Tablet Buying Guide 2013: How to Pick the Right Tablet

Before you go shopping for a tablet, you need to have a plan. And we've got the list of features you should consider.

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You might be looking to snag a tablet for yourself or for your loved one. But before you venture out to a brick and mortar store or get lost scouring for websites and looking for deals, take a step back. Like everything else in life, tablet shopping is easier if you have a plan.

There are so many tablet options available, it's easy to be overwhelmed by all the possible criteria. You'll have to consider size and weight, how long the battery lasts, and which platform offers the apps and services you use the most. Let us help you with our guide on what to look for when you're in the market for a tablet, and what to avoid so that you don't needlessly spend money on something that turns out to be a dud.

Be sure to check up our updated list of the best tablets out on the market right now for specific recommendations.

Choose a platform

Most tablets will let you do common tasks like read books, browse the Web, play music and games, or watch movies and videos. But not all of the platform ecosystems are built the same.

One of the easiest ways to consider which platform best suits you is by looking at the devices you already have. For instance, do you have an iPhone that hooks up to a MacBook or a massive iTunes media library? Then you might want consider the iPad to help seal the circle and keep things easily synced across devices. Or, maybe you're platform agnostic and wouldn't mind a tablet with a bit more malleability? Google's Android-powered Nexus 7 is a worthy choice. Alternatively, if you're a member of Amazon Prime and find yourself pooling money into the site on a constant basis, then consider hooking yourself into its vast array of movies and e-books by bringing home a 7- or 8-inch Kindle Fire HDX.

Bear in mind that not all Android tablets are created equal: many of them either run older versions of Android or the manufacturer will offer up their own version with a customized interface that requires its own learning curve. Companies like Samsung and LG are notorious for this, and they package up the devices with their own bundle of applications--many of which you can't remove.

What will you use it for?

Those of you aching to be productive with a tablet that's easier on your back than a laptop might want to pay mind to Microsoft's Surface 2, which uses a touch-friendly version of Windows 8.1. However, you'll have less of an "entertainment tablet" experience with the absence of the some apps and games that are popular on other platforms. The iPad Air is also good for this reason as Apple offers its iWork productivity suite for tablet users, in addition to iCloud, which works with both your Mac and iPhone as well as your browser.

If you're e-book and movie crazy, any modern device will do, especially since Hulu, Netflix, and the official Amazon Kindle app are available on almost every device.

Go big? Stay small?

After you've determined which ecosystem to stick with, you'll have to pick a size. Tablets come in several sizes, beginning with 7-inch screens and getting as big as 10.1 inches. It's useful to think of it as two size categories: "big" tablets over 9 inches, and "small" tablets in the 7 to 8-inch range.

Smaller tablets travel better because they're lighter and more compact, but you'll also have to consider how the device fits in with the rest of your stuff. For example, the full-size iPad Air will take up almost as much space in your bag as an 11-inch MacBook Air.

The tablet size will also affect how it feels to hold the device. Devices like the second-generation Nexus 7 are comfortable to hold with one hand, but if you like to read, you'll have a better grip on a rocky transit ride with the shorter 7-inch Kindle Fire HDX. Of course, tablet size also determines the display size, which brings us to our next criteria...

Resolution matters

Remember that the bigger the tablet, the bigger the screen size, and the heavier the weight. If multitasking is your main concern and you want a tablet for both productivity and entertainment, a larger screen-size will make everything look better and give you more space to work with, but you'll be carrying more weight around.

A really high-res display like the Retina display in the latest iPad mini from Apple, makes text look crisp and reduces fatigue when reading for long periods. For watching videos and movies or for a tablet that will entertain the kids, it's more important that the screen be large than especially hi-res.

Processor performance

You may not be concerned with having the latest processor--you may not even be familiar with which tablet processors are new and fast and which are old and slow. But going with an older tablet because of its low price point may end up costing you in the long run. As apps and games are updated, they'll require more hardware resources, thus making them incompatible with the hardware you have inside your tablet.

The current processor landscape looks like this: quad-core processors from companies like Qualcomm are all the rage these days and help make for some very speedy devices. They're usually coupled with about 2GB of RAM and can be found in most Android devices, including Samsung's Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 Edition. Nvidia hasn't been too successful in the system-on-a-chip (SoC) wars in the last year, but the initial reviews of the Tegra Note 7 and Microsoft Surface 2 seem to suggest that a revival is on the horizon. Apple makes its own chips, and its latest, the iPad Air, features a very fast 64-bit A7 processor.

Ports

If you're looking for external connectivity, the Surface Pro 2 has the most to offer with both a USB 3.0 port and microHDMI to hook up to your TV. The iPad has one sole proprietary port with a selection of attachable dongles for things like SD cards and USB cameras--all sold separately--while some Android tablets come with either an HDMI or USB port, in addition to a MicroUSB port that sometimes supports Miracast, which tethers the tablet to your TV.

Penning with a stylus

If you like drawing, sketching, or just scratching out ideas, the Android-powered Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 Edition comes with its own dockable stylus called the S-Pen. It features a button you can press with your index finger to bring up additional apps to help you get all of it out on virtual paper. Many Windows 8-based tablets also come with styluses to enable you to take advantage of the built-in digitizer, like the Surface Pro 2, which features Wacom tablet technology.

If you're really keen on the iPad though, you could always look at the vast array of third-party styluses, but the iPad's capacitive screen is not really optimized for stylus input.

Buying a tablet for everyone

It's likely that the tablet you're considering isn't just going to be used by you, but by other members of your family, too. Apple's iPad only offers password-protected restrictions, while both the Kindle Fire HDX and Nook HD+ offer special kid-friendly modes. Amazon calls its feature FreeTime, which lets you control your child's access to content on the device; the Nook offers up to six password-protected profiles with parental controls. Windows 8.1 allows you to set up multiple accounts and set restrictions on them, too.

Android features a better implementation for multi-user accounts by offering restricted profiles in tablets running Android 4.2.2 and later. You can allow each member of your family to have their own profile complete with their own customized Home screen and apps. The restricted profile just ensures that only the main user of the device will have complete access to things like apps and system settings. You can also set it up to keep your kids from going trigger happy in the Google Play store or downloading apps with mature content.

You're ready to buy

Now that you've got your list of things to look for and money burning a hole in your pocket, it's time to finally pick up that tablet.

First and foremost, look for any deals on tablets from your favorite stores. Some previous-generation models may be offered for less, but consider whether their aging processors will outlast the constant barrage of software and app updates. You might find clearance deals on older models of once-popular tablets, and while they'll work fine for sending emails, reading books, and surfing the Web, the buck stops there. If that's really your only interest, grab a device like the last-generation Nexus 7, which is currently going for $99. It won't receive any other Android updates after the current version of KitKat, however. Also, Apple is usually better about keeping older versions of its hardware updated for as long as feasibly possible, and its refurbished iPads and iPad minis aren't a bad idea either.

Don't immediately run to your carrier looking for a deal on a 4G-connected tablet. Many mobile carriers will offer a tablet at a subsidized price, but tablet technology advances so fast that you'll likely either still be paying off that tablet when the new one comes out, or get stuck on contract with something that's in danger of becoming outdated.

This is an updated version of a previous article that includes the most up-to-date information as of Nov. 18, 2013.

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