The Apple iPad may be leading the market but there are many other tablets out there waiting to take its place. We examine what's good and what's not so hot
The Apple iPad has caused something of a stir in the world of technology. While tablet computers have been around for a number of years, it was the launch of Apple’s iPad that really cranked up demand for such devices.
Tablets have large, touch-sensitive screens (or touchscreens) and can be used for anything from watching movies to planning meetings and editing documents. Their simple design and portability make them more convenient to use than laptops or netbooks.
The iPad and the numerous other pretenders to the tablet throne all purport to offer similar features: ease of use, fun, productivity and most importantly, a huge selection of ‘apps’.
These apps, or applications, are pieces of software, much like programs that are found on a conventional PC. They range from games to text editors to calendars, personal organisers, photo editors and much more besides.
However, with so many tablet computers now flooding the market, deciding which one to choose can be difficult. But worry not, because Computeractive is here to clear up all the confusion.
An early dose of tablets
The history of tablet computers actually goes back quite a few years. Ten years ago, for instance, you could buy chunky tablet PCs running a specially designed version of Windows. Many big names got in on the tablet game, including Panasonic, HP and Acer.
However, these early contenders offered a frustrating experience, with poor battery life and relying on fiddly stylus-like pens for control. Basically, the first tablet PCs were underwhelming and didn’t sell well.
So the word ‘tablet’ went into hiding for a few years while technology matured. When the fingertip-controlled iPad pitched up in 2010 it proved hugely successful, shifting millions of units each month – and crowning Apple as king of the tablet manufacturers.
Many companies are now trying to compete with Apple and, as a result, buyers are now faced with dozens of different tablet makes and models.
Touch to launch
But what exactly is a tablet? Is it a laptop with no keyboard? Is it just a big smartphone? Or is it something else entirely? The answer is that it is a mix of all of these things and, depending on what you want to do with a tablet, maybe more besides.
Web browsing is perhaps the most popular activity for tablet owners, but reading and replying to emails and messages, playing games, checking calendars and performing simple productivity tasks, such as editing documents, is also possible.
At a glance, the technical specifications of some tablets might look similar to those of a PC, with references to specs such as processor speed, memory and connection ports. However, while some of this is useful to know, the experience of using a tablet is far more important than the stuff inside that drives it. Basically, if a tablet works smoothly and is a pleasure to use then its technical make-up means little.
In recent months we’ve reviewed nearly 20 tablets, some excellent and some downright awful. The good news is they are getting gradually better, with improved operating systems and build quality. But what should you look out for when making a decision on what tablet is right for you?
The type of operating system is an important consideration when buying a tablet, not least because there are some appalling efforts on the market. There are two main contenders for tablets. The first is iOS, which is owned by Apple and powers the iPad (and also iPhones and iPods).
The other is Android, which is made by Google, and is used on just about everything else. This operating system is the most problematic from a buyer’s perspective because there are a number of different versions around – some good and some bad.
Tablets such as the excellent Motorola Xoom and the Asus Eee Pad Transformer both use the latest version of Android, 3 (codenamed Honeycomb): this was the first version of Android designed specifically with tablets in mind. However, many Android tablets, especially cheaper models, run on older versions of Android (codenamed 2.1 Éclair, 2.2 Froyo or 2.3 Gingerbread).
These operating systems were designed for phones and scaling them up to work on tablets doesn’t work very well. If you’re looking for an Android tablet, then, anything older than version 3 should be avoided (or at least check if the tablet can be upgraded to use the latest version). Several Android tablets now run 3 or 3.1, with 3.2 models appearing too.
Confusingly, and for reasons best known to themselves, some manufacturers have released tablets that use their own customised versions of the Android operating system, that limit access to applications and include features that simply don’t work.
With Android, it is also essential to ensure that the device is certified by Google as being ‘Android compatible’, otherwise it won’t be able to access all the features of the operating system, including the Android Market (which is the place to download apps; the iOS equivalent being the App Store – but more on apps in a little while).
The operating system obviously has a significant influence on the usability of a tablet. But in turn, usability can be a matter of both taste and need.
Apple iOS, for instance, has a slick look and feel and, because Apple controls every last detail of the iPad’s make-up, it is consistent throughout and runs smoothly. However, the user’s ability to customise the experience is far more limited when compared to Android because Apple doesn’t want anyone messing too much with the iPad’s interface – even the owner.
By contrast, Android can be customised in a multitude of ways, from customised home pages to applying ‘skins’ that give the operating system an entirely different look.
Another area of criticism for iOS is its lack of support for Flash content. Apple cites security reasons for this but a lot of websites – including the likes of the BBC - still rely on Flash to publish video, audio and animated content – and all these features remain inaccessible to iPad users. Conversely, Android has embraced Flash so, as long as the hardware is up to the job, Android tablet owners can enjoy Flash websites.
Elsewhere, the Blackberry Playbook uses its own operating system and the recently discontinued HP Touchpad employs an operating system called WebOS.
As a footnote Novatech’s nTablet, Acer’s Iconia Tab W500 and Viewsonic’s Viewpad 10 tablets all use Windows 7 as their operating system. The devices themselves vary in quality but all have one fatal flaw: Windows 7 is poor on tablets.
Hand in hand with the operating system come apps – the programs that can be downloaded to a tablet to add tools and features. Both Android Market and Apple’s App Store have a huge number of apps, now measured in the hundreds of thousands.
With such metrics in play, there’s an app for everything and everyone. Indeed, many apps appear in both stores.
The quality of a tablet shouldn’t be decided by how many apps it has – but it is an important factor. For example, the now-defunct HP Touchpad is a great piece of technology, but with the product cast off by HP, the prospect of anyone developing any apps for it is remote. And why would you buy a computer with no software?
The Android Market operates with few rules, so quality control is as good as non-existent. Conversely, Apple imposes tight regulations on iOS developers and, if Apple doesn’t like an app, it doesn’t get into the App Store.
Even so, the App Store has no shortage of appalling or pointless apps: Apple is more concerned about keeping offensive material out of the App Store than deciding whether or not the latest platform game is worth playing.
In both cases, then, finding the best apps can be a bit like hunting for a needle in a haystack full of ugly, unreliable or just plain worthless software.
Another key appeal of tablets is their portability – so size and weight should be considered carefully. Tablets might all look similar but, in fact, the weight can vary a lot. An iPad 2, for instance, is a little over 600g, while the Motorola Xoom is 100g heavier.
The Samsung Galaxy Tab, meanwhile, weighs 565g. This is lighter even than the iPad 2, despite the Galaxy Tab having a bigger display (10.1in compared to the iPad 2’s 9.7in screen). The smaller 7in version of the Galaxy Tab weighs just 380g. Smaller still and ‘tablets’ start entering into smartphone/tablet hybrid territory.
It doesn’t matter how fast a tablet’s processor is or how much memory it has if it takes half-a-dozen attempts to respond to your touch gestures.
As a rule, cheaper tablets tend to compromise on the quality of the touchscreen. This can have an impact on the viewing angle, so the screen needs to be held just so for viewing.
Many tablets have overly shiny screens that reflect everything, especially in bright conditions. The iPad has an excellent screen, as does the Asus Eee Pad Transformer, but some are wretched – so it pays to look before buying.
Cheaper tablets can be unresponsive and slow. Typically, tablets priced below the £250 mark need very careful consideration because the old adage of getting what you pay for often rings true here.
A common criticism of Apple products is a lack of connections and the iPad is no different. There are no USB or HDMI ports, with the only connection being Apple’s proprietary connector that is used to charge the unit and connect it to a computer.
Apple sells a range of accessories that extend the connectivity options, including an HDMI adapter to connect the iPad to a modern TV – but these carry premium price tags (£35 for the adapter, and you’d still need an HDMI cable).
Most other tablets are festooned with sockets. It is quite common to find USB ports on tablets, along with HDMI sockets and memory card slots.
Wireless connectivity is more important and also a bit more confusing. Many tablets, the iPad included, come in both Wifi and 3G versions (or both combined), meaning they can connect to the internet in different ways. Wifi-only tablets require access to a wireless network, so you’ll need to be at home or near a Wifi hotspot to go online.
On the other hand, 3G can connect via 3G mobile phone networks, and require a SIM (much like a mobile phone). You should be aware that 3G data plans can be expensive and coverage in some parts of the UK can be poor – and you’ll pay more for the 3G tablet in the first place (£100 more in the case of the iPad).
Much like a computer, the main purpose of storage on a tablet is for software (apps), music, photos and movies but not really so much for documents. Most tablets are offered with either 16GB or 32GB capacities.
This might sound tiny compared with modern PCs, where hard disks are now measured in hundreds or even thousands of gigabytes. However, tablet apps tend to be smaller than their desktop computer equivalents and, unless you’re planning to install an awful lot of media, then the capacity isn’t something to worry about too much.
There are a few other features to look out for in a tablet depending on what you want to do with it. Most have one or two built-in cameras, but these tend to be pretty basic – for use with video-chat software such as Skype (or Apple’s Facetime, in the case of the iPad).
Similarly, location tools such as compasses and GPS and orientation technology such as gyroscopes and accelerometers are common – and all add to the tablet experience. The first two, for instance, can be used in combination with satellite-navigation software; while the latter pair combine to make games more interesting, with tilt and turn controls.
The tablet market is still young. We’ll make no bones about it – the iPad is still the best tablet available. However, the Android-powered Motorola Xoom and Asus Eee Pad Transformer are both excellent and a number of big names are yet to enter the fray, with Sony recently announcing plans to release two tablet devices at some point this year.
While there are many poor devices that should be avoided at all costs, tablets are undoubtedly exciting pieces of technology. For surfing the web, catching up on TV, playing games, keeping in touch with friends and more besides, a good tablet can be a great buy.
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