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Tablets

Tablet buying guide

Last updated: December 2014

Getting started

No electronics category has changed more in the past year than tablets. Performance is better than ever, especially for the best lower-priced models, and the features and versatility of tablets are expanding fast. The bottom line: There are lots of great models to choose from.

Before you start tablet shopping, consider your priorities.

Is portability a priority? Tablets with 8-inch or smaller displays mostly weigh well less than a pound. Many are very thin. The best in this size range have a battery life of about 13 hours, or more.

Are you on a budget? You can get a great 7- to 8-inch tablet starting at about $200. Even Apple is offering a lower-cost iPad, the iPad Mini, for $300. Tablets with larger display sizes cost more, of course. But very good 10-inch tablets are out there for about $350.

Are you looking for maximum versatility? Then you want a tablet that does it all, and does it well. Consider a larger tablet with at least 10 hours of battery life, and well-equipped app and content stores. Be prepared to spend at least $400. The iPad Air offers a good mix of features and performance, but other tablets have things the iPads don't, like a memory-card slot or remote-control capability.

Are you a bookworm? If you want a tablet mainly for reading--with some e-mailing, Web surfing, and a bit of app-downloading on the side--you can save some money with a tablet from Amazon. A larger screen is better for magazine reading, while a smaller one is more portable, costs less, and is big enough for reading books.

Do you want a tablet that's also a computer? Many Windows-based tablets are either convertibles that use hinges to twist and turn from laptop to tablet, or a detachable, which lets you detach the screen from the keyboard.

Do you have kids? Tablets for tykes have gotten more robust, and parents have more control over what their kids are doing with parental filters. Prices range from $150 to $200, so kids' tablets aren't cheap. Here's how to figure out which is best for your family.

Is there a gamer in the family? Most tablets are good enough for casual games like Angry Birds or 2048. But if you want to play a more-demanding game like Modern Combat 4, you'll need a tablet that can handle it. Here are six great tablets for playing games.

Features


All new models offer Wi-Fi connectivity, and most have a front-facing webcam and GPS capability.

Screen size and shape

Typical sizes are 7 and 10 inches, though tablets in sizes in between are also available. There are also larger models, like Microsoft's 12-inch Surface Pro 3. In landscape mode, most tablets have the short, wide shape of a digital TV. The iPad's display is squarer, similar to a traditional TV's.

Wireless connectivity

All tablets offer Wi-Fi connectivity. Most higher-rated tablets also come in a version that can access cellular data networks, including 4G. Monthly broadband access costs $20 and up (some tablets offer month-to-month access).

Display

Screen resolutions on tablets are getting better and better. Samsung's new Galaxy Tab S 8.4 is among the finest at 359 pixels per inch. The new iPad Air 2 gets an anti-reflective coating that makes it the best tablet we've viewed in bright light.

Operating system

You can choose from among three operating systems for your tablet: Windows, iOS, or Android. Apple's tablets use iOS. There's a version of Windows specifically for tablets, called Windows RT. You'll find that on the Surface 2 tablet, for example, and it includes Microsoft's Office suite. Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 uses Windows 8.1, but you must buy Office separately for that one.

A tablet's capabilities are in large part determined by its operating system. As with computers, being able to upgrade the version installed in the factory makes additional capabilities possible and allows the device to use the newest apps. Apple provides upgrades for the iPad's iOS operating system. The latest Android operating system is version 5, also called Lollipop. But some Android models are using earlier versions like 4.2.

Ports

Storage in many tablets can be expanded using a memory card, and a few can read USB flash drives. The iPad has no memory-card slot or USB port, but its $29 Camera Connection Kit has some unadvertised capabilities, such as accommodating a USB keyboard and importing photos from an iPod Touch or iPhone.

Seagate's $200 GoFlex Satellite hard drive lets you wirelessly stream video, movies, photos, and documents to a tablet. It has a dedicated app for the iPad but works with any Wi-Fi-enabled tablet. Apple's iOS lets you sync with other iOS devices.

Printing capability

One way you can print wirelessly from the iPad is via an AirPrint-enabled printer. Most printer manufacturers have apps for the iPad and Android tablets that allow Wi-Fi printing.

Brands

AARP arrow  |  Acer arrow  |  Alcatel arrow  |  Amazon arrow  |  Apple arrow  |  Archos arrow  |  Asus arrow  |  Barnes & Noble arrow  |  ClickN Kids arrow  |  Dell arrow  |  EVGA arrow  |  Fuhu arrow  |  Google arrow  |  HP arrow  |  Hisense arrow  |  KD Interactive arrow  |  Kobo arrow  |  LG arrow  |  Leapfrog arrow  |  Lenovo arrow  |  Microsoft arrow  |  Monster arrow  |  NVIDIA arrow  |  Nokia arrow  |  Polaroid arrow  |  Samsung arrow  |  Sony arrow  |  Toshiba arrow  |  VTech arrow  |  Verizon arrow  |  Vinci arrow  |  Wikipad arrow  |  ZTE arrow

AARP

AARP offers a 7.8-inch tablet with features that might be attractive to older users.

Acer

Acer's Android and Windows-based Iconia line is available in 7-, 8-, and 10-inch sizes. Acer's detachable fall under the Aspire Switch line.

Alcatel

Alcatel produces budget-priced Android-based tablets in a variety of sizes.

Amazon

The Android-based Fire is a competitively priced 6, 7, and 9-inch tablet. Subscribers to Amazon Prime ($99 per year) have access to extra content such as movies, TV shows, and books. It's app store is curated by Amazon. These tablets have a user interface customized by Amazon.

Amazon also introduced the Fire HD Kids Edition in 6- and 7-inch sizes, joining the kids tablet catagory in 2014. The Android-based tablet offers the "first ever" two-year worry-free guarantee.

Apple

Now in its sixth generation, the iPad Air 2 uses Apple iOS, noteable for its intuitive interface and excellent app store. A 7.9-inch version, the iPad Mini, closely mimics the larger model. Apple has retained earlier, less expensive versions—the iPad Air, iPad Mini 2 and iPad Mini. Models are also available with 4G service.

Archos

Archos produces a wide variety of Android tablets in various sizes under the Elements moniker. The company also offers a gaming tablet.

Asus

Asus produces Android, Windows, and Windows RT-based tablets in a variety of sizes under the Transformer, VivoTab, and MeMO Pad lines.

Barnes & Noble

Barnes and Noble no longer sells its own brand-name tablets. Instead, if offers the Galaxy Tab 4 Nook from Samsung.

ClickN Kids

ClickN Kids has partnered with Intel for its second-generation Android-operated tablet. The company was created to "marry education, technology, and business," as stated on its website.

Dell

Dell offers Android and Windows-based 7-to-10.8-inch tablets in the Venue line.

EVGA

The TegraNote7 is an Android-based 7-inch tablet featuring a Nvidia processor.

Fuhu

Fuhu states on its website that it creates "new experiences that are made specifically for children, but good enough for adults. " It offers a variety of tablets for all ages under the Nabi name.

Google

Google's 7- and 9-inch Nexus tablets run on Android OS.

HP

HP's Android and Windows models include 7-, 8-, and 10-inch sizes. Slate is their premium line.

Hisense

Hisense produces budget-priced Android-based tablets in a variety of sizes.

KD Interactive

KD Interactive, the manufacturer of Kurio tablets, produces interactive and educational technology platforms for children ages 2-14.

Kobo

The Android-based Kobo Arc is available in 7-to-10-inch sizes. The user interface is geared toward e-book and magazine readers.

LG

The Android-based G Pad is available in 7,8, and 10-inch versions.

Leapfrog

Leapfrog is a leading company in child-development learning products, offering electronic and nonelectronic toys.

Lenovo

Lenovo's IdeaTab and Yoga line run on Android. The Yoga tablets include a built-in stand. The Miix is a Windows-based detachable. The A7, A8, and A10 is their budget line.  Models range in size from 7 to 11.6 inches.

Microsoft

The Microsoft Surface is a Windows-based tablet that comes in 10.6 and 12-inch sizes. They offer a detachable, folding keyboard.

Monster

Monster produces just one Android model, the M7 7-inch product, which is exclusive to Walmart.

NVIDIA

NVIDIA tablets are designed with the gamer in mind and has an optional hand-held controller.

Nokia

The Nokia Lumia model is a Windows-based 10-inch model available in 4G only.

Polaroid

Polaroid, best known for pioneering instant photo cameras, also makes action sports cameras, camcorders, TVs, and kids tablets. 

Samsung

Samsung has the widest variety of tablets available, with prices ranging from low to high and sizes small to large. Android and Windows models are available, along with 4G versions.  The Galaxy Tab is the mainstream line while the Galaxy Note models include a stylus and versatile drawing and writing software.  The Galaxy Tab Pro and Note Pro are premium models.  The Galaxy Tab S has an OLED display, unusual for a tablet.  A version of the Galaxy Tab  was customized for Barnes and Noble.  In 2013, Samsung launched kids tablets as well. 

Sony

Sony's Xperia Tablet Z is an Android-based tablet that's waterproof.

Toshiba

Toshiba's Android and Windows lines include the 7-, 8-, and 10-inch Encore and Excite lines.  The Satellite Click tablets are detachables.

VTech

VTech is a leading supplier of electronic learning products for children, from infancy to preschool. 

Verizon

The Verizon Ellipsis is a single model in Verizon's line.  The 7-inch model is Android based with 4G access.

Vinci

Vinci produces learning-oriented tablets for children ages 1 to 9. 

Wikipad

The Wikipad 7-inch tablet is built for gaming and runs in Android. A game-controller dock is optional.

ZTE

The 7-inch Optik model is Android based with 3G service on Sprint.

Shopping tips

Shape matters

We find the iPad's squarish screen is better suited to most tablet uses than a rectangular one. Several other tablets have similarly shaped screens. Rectangular screens held horizontally offer a wider landscape view that's better for watching movies in something closer to a wide-screen 16.9 aspect ratio, and the shape may make them easier to slip into a purse.

Make sure the OS is upgradable

Apple provides upgrades for the iPad's iOS, as does Microsoft for Windows tablets. New Android apps may require a newer versios of Andorid than is available on some tablets with older Android builds.

Consider the app market

The breadth and quality of Apple's app market is still a major competitive edge for the iPad. Games for iPad are still more innovative, for example, with popular titles such as Infinity Blade (free), a game of knights and swordplay, and The Room ($5), a puzzle/mystery game. And the quality of apps for iPad continues to overshadow those for Android. Many magazines have tablet versions of their publications fro both Android and Apple devices.

Developers create apps first, and more often exclusively, for the Apple App store. And because of the large user base, apps in the Apple store are more likely to get bugs fixed first. The major app stores from Apple, Google, and Microsoft have specific developer requirements that make their apps more reliable and less likely to be vulnerable to malware. Only Android devices let you opt to install non-vetted apps from the Internet, so be careful about allowing that.

If you choose a tablet with the Android OS, make sure it has access to Google's "genuine" Google Play market and not just a third-party app market such as GetJar. You'll get a wider variety of popular apps there, and gain some security against potentially malicious "rogue" apps.

You get many fewer Android apps on Barnes & Noble and Kindle tablets because those companies select the apps they want provide. But there's still a large number available on both of those tablets as well.

Why spend more on the iPad?

Many of its apps outdo Android apps in terms of innovation. Don't forget the iPad's excellent 9.7-inch display for reading magazines and watching movies, as well as its long battery life.

Wi-Fi is good enough for most

A Wi-Fi-only model is the most economical choice. Tablets with cellular service cost more, plus you'll have to pay for the service. Choose a broadband model only if "everywhere access" to the Net is critical. If it is, 4G capability, or at least the ability to upgrade to it, is a plus.

Kids tablets

Here are some tips on buying a tablet for kids.

Age. While "grownup" tablets are fine for many older kids, and lots of them do come with parental controls and filters, there's a growing number of tablets made just for kids: Not only the LeapFrog LeapPad and Vtech InnoTab lines, which are more toylike and great for the younger set, but also full-blown Android tablets geared to children of various ages. Check the manufacturers' recommended age range, but also bear in mind your child's capabilities and preferences.

Price. Android kid tablets are often are less expensive than "grownup" tablets, are more rugged, and come with child-oriented content. But often, kid-tablet specs--including processor speed, display quality, and screen responsiveness--can lag behind those of regular tablets. So you'll want to make sure snagging a great kid-tablet bargain doesn't mean you're buying an inferior product that your child will hate. Consumer Reports tests kid tablets for these features and more; our reviews of kid tablets provide more details.

Parental controls. These include Web filters--some are predetermined by the tablet maker, and some let you choose the sites you wish to be available to your child (or children, when they allow for multiple profiles). Other controls let you block and monitor specific apps and websites. And some let you specify how much time a kid can spend playing on the tablet, or even what times of day they can play. Also take into consideration that some parental controls are easier to set up and change than others. This is another feature we look at when testing kid tablets.

Multiple profiles. If you plan to let a couple or few kids share the tablet, look for one that lets you create a profile for each child. That way, parents can assure an age-appropriate experience for everyone. On some tablets, parents can monitor each individual child's progress as they use educational apps.

Content. Although all the kid tablets include games, e-books, art-studio apps, and more, the amount and quality of this content can vary. Some tablets seem to include a bonanza of popular games, but many may be trial versions that you'd have to pay for to keep. And some tablets are much more focused on education and creativity than others. So do your homework and see exactly what comes preloaded with a tablet before you make a decision.

Size. Will you be using the tablet on the go, or mostly at home? How big are the hands that will be using the tablet? And will a couple of kids want to play or watch videos toge ther? All those considerations come into play when you're deciding. Kid-tablet sizes range just as much as those of "grownup" tablets: from a phone-like 4 inches up to 10 inches.

Battery life. If you're planning to take the tablet on trips, make sure it'll last long enough to keep your child occupied. In our most recent tests, most of the kid tablets ran a decent amount of time on a single charge, in the 7- to 9-hour range. But a few models came in at about 4 hours, short by any standard. Most kid tablets are now rechargeable, so don't forget to pack the charging cable.

   

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