How to buy the best tablet

How to buy the best tablet

by Adam Marshall

Hudl, iPad, Samsung - or a completely different tablet? Whether you're after a cheap tablet or a large-screen one, this expert guide will help you pick out the ideal tablet for you.

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What is a tablet?

Tablets are slim touchscreen computers that work in a similar way to smartphones. Apple iPads are the tablets most people think of first, but various tech manufacturers are competing to produce the best tablet. Samsung, Google, Amazon and Microsoft all have tablets to rival Apple’s.

Tablets tend not to come with keyboards, so they’re not perfect for a full day’s work. But they're portable, turn on quickly and provide instant access to the internet. This makes them ideal for browsing the web, emailing and casual gaming.

All tablets can connect to wi-fi and some models also have 3G or 4G mobile internet connectivity. They don't tend to have wired internet connection ports - so you'll need to have access to wireless internet to get the most from your device.

See if it’s worth paying extra with our guide to wi-fi or 3G and 4G tablets.

Tablets can do some of the things a phone does, some of the things a laptop does and a few things that only a tablet can do. But can a tablet replace your laptop?

Pros: Tablets combine web browsing, video watching, ebook reading, photography and emailing - and all in a mobile device with the dimensions of a magazine. 

Cons: Chunkier and less mobile than a smartphone, but with less power than a laptop - tablets may give you the worst of both worlds. If you already own both of those other devices, you may consider a tablet an unnecessary luxury.

Are cheap tablets worth buying?

If a deal seems too good to be true, that's usually because it is. And the same goes for tablets – it's probably best to steer clear if you spot a tablet for less than £100, as poor screens and weak batteries can mean you've wasted your money.

But there are exceptions, and if you take a look through our in-depth reviews there are reasonably priced gems to be found. If you find a bargain with a battery life of around nine hours, a good screen resolution and actual (not just ‘claimed’) memory storage of more than 8GB, then you're off to a good start.

If you're hoping for a big-screen model with the latest processor, then you’ll have to spend more.

Pros: Some of the most popular tablets that we've reviewed - including the Tesco Hudl 2 and Google Nexus 7 (2) - can be bought for around the £100 mark.

Cons: If you're hoping for a screen size of more than 8.5 inches, acres of memory space or 4G connectivity so that you can browse the web when you're out and about, you can forget about paying less than £200

To see if they're worth buying, find out whether they make it into our rundown of best cheap tablets under £200.

Small 7-inch tablets

Smaller 7-inch tablets are great if you’re on a budget, or if portability is vital. Smaller tablets tend to come with cheaper price tags.

If you want a light, easy-to-hold device. 10-inch tablets tend to be heavier, which can make your wrists ache when holding them up to read for more than 10 minutes.

You want a portable device. 10-inch tablets are very portable, but they can't fit into small bags or jacket pockets like their 7-inch equivalents can.

Pros: If you are looking for a cheap tablet that is good for web browsing and reading ebooks, a smaller tablet could be just the thing – 7-inch tablets tend to be cheaper.

Cons: It's not just screen size that 7-inch tablets tend to lack. More often than not, they also have less generous onboard storage, weaker processors and worse batteries.

Large 10-inch tablets

If you regularly type documents and emails, or if you watch a lot of films on your tablet, a larger screen will make things easier.

Larger tablets tend to offer more storage capacity, such as 32GB and 64GB of storage. This is useful if you want to store films, games and music on your tablet. And they're more likely to have ports such as full USB and mini SD slots too, for transferring files and expanding storage.

Pros: Generally speaking, larger displays are better for video watching and doing work on your tablet. Bigger devices are more likely to have better connectivity too, with some hosting full-sized USB ports.

Cons: If you want a Best Buy 10-inch tablet you'll have to pay around £250 for the cheapest on test, with most premium models costing more than £300.

What other tablet features should I consider?

Still struggling to make up your mind? We've singled out the key tablet features you need to be aware of when buying your tablet.

Tablet storage space

Cheaper tablets tend to have 8GB or 16GB built-in, while more expensive tablets offer 32, 64 or even 128GB of space. The storage space is used to store apps, music, videos and photos. As a rough guide, a two-hour HD film uses about 3.6GB and 12 albums of music about 1GB.

The operating system and pre-installed apps take up some of the space. Our tests measure just how much memory is really available, once the OS has been taken into account so you know how much is free for you to use.

Many tablets have a memory card slot for expanding the storage of your device. Apple iPads don’t come with a memory card slot. Alternatively, you can use online cloud storage to store content.

Tablet screen quality

The best tablet screens show punchy colours and images that look as sharp as on a printed page. The detail of a screen, called the resolution, is measured in pixels. The more pixels, the more detailed the screen should be.

A Retina display is a screen technology on the latest iPads. Apple claims the screen is so sharp that you won't be able to detect the individual pixels - supposedly making it as good a display as the human eye can comprehend.

Other manufacturers have begun to fit Organic Light Emitting Diode (OLED) screens to try to match Apple's Retina display. You may see these billed as AMOLED – Active-Matrix Organic Light Emitting Diode. They tend to produce brighter, smoother images than most LCD technology, but the screens can degrade faster.

Tablet speaker quality

All tablets have a built-in speaker or two, but sound quality isn’t always very good, especially on many cheaper models.

For short video watching it’s usually fine, but if you want to enjoy sound, plug in a good set of headphones as this will improve sound quality considerably.

Tablet camera quality

For the odd snapshot, tablets usually produce acceptable pictures. Quality isn’t as good as on a decent compact digital camera, but one advantage tablets have is that the picture you take is available to view and share on the large tablet screen straight away.

Most models have a second front-facing camera. These tend to have fewer megapixels, but some are still decent enough for passable Skype or video calls, and selfies.

Tablet apps

Short for application, an app is a program that can perform specific tasks. It could be a game, a piece of office software, a news or weather program, a tool to help you find train departure and arrival times, catch up on TV programmes you've missed, or check in on your friends through Facebook.

Some apps are pre-installed on a tablet, though you will want to add more. You can browse through and download the ones you're interested in from app libraries online. Many apps are free, others you have to pay a small amount for.

Now find the perfect tablet for you by checking out our tablet reviews.