Feature: 5 things to keep in mind when buying a tablet

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With the release of high profile tablets such as the Asus Eee Pad Transformer TF101, Acer Iconia Tab A500 and the Samsung Galaxy 10.1, the tablet space is getting crowded. There’s definitely more choices this time around, but a lot of people are unsure of what tablet to buy, or more importantly, which camp to support. I’ve written a simple list of things to keep in mind when the inevitable tablet-hunt begins.

 

1. Know what a real tablet is

Realistically there are currently only two, viable eco-systems for tablets: Android by way of Honeycomb, and iOS. Some of you may be wondering why I didn’t include Windows, webOS, Blackberry and non-Honeycomb Android tablets. Windows tablets right now are at best, notebooks without keyboards fitted with touchscreens and at worst unresponsive netbooks with touchscreens. They’re heavy, bulky, extremely cumbersome to use and are usually as expensive (or more expensive, in some cases) than full size notebooks. That’ll probably change with Windows 8 hits, but as it stands, Windows 7 tablets won’t be able to stand on the same ground as Honeycomb and iOS. Non-Honeycomb tablets, while usually cheaper than their Honeycomb toting brethren, don’t deliver the tablet experience that Google intended, and instead feel more like smartphones with bigger screens. There are exceptions to this rule of course – HTC’s tablet, the Flyer, is one of them, but only because of the heavily customized UI that ships with it. Another main point against these devices is that they’re usually slower and don’t have the same graphical punch as Honeycomb-toting tablets. As a general rule of thumb when it comes to Android tablets is that if it’s not running Honeycomb, it’s usually not worth it. HP’s webOS powered tablets are here simply because they’re not available to the public yet, so I really can’t give it an honest shake. Finally, we get to the Blackberry Playbook. Yes, it’s a real tablet with real apps on it, but a cursory glance at reviews online reveal a big flaw – you can only unlock it’s potential when you have a Blackberry phone to pair with it. To me that’s a big setback, especially for people who have already invested in different eco-systems, like iOS, Android, Windows Phone 7, etc.

 

2. Stick to your eco-system

This piece of advice is especially poignant to Apple users. In some cases, apps that are available for your iPhone or iPod has some degree of cross-functionality, or at the very least, has some semblance of consistency when it comes to overall design and UI when you make the jump from one device to another. Another good reason to stick to your eco-system, especially when you’re an iPhone user and make the jump to the iPad is that the look and feel of the OS doesn’t change much, so it’s a more seamless transition than say, jumping straight to Honeycomb.

 

3. Know what the tablet will be for

Another good thing to keep in mind when going tablet shopping is to keep in mind what the device is going to be used for. A friend of mine has an iPad for the sole purpose of reading comics on it, as he says it’s actually more convenient for him to buy and read comics on his iPad than say, going out to Filbars and buying an actual comic book. Another friend of mine wants to buy a Honeycomb tablet because he likes the idea of being able to plug-in a USB game controller and using that to play games, rather than using the accelerometer and touchscreen. The point here is to identify what you want to get out of the tablet, rather than buying it now and figuring out a use for it later.

 

4. Find out if they have apps that you need

Again, this all boils down to what you need the tablet for. Referencing my example above, my friend was able to find a comic book app for the iPad right away, as opposed to me looking for one in the Android marketplace for a bit before settling on cmreader. The biggest appeal of iOS devices, and one that’s truly given Apple the edge in the tablet wars, have been its selection of apps. Right now, Apple has a leg up when it comes to quality apps for the iPad, and while there’s literally a metric crapton of Android apps, the selection of apps built specifically for Honeycomb is wanting. Of course, the iPad has a 1 year head start compared to Honeycomb, so it’s really not surprising. The main thing that users will be looking at is price – the iPad has more quality apps in its library, but they usually can’t be had for free, legally anyways. Honeycomb has a selection of both paid and free apps, with the latter being supported by ads in the apps themselves, so it makes it a more natural choice for future, frugal tablet owners.

 

5. Take them for a test run

It’s important to read reviews for a particular model to get a feel for a product (shameless plug, read our review of the Transformer here), but in the end it’s best to get a feel for yourself before committing to a brand. A lot of reviews are subject to individual preferences and biases (whether intentional or not) so what works for me may not work for you. Your best bet? Spend some time in a concept store and experience for yourself what works for you.