July 8, 2012

So, you wanna buy a tablet.... now what?

So, since I'm stuck - napless - in a cafe, again, I figured if I am going to look like a hipster, I may as well blog like a hipster.

*Sips a frozen latte while listening to underground indie music you've never heard of on last.fm through beats™ earbuds playing on my iPhone 4S whilst type on my MacBook Pro --- ok, only the MBP part of that is true, the music is video game soundtracks and they are on my laptop, and the headphones are generic.  But I DO have a goatee and black plastic glasses!*

So I will use this time to share some thoughts on my various electronic devices.  No less than 6 of which are with me at this table in the restaurant right now.

I've been testing tablets for the past 8 or 9 months now - ever since the great Touchpad Fire Sale of 2011 got me to jump into the tablet world with both feet.  Since then I have owned over a dozen tablets, and still have a good number of them. Different operating systems, different brands, different price points, and different features. And I have learned a lot. Rather than breaking down each tablet feature-by-feature, I would like to share some general thoughts on what to look for when you are in the market for a tablet.

How to Pick the Tablet that is Right for You

WHY? - The very first thing you need to do, and this is KEY, you need to figure out why you want a tablet before you know which one to get.

Let me ask it a different way - what do you want to DO with your tablet? Be as specific as possible. Do you want to play games? watch movies? take pictures? stream videos? video chat? read and send emails? write reports? Are there specific apps you know you need/want? Netflix, Hulu, Facebook, Skype, Instagram, Angry Birds? Are there things you want to work with your tablet? Do you want to plug it into a TV? Do you want to stream media to your game system? Do you want to use it as remote for your laptop?

Put some thought into that. Because it will determine what you want to buy.

Touchscreen - Unless you REALLY don't care about this tablet (in which case, why are you reading this?) you should pretty much rule out any tablet with a resistive touchscreen.  There are basically 2 types of touchscreens - resistive and capacitive. You DO NOT want resistive, you DO want capacitive.  Basically resistive is based on pressure on the screen. You are generally limited to 1 point of contact on the screen at a time.  Some do try to offer 2 points, but they aren't very good.  Capacitive uses the conductive nature of our skin. It can support 3 or 4 or 5 or even up to 10 points of contact at a time.  This allows for things like pinch-and-zoom, playing chords on a virtual piano, or other touch-based gestures.

If it says "resistive" anywhere in the description, it's an instant "pass".

Operating System (OS) - The first major division is operating system. At this point, it is a 2 horse race, but in a few months another contender will take the field. But don't rule out "dead" operating systems automatically. The best tablet OS I have tried is actually webOS.  That thing is AWESOME. True multitasking, easy of control.  It really outshone both Android and iOS. The only problem is, there are very few apps, and no current development for it.  Plus, you can only get it on a handfull of outdated phones and the one tablet. There is also BlackBerry Tablet OS, also called PlayBook OS. I was not impressed by it at all. There were virtually NO apps (far less than even WebOS has), however, the more recent versions of the OS do support Android apps - so your app choice is far less limited than it has been.

But the real question for most people is Android or iOS. Google or Apple.  For most people I would suggest Android. The reasons are many, far greater choice, less lock-in, generally speaking - lower cost, the devices have a far wider range of features, and tend to work with any computer. Basically, if you do not already have 3 or more Apple devices, steer clear of the iPad. If you already have an iPhone and/or an iPod Touch, and you use a Mac as your primary computer - then you probably want an iPad.  If for no other reason, the apps you bought for you other iDevice will be available for your iPad.

Let's assume you are not an Apple user, and you are trying to figure out which Android tablet to get. I will suggest staying away from anything that is overly "branded" - such as the Kindle Fire or the Nook Tablet. I know they are cheaper - but that lower price comes at a cost.  The interface is weird, and it's hard to do "normal" tablet things. Basically these are designed to lock you into their system.  They give you a good deal on the tablet so you will buy all your content from them. And they mess with the interface to make it hard for you not to use their systems. It is possible to "root" these devices and get rid of all the proprietary stuff and make them work like standard Android Tablets - but unless you are into modding / hacking / rooting / jail-breaking your devices already, it is probably not worth it for you. I have a Nook Color (the precursor to the Nook Tablet) and I know someone who has /sent back/ a Kindle Fire because the Amazon-ification made the device useless to him.

So you want a "vanilla" aka normal Android tablet. There are still a lot of numbers and strange codenames out there. For tablets, Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) - 3.0 (aka Honeycomb) - 4.0 (aka Ice Cream Sandwich) and the recently announced 4.1 (Jelly Bean) are the main ones you will be seeing. Obviously the higher the number, the better. Anything 2.2 or lower should be completely avoided. I would almost say 2.3 is out of the question at this point, but there are still some cool devices out there that haven't been updated yet.

RECAP - Unless you are a Mac fan, get an Android tablet that isn't locked into some company's weird user interface and has a recent version of the OS, 2.3 or higher, and the higher the better. Not matter what - CAPACITIVE SCREEN only - NEVER resistive.

Some things I think would be good for anyone, no matter what you are looking for. 

  • WiFi-N & BlueTooth
  • Charging over USB
  • Camera
  • Flash Card Slot / Expandable Memory
  • Video-out
  • Capacitive Multitouch Touchscreen (just in case you forgot)
  • Read Reviews

WiFI-N and BlueTooth - Obviously you want WiFi. WiFi-G is "good enough" - but N is better, and you won't have any problem finding that.  You also can't go wrong with getting a tablet with BlueTooth.  BT makes transferring files easier, opens up all kinds of peripheral possibilities and is close to universally available.

Charging over USB - Also, something that a lot of people fail to look for, or even know they should look for, is charging over USB. It is a pain in the neck to have to carry around a special power adapter for your tablet, when a USB cable is all you should really need - both for charging and syncing your device. I'm not going to say that's a deal breaker - but if you are hemming and hawing between two devices, and one charges over USB and one doesn't - pick the one that does.  My primary tablet (Acer Iconia Tab A100) does /not/ charge over USB, and I have had 2 (TWO!) of Acer's proprietary bulky stupid ugly wall wart power adapters BREAK on me in less than 6 months. Thankfully they were covered by warranty, but the point is, the stupid thing doesn't have to EXIST much less keep breaking. A simple "charge over USB" option makes life a lot easier for everyone.

Camera - Even if you don't think you need a camera on your tablet, you want a camera on your tablet. There are so many things it is useful for. Taking pictures, obviously, and recording video - those are a given. But there are apps that let you scan a bar code and comparison shop for that exact item on the web, or even in nearby brick-and-mortar stores.  There are augmented reality games, and other codes that you can scan that link to websites. You can also use it to "scan" documents, so you can turn that hand-written note into a digital image and email it to yourself, or take pictures of all those business cards you have and clean up your wallet. Back facing cameras are good for doing normal camera-like things. If you think about it, all non-tablet / non-notebook cameras are "back facing" - meaning they face the same direction as your eyes - they point away from you so can take a picture of what you are looking at. Front facing cameras are primarily for video-chat, or for recording video podcasts if you really think people want to watch you talk.  (For examples of such insane vanity, check out my YouTube Channel - youtube.com/chadwsmith.)

Flash Card slot / Expandable memory - One of the biggest determinators of price that really shouldn't be is storage space. For example, the iPad charges $100 for adding 16 GB of storage (the 16 GB WiFi-only model is $499 and the 32 GB WiFi-only model is $599 - there is nothing different between the two other than that 16 GB of storage). That is crazy. a 32 GB SD card costs less than $40, less than $20 if you shop around and/or wait for a sale.  There is no reason on earth to pay $100 stinking dollars for a messily 16 GB of storage.  (That is yet another reason to go Android and not iOS.) But even non-Apple devices charge way too much for onboard storage.  That is why a flash card slot is vital.  Micro-SD or full-sized SD are the two main options you will find.  The full-sized SD slot is better, (SD cards are cheaper, there are adapters that will let you use Micro-SD or Mini-SD cards in a full-sized slot, but you can't do it the other way around) - but they are less common, especially on smaller devices. Just be sure the slot is compatible with higher-capacity cards, you'll see things like "Micro-SDXC compatible" or "supports up to 32 GB". Older cards were limited to 4 GB or 8 GB. But there is no reason a tablet made in the last 2 years shouldn't support the newer, higher capacity cards.

Video Out - HDMI or mini-HDMI are the main ways to connect your tablet to an external monitor or TV, but they are not the only way (but are the best way, IMHO). Some older tablets (the iPad included) have adapters that go to component, composite, DVI, DisplayPort/Thunderbolt, or even VGA cables. Some of these plug into special video-out ports, others actually plug into the headphone jack. But the best option is HDMI.  HDMI supports very high resolutions, (over even double-1080p which is for 3D video in full 1080p) and carries audio as well. And pretty much any TV or monitor made in the last 5 years will have at least one HDMI port. Having video out on your tablet opens up a world of possibilities, from displaying presentations on the road for work, to turning your tablet into a multiplayer video game console at home, or sharing a movie with your friends on the big screen. Make sure to have this option on your tablet, even if you don't think you will need it right-away.

Capacitive Multitouch Touchscreen - Seriously. I mean it. Do not buy resistive anything, ever.

Read Reviews - Both "professional" reviews and user reviews. Find out what real people who have actually used the device think about their experience. But always be wary of reviews that are too extreme. Meaning if they just think it is the best thing ever to be made by anyone ever EVER! then take that with a grain of salt. Same thing for people who think it is dog poop. Extreme reviews pretty much cancel each other out. Now if all the reviews say it is horrible, or awesome, then ok. And in either case, read the review for actual helpful content - WHY is it awesome? WHAT makes it horrible? Not just "It's great" or "It sucks" - the content is what deserves your attention.

Other questions

What brand name? Cheap overseas products? What about contracts? 3G/4G? Game controls? Tech Specs? Windows 8?

Brand Names / Cheap oversea products - Brand names are not the only or best indicator of quality. From what I understand, there are actually very few actual companies that make tablets.  For example, the Apple iPad (and the iPhone and the iPod Touch) is made by Foxconn. So no matter what brand name you see - Sony, Acer, Motorola, etc. - you are really getting a product from one of those 4 or 5 tablet makers. So don't think that because you like Brand-X's other products better than Brand-Y that Brand-X's tablet is the one for you.  Look at the actual features.  This also means that those "cheap knock-off" tablets from overseas that cost less than half of the brand-name products are probably made in the same factory. That doesn't mean cheaper is always better.  Again, look at the actual features offered.  And read reviews (see above).

Contracts & 3G/4G  - Someone will also look at buying a tablet with a contract. My advice - DO NOT DO IT. Most users, even those with built-in 3G/4G, use their tablets on WiFi the vast majority of the time. And the little you "save" off the price of the tablet up-front is GONE within a couple of months of paying for the contract. It is not a good deal at all - ever.  Even if the tablet is "free" with a two-year contract. Look at how the monthly fee is, and calculate how long it would take you to buy a tablet if you just put that money in a jar each month. If you are really worried about having the internet with you all the time - get a device a mobile hot-spot, or tether through your smart phone.  If you already have a 3G/4G connection on a SIM card, then maybe getting 3G/4G built in to your device is worth checking out - but make sure your tablet is compatible with your service.

Game controls - There are a number of cheap overseas tablets on the market today that offer built-in game controls. Now mostly, these are being sold by companies that have made game systems in the past.  No, not Nintendo, Sony, or Microsoft - or even Sega.  No I'm talking about little handheld game systems that are primarily used to emulate other systems - like Nintendo, Sega, etc.. So you won't really run into these Android tablets unless you are purposefully looking for a game system. However, they are a pretty neat idea. I haven't yet tried one, but I am very tempted to. Some are pretty cheap tablets, and they come with a lot of the must-have features listed above, so it's an option that is out there, and I just wanted to make sure you were aware of them.  JXD and Yinlips are the 2 main brands of Android game-systems that I am aware of. These game tablets end up looking very much like a Sony PS Vita or the bottom-half of a Nintendo 3DS (the DS touchscreen is resistive, btw, but since it's a game system and NOT a tablet, it's ok - still not GOOD, but it gets a pass this time).

Tech Specs - Why haven't I said anything about CPU clock-speed, or how many cores it needs, or RAM? Because what you need on that front will widely be determined by what you want your device to do, and when you buy it.  If you are reading this post a year or even a few months after I post it - my numbers would be meaningless to you.  Obviously, the faster, the better. So use your best judgement there, and always compare multiple devices before making a decision.

Windows 8 - I can not talk about Windows 8 tablets because they haven't been released yet at the time I am writing this. But I will say that they have the potential to be a huge game changer. If done well, they will offer a full-fledged desktop operating system on a tablet. Honestly this isn't new, I mean even Windows XP had a "tablet version" and that was a decade ago. The difference is this time is that in 2002, a "Tablet PC" was a laptop with a resistive touchscreen meant to be used with a stylus, or a pen-driven screen.  It wasn't touch-based, nor meant to be used with your hands. I have tried the Windows 8 Consumer Preview on my laptop, and - UGH - it sucked.  But that was because my computer is not touch screen. So all the so-called "improvements" were pointless to me - or, worse yet, made Windows 8 HARDER to use than Windows 7. I can see, though, if I was using Windows 8 on a tablet, then I would prefer it to Windows 7.  Another note on Windows 8, there will be 2 major divisions (and only Gates knows how many "editions") - Windows 8 and Windows RT. They will be marketed as basically the same thing, just one is cheaper because it runs on ARM processors instead of x86 / x64 processors. No. They may look and act the same - but they are completely different operating systems. And this means the programs you already use on Windows today WILL NOT WORK on Windows RT unless the producers of the program port it to the new system.  So don't buy a Windows RT Tablet and expect it to run all your software. Just like don't buy an iPad and expect it to run your Mac OS X programs.  They are two different things.

I hope that helps! Have fun shopping. Let me know what you end up deciding to get.

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James said...

I have the "iPad" since I have an iPhone(3GS) and a Macbook(MB403ll/a).

Yankeee49 said...

Thanks for this common sense reminder to consumers tired of getting the run-around.

Will stop back at the site, often.

Chad said...

Thanks Yankeee. I appreciate the comment! And I am glad this could help. Hope you saw the follow up article, too.


Stop by the blog anytime. :)

Chad said...

James - you should totally get an iPad. Make me a good enough offer and you can buy mine. I'm not using it. :P

JAmes said...

I've been reading your blog for a while now today. Very useful and interesting. KEep u the good work. I'll bookmark it, just like obscurehandhelds lol (Icame from there!)


Chad said...

Thanks, James.

I appreciate the comments. Glad you have found the info useful.