The tablet has fallen on hard times recently, with falling sales and heated debate about whether we even need tablets in today’s huge smartphone-driven world.
But there are still plenty of good reasons to consider buying a tablet. Maybe you want a device to occupy your free time or to supplement your TV watching with Twitter. Maybe you don’t need a full-fledged laptop, but need something that’s bigger than a smartphone. Or maybe you’re looking to buy an easy-to-use device for the technophobe in your life.
Whatever the reason, there’s a tablet out there for you. Read on and we’ll help you find the right one for your needs.
MORE: iPad Buying Guide: Which One is Right for You?
Convertible or Stand-Alone Tablet?
When it comes to tablets, you have a choice — do you go with a standard tablet or do you go with a “convertible” tablet?
Stand-alone tablets take the form of oversize smartphones: They consist of one large touch screen, a handful of buttons on the case, a charging connector and little else. They usually weigh between 1 and 2 pounds and are typically less than half an inch thick, so they’re supercompact and portable. You control them using the touch screen, but you can usually pair them with a Bluetooth keyboard.
Convertible devices try to combine the flexibility of the PC with the convenience of a tablet. These 2-in-1 devices either come with a detachable keyboard or they’re really just a full-size laptop that features a touch screen.
Detachables look and work like stand-alone tablets, but snap on to a specially designed keyboard attachment, and you can use them as laptop replacements. Some detachables come with the keyboard, while others require you to buy the keyboard separately, like with the iPad Pro and its $169 Smart Keyboard.
Microsoft’s Surface Book takes the concept a step further, in that it’s a full-fledged laptop with a detachable display that you can use as a stand-alone tablet.
Tablet screen sizes range from 6 inches on the low end, all the way up to a gargantuan 18.4 inches on Samsung’s Galaxy View tablet. You’ll find that most tablets fall into the 7- to 10-inch range: If you’re looking for something small and light that you can take with you anywhere, a small tablet such as the iPad mini or 7-inch Amazon Fire tablet is the way to go.
Tablets in the 10-inch range, like the iPad Air 2, provide a good balance between portability and productivity: They aren’t as easy to use with one hand, but they’re still plenty light and compact. Larger tablets, such as the Galaxy View or the 12.9-inch iPad Pro, are less portable, but they can make for suitable laptop replacements.
Notebook-tablet hybrids typically feature screen sizes around 11 to 13 inches, but they tend to be bulkier, so they aren’t ideal if size and weight are your main priorities.
Which Operating System?
The latest and greatest version of Apple’s mobile operating system is iOS 9. It powers all of Apple’s current-generation iPad models (as well as smartphones). And it comes with a number of additions that give your iPad a little extra flexibility, thanks to new split-screen multitasking features.
Your hardware options are limited with iOS, relative to Android and Windows, since you have only Apple’s iPad line to choose from. The options include the iPad Pro, iPad Air 2, iPad Air, iPad mini 4 and iPad mini 2. On the other hand, iOS users have hundreds of thousands of apps at their disposal through the App Store.
When it comes to Android tablets, you have no shortage of options — both in terms of hardware and software.
While Android is, ostensibly, Google’s mobile operating system, there is no unified Android. The company releases a new update to the OS every year or so, and some tablets get updated while others do not. Plus, most tablet makers customize Android to suit their needs, or add in features to differentiate their tablets from the competition. Samsung tablets, for instance, come with a customized interface that integrates a number of Samsung-specific apps and features. Amazon’s Fire tablets run a heavily customized version of Android that Amazon calls Fire OS.
You also have a plethora of hardware options, too — from the aforementioned Fire tablets to Samsung’s wide-ranging offerings to the Asus ZenPad series, to name just a few.
Windows 10, the newest version of Windows, builds upon the foundation Microsoft laid in Windows 8 and 8.1. The new OS is easier to use on traditional PCs than Windows 8 was, and it makes using Windows on a tablet much more seamless than before. Windows 10 offers several concessions to tablet users, such as large, touch-friendly window controls and buttons, a Tablet Mode (which expands the Start menu to fill the whole screen) and various touch-screen gestures.
Windows remains heavily oriented around the keyboard and mouse, though, so some apps and features may be awkward to use via a touch screen. It makes sense, then, that many Windows tablets are of the convertible kind.
MORE: Top 8 Windows Tablet-Laptop Hybrids
How Will You Use It?
For general home use — such as Web browsing, email, listening to music and so on — most any tablet out there will fit the bill. You probably won’t need to go with a superhigh-end tablet, so look for tablets that cost less than $300. The $179.99 Lenovo Tab 2 A10 is one of our favorites.
If you plan to use your tablet as a business machine — or as a laptop replacement — you’ll want one with at least a 9-inch screen. The iPad Air and iPad Air 2, Google Nexus 9 and larger Samsung Galaxy models are all good choices.
If you have the budget, the 12.9-inch iPad Pro ($799 and up), Microsoft Surface Pro 4 ($899 and up) and Samsung Galaxy Note Pro 12.2 ($649 and up) are very good options. Each of these comes with handy multitasking features, optional keyboard attachments and pen-input support.
Since iOS is the center of the mobile gaming universe, an iPad is a good bet. The iPad Air 2 offers a good balance between portability and power, but starting at $499, it isn’t cheap. Other options abound, however, such as the $199 gaming-centric Nvidia Shield tablet K1. This Android tablet is built around Nvidia’s Tegra K1 quad-core mobile processor and features an 8-inch, 1920 x 1080-pixel display and 2GB of memory.
What about Windows-based convertible tablets? Since these devices run full-fledged Windows, you can play a good many PC games on them. They won’t keep up with high-end gaming rigs, but many are more than suitable for more casual PC gaming.