By Chris Messenger | Published 25/01/2013
The New Year may have only just begun, but there’s never been a better time to buy a tablet PC. Last year, for the first time ever, affordable tablets emerged that were actually worth buying and major brands dropped the prices of their flagship models considerably. Of course, an iPad or a Windows 8 tablet is still going to take a sizeable chunk out of your wallet, but that’s just the way of things at the moment.
However, as of the time of writing (Jan 2013), there has never been more choice, more availability or more quality with reach of the average consumer. Here, then, is a list of last year’s winners that, we feel, are worth your attention.
When Apple launched the iPad back in 2010, few could have predicted the kind of impact it would have. Of course, portable computers where nothing new (in fact, by 2010 you were in the minority if you didn’t have at least one laptop in the house). Microsoft had released the ‘Microsoft Tablet PC’ in 2002, but it was met with about as much enthusiasm as a fart in church, before being quickly and quietly forgotten about.
The concept for the tablet computer went back even further than that, with numerous engineers attempting to create an interactive slate with all the attributes of a desktop PC many times over the years.
The best and most well known of these attempts was the ‘Dynabook’, a prototype computer designed by American scientist Alan Kay all the way back in 1968. Like many of Kay’s ideas, the ‘Dynabook’ proved to be considerably ahead of its time (and was never mass-produced), but you could still argue that it paved the way for both laptop computers and tablet PCs in the decades that followed.
Once the iPad’s release finally proved the commercial viability of such a project (under intense ridicule and scepticism from almost everyone else, it must be said), it seemed that every electronics manufacturer on Earth would release a tablet PC over the next two years. The marketplace blossomed, and tablets became the darling of the consumer electronics world.
Tablets have become the missing links between smart phones and computers, with phone manufacturers taking tentative steps into the realm of computers and a wild, heady climate of cross pollination developing in the process.
With Industry Goliaths Microsoft largely looking the other way when it came to tablets, a host of other, wholly unexpected companies have launched their own computers. Google.com funded the development of the ‘Android’ operating system (an OS initially developed for smart phones) and released it commercially in 2007. Android has since become the de facto OS for the tablet PC. Next, Google joined first with HTC, then Samsung to produce their own line of ‘Nexus’ smart phones, eventually partnering with Asus to create their own tablet – a direct evolution of the Nexus line.
Not to be outdone, online shopping giants Amazon.com launched their own tablet, the Kindle Fire (currently in its second generation) in 2011. Companies like Motorola and Research In Motion (the makers of Blackberry phones) started putting out their own tablets, directly competing with the established computer industry players. Elsewhere, several new companies sprang up, seemingly out of nowhere, purely to create tablet PCs at budget prices, hoping to make a name for themselves in this glorious ‘opening up’ of the computer market. It was as if a virtual Berlin Wall had toppled and phone companies, web developers and computer engineers were rushing over the rubble at all angles to hug each other in the spirit of fairer competition and constant innovation (or something like that, anyway).
The development of the tablet PC has been meteoric, and yesterday’s ‘top level’ model can easily become today’s dog-eared, bargain basement offering. So, if you want to buy a tablet, but you don’t know where to start, we’ve put together an informative (but not overly technical) first time buyer’s guide.
What to look for in a new Tablet PC
OK, so without further ado, here are 5 questions you should ask of any salesman. Its pretty basic stuff really, but we’ll start easy and go from there.
On any computer, the OS is important. The OS directly governs the way you interact with your computer. If you can’t get on with the OS, you are not going to get on with the computer you buy. We all know how to use MS Windows, at least basically, because we learn about it at school, use it at work and it is industry standard for pretty much all industries. Personally, however, I can’t stand its illogical layout and habit of overcomplicating even the simplest of functions. My preferred OS, then, is Apple’s equivalent; you’ll have your own preferences, too.
Most tablets run on some version of Android, which was developed for mobile phones, so if you already have an Android phone – you’ll have nothing to worry about. However, The Blackberry Playbook runs its own unique ‘Blackberry OS’ and there are quite a few other operating systems out there. It pays to have a play in the store, or at least check out some online videos, before committing yourself (or your money) to an unfamiliar OS.
For a long time, tablet PCs were all pretty similar under the bodywork, at least on paper. Most tablets operated a 1.2 GHz processor and had between 512MB and 1GB of RAM. However, that doesn’t mean that they operated to the same standards. The vast majority of tablets employ a processor design that was pioneered by a company called ARM and then licensed out all over the world (hence the large discrepancy in performance/running speed). If I draw the blueprints to a new sports car and you build my prototype out of cardboard – I’m not responsible for what happens when you take it through the car wash, y’know?
ARM’s ‘Cortex A’ is the most commonly used processor design, but that has quite a few variations, all of which have positive and negative features. It isn’t necessary to know all of this, but a basic grasp of the different types will serve you well. For example, Coretex A5 is a single core processor, it isn’t the fastest, but it consumes power at a slower rate, leading to much better battery life. The Coretex A15, on the other hand, is the new kid on the block, running dual (or even quad) core and making your tablet very fast indeed. The current most popular design, however, is the A9, which is usually dual core and runs to about 1.2GHz.
Remember also that your tablet won’t have the same type of memory as your desktop computer. You won’t be able to store all your photos, movie files or music on it, for example. Even a mean machine like the iPad 3 (the newest of Apple’s world dominating devices) can’t cope with too much information clogging up its hard drive. The more you cram onto it, the slower your tablet will ultimately be.
With one or two exceptions, tablet PCs come in two major sizes, a 7” screen and a 10” screen. A 10-inch screen (like the iPad series) is great for video conferencing, watching movies and generally has a clearer touchscreen function (in my opinion). A 7-inch screen, however, is far more portable and travel friendly. 7-inch tablets tend to be lighter as well.
Also, please bear in mind that if you are buying a protective cover for your tablet, you will want to be very specific about the size. A 7.2-inch tablet is not going to fit on a 7-inch cover and many companies will not offer a refund for what is, essentially, your mistake.
This is really only important if you’re planning on shooting videos (not recommended) or having video chats. For everything else, the camera on your phone, or a regular digital camera will actually serve you far better than your tablet’s equivalent will.
If you are planning on making a lot of calls, via Skype or whatever, then I strongly suggest you get a tablet with both front and rear-facing cameras. A tablet that only has one camera (especially a rear-facing one) can be frustrating and bothersome to use, as you’ll be faced away from it when making a call.
There has been a trend in recent months of companies putting out tablets that lack in cameras in order to sell them at a cheaper price. This is all well and good, but you’ll want to make sure you’re getting at least 1.2 Megapixels (5 Megapixels would be ideal) if you want to have a decent conversation.
Without the Internet, your tablet PC would effectively be an expensive paperweight. However, WiFi Internet is a tricky prospect and has yet to be totally perfected. The vast majority of complaints I read about tablets stem from bad Internet connection or sluggish WiFi. The sad truth is that you will experience these issues from time to time and that, for now at least, there is very little you can actually do about it.
A tablet that enables 3G connectivity (another legacy inherited from smart phones) in addition to a basic WiFi setup, is probably a better option than just the basic setup on its own. Most tablets access the Internet ably, but you may often find them to be slightly slower than your desktop computer.
Asus Transformer Infinity Pad
When I reviewed this beast back in November, I said that the Infinity Pad was “probably the best Android tablet in the world right now”. Well, I still think that is the case. If you want the best tablet money can buy, but are sceptical about iOS, then this is the tablet for you. With features like a connectable keypad and a Quad-core, game-friendly CPU, this is a computer expert’s tablet.
So, that’s our 2013 buyer’s guide. What did we miss out? If you have a strong opinion on this or anything else for that matter, feel free to contact us and let us know. As good as 2012 was for tablets, you can expect 2013 to be even better, so keep hitting the site and giving us your feedback. We assure you, the best is yet to come...
Quad Core 1.6 GHz
32, 64 GB
2MP Front / 8MP Back
CloudNine NeuroPad Ultra
Don’t get us wrong; there are far better tablets than this one, but not in its price range. For just £83.99, the NeuroPad Ultra is an excellent bargain. Do not, (I repeat: DO NOT) expect an iPad beater, but feel free to expect a fine and capable machine that has effectively ironed out most of the creases inherent to cheap tablets. It is probably the best cheap tablet out there. Because of the great value it represents, I stand by my decision to include it here.
1.5 GHz Cortex-A8
Google Nexus 7
Another affordable choice that is far better than its price tag might suggest; the Nexus is an absolute joy. Less a specialist tablet and more of a capable, well-built all-rounder, the Nexus is great if you want a tablet but don’t have any one specific function in mind for it. This is the machine that proved to be the equal of the Fire HD and, arguably, bested it.
Google / Asus
Quad-core Tegra 3
1280 x 800 pixels
1.2 MP front-facing
Amazon Kindle Fire HD
This is an excellent tablet and is available at an affordable price. Amongst its many plus points is a beautiful HD screen, dual WiFi antenna and in-built surround sound, especially designed by Dolby. The Kindle Fire HD is a high spec, high tech and yet still somehow very practical choice.
The Fire HD proved to be a major improvement on the original Kindle Fire and yet still maintained everything we liked about that particular tablet. A fine choice if ever there was one.
Android 4.0 (customised)
1.2 GHz Cortex-A9
16, 32 GB
1.3 MP Front
Apple iPad 4 (New iPad)
It doesn’t matter what generation it’s in, the iPad is always worth considering. Superbly designed, supremely user friendly and considerably more versatile than some doubters would have it; the iPad is the undisputed king of the tablets. Last year, iPad just got better and better, with two new generations (3rd & 4th, respectively) as well as a smaller version all released within 12 months.
Also of note is the fact that Apple didn’t up the price of their flagship product when releasing the latest version or the 7 Inch version. If you can afford one, your search should reasonably stop here.
Wifi, 4G, Bluetooth
Dual-core Apple A5X
2048 x 1536 pixels
Vga front / 5MP back
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