toil in obscurity in the vertical industries until the Apple iPad came along. The iPad changed everything, and now a tablet is a must-have for many PC users.
The iPad was the first true consumer tablet device, and both the fourth-generation 9.7in iPad and the iPad mini remain at the pinnacle of consumer tablets. iPads are beautifully and simply designed and built. They offer excellent performance, and the iTunes app and media store offers a wider range of high-class tablet apps than any other. It's also more secure than either the Android or Windows worlds, battery life is great and the cameras good. And every time iOS is updated you get the new OS. Almost anyone can use an iPad straight out of the box, and almost everyone immediately falls in love with their iPad. See also: Which iPad should I buy? We tell you which is the best iPad for you.
So is there any reason not to buy an iPad? Well I can think of several. For one thing Apple kit is never cheap, and the iPad and iPad mini are no exception to this rule. You pay a premium for quality, and depending on why you want a tablet the iPad may be overkill. Android tablets are often cheaper than is the iPad, and the hardware can be very similar.
Which brings us to another reason you may wish to avoid the iPad - what do you want it for? If you are in the market for a portable web-surfing device that lets you update Facebook and email, consume TV, music and movies and take and edit photos and video, the iPad is a pretty good choice. If you want a portable workstation you may wish to look for a Windows 8 tablet. You can use Office on an iPad, but it's not a great experience.
The final thing to consider when considering an iPad is this: Apple products are easy to use out of the box at least in part because you have relatively little consumer choice. If you want to buy a movie, you do it from iTunes. Music fan? You'll be shopping in iTunes. Software for your iPad? iTunes. You get the picture. You even need a special plug adaptor for an iPad that works only with Apple equipment. Android is often less friendly to new users, but within Android you have a choice of multiple media stores. And Android and Windows tablets generally charge via USB ports. And if you don't mind being locked to one market, and are happy to go without the iPad's more creative aspects, an Amazon Kindle Fire may be a better bet for you.
All of which notwithstanding, if you are not down to last pennies and you want a beautiful gadget to enjoy on the move, the iPad remains the number one platform to choose...
Which tablet should I buy: Android tablet
...but Android is closing fast. The problem with trying to proffer Android tablet buying advice is that Android is such a broad church. The best Android tablets from high-end manufacturers such as Samsung and Asus offer a very similar hard- and software experience as does the iPad, along with a lot more freedom of choice. And Google's own Nexus devices do the same thing at a much lower price. If I was advising a friend on what full-spec tablet to buy I'd say get a Nexus 7 or a Nexus 10 - inexpensive and well-built and -designed tablets with access to Google Play as well as third-party media stores. See also: The top 10 best Android tablets of 2013.
But beware. Not all Android tablets are equal. For one thing, there are a lot of different versions of Android out there. Because Google makes Android available for anyone to use, manufacturers alone decide which version of Android to supply, and when to upgrade existing devices (if at all). The difference between an Android Jelly Bean device and even Ice Cream Sandwich is marked. And the cheaper you go the worse things can get - some 'Android' devices don't even allow you to install Android apps from the Google Play store. Check before you buy - if it looks too good to be true it probably is.
It's a similar story in terms of hardware. A 9in Android tablet for less than £100 may look like a great deal, but it probably isn't. Check out the screen resolution, processor, battery life. Then check expert and user reviews. If you need only a simple and cheap web surfing device an Android tablet may be perfect. But have your eyes open: in the Android world, with the exception of Google's Nexus products, you get what you pay for. See also: Group test: best tablet for children.
Which tablet should I buy: Amazon Kindle
The reason the Nexus devices are so cheap is because Google subsidises them in order to get more people making purchases in the Google Play store. This process is taken a step further by Amazon with its Amazon Kindle Fire devices. These are actually Android tablets, not that you would know it. Amazon heavily subsidises high-quality hardware, and then runs on it an Amazon-flavoured version of Android. Via this you can buy and enjoy digital movies, TV shows, music and books. You can even purchase apps. But only from Amazon.
A case in point is movies. You can buy and watch movies via Amazon's LoveFilm service. Leaving aside the annoying fact that you have to be online to watch these films, you're also tied into a LoveFilm account which costs you a few pounds each month. You can buy plenty of eBooks... from Amazon. And the only app store is Amazon's own.
The Kindle Fire devices are inexpensive, easy to use and beautifully put together. The battery life is nothing short of stunning. But don't expect to use them as work devices, and do expect to line Amazon's pockets throughout the duration of our ownership.
Which tablet should I buy: Windows tablet
The best true Windows 8 tablets offer true portable computing on the move. Microsoft's own Surface Pro, for example, is as powerful as many an expensive desktop PC, and it offers decent battery life - for a laptop, if not for a post-iPad tablet. You can install any Windows software on it, and perform any task for which you would normally rely on a desktop PC. All on a chassis that will fit into any man bag. See also: Windows 8 tablets buying advice.
With its 42-watt-hour battery the Surface Pro has first-generation Intel Ultrabook battery life, however, rather than that of an Arm-based tablet. It's like a laptop, not an iPad. In our at-work tests the Surface Pro lasted for 5 hours, 8 minutes. That's perfectly useful and very good for an Intel-powered tablet, but it's as nothing compared to the iPad or Microsoft's own Surface RT, both of which offer more than 9 hours of in use battery life. And good Windows 8 tablets aren't cheap. The Surface Pro costs at least £719 inc VAT. See also: Best Windows 8 tablets of 2013.
Why does the Surface RT offer such significantly better battery life? In common parlance it's a big smartphone, where the Surface Pro is a small laptop. Windows RT is the cut-down version of Windows 8 that can run on hardware powered by ARM processors. It is all of Windows 8 without the desktop area. On the down side you can install only Windows apps, not full Windows software. On the plus side you get a special version of Office and the battery life is more like a phone than a laptop. I would personally question why you would want a Windows RT device - the whole point of having a Windows tablet rather than an iPad or an Android tablet is that if offers access to full Windows on the move.
Which tablet should I buy: BlackBerry
RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook runs a bespoke BlackBerry operating system. It's been around a long time now, and is not easy to find. We're expecting a BlackBerry 10 tablet soon.
Which tablet should I buy: more info
All of this choice is great for consumers, but it can make it hard to settle on a single platform and device. There's a lot to consider. Before going out to buy a tablet, first read our unrivalled buying advice articles:
- Tablet buying guide: advice on specs and features
- Buyers guide: Why you should buy a tablet PC
- Tablets buying guide: introducing your next portable PC
Then head over to our reviews section. As well as our generic tablets reviews, we have distinct reviews categories for Apple iPads, BlackBerry tablets, and Google Android Tablets, and we'll add more as they become required.
You can get honest feedback from users in the PC Advisor forum, and read our expert verdict in our unique, constantly updated tablets group tests:
- Group test: what's the best tablet PC?
- Group test: what's the best Google Android tablet?
- Group test: what's the best tablet PC accessory?
Finally, to find all this information and more in one place, visit Tablet Advisor.