Seven questions to ask before taking a tablet
Our reviews give a fantastic insight into each machine’s merits, but before you make a costly decision make sure you’ve answered all the key questions
It’s easy to take a sledgehammer/ walnut approach to tablets and spend more than you need, but just as easy to go too cheap and end up disappointed with your tablet and its limited capabilities. That’s why you should start by considering what you want or need a tablet for and the size you’re going to be comfortable using; then think about your budget.
1 Do you need to go large?
Small-screen 7in to 9in tablets have fallen out of high-end fashion, but if you’re looking for a media consumption device then they still make a lot of sense. They’re lighter and more portable than the bigger-screen tablets, but have more usable screen space than your smartphone, particularly for watching videos, playing games, reading ebooks or browsing the web. The lower weight and smaller size also make a difference if you’re using the device handheld for extended periods, or planning to use it on a plane or train.
Mid-sized tablets with 9in to 11in screens are larger and heavier, but the advantages of a bigger screen might make the shift up worth your while. You’ll have more space for browsing and online shopping, a more immersive streaming experience, and more screen real estate for running demanding image-editing or productivity apps. It’s at this size, too, where add-on keyboards become worthwhile; clip one on and a decent mid-sized tablet can become a mobile workhorse.
Big-screen tablets (11in and up) cross further into laptop territory, with even more space for apps and multitasking. However, the larger you go, the more comfort and portability become an issue, although even a 12.9in tablet is going to be lighter and more practical in some conditions than the equivalent 13in laptop.
2 How much power do you need?
It’s no surprise that budget tablets come with low-cost, lowperformance processors and limited quantities of RAM. The specs will still be fine for streaming HD video, reading ebooks and browsing the web, but you’ll find the experience less than snappy – particularly if you’re used to a decent smartphone – and you’ll struggle to run more intensive apps. Older and more basic games might be an option, but demanding titles such as Apex Legends, Genshin Impact and Diablo Immortal won’t be, at least at anything beyond the lowest detail settings.
The more you pay, the more processing power and RAM you’ll have at your disposal. Android tablets will go from mid-range chipsets to the high-end, while the iPad range starts with the speedy A13 Bionic in the ninth generation iPad and goes all the way up to the
M1 and M2 – the exact same chips you’ll find in recent MacBooks and macOS PCs. There’s no real point in going too high if you’re not going to use that kind of performance – it’s wasted on a consumption device – but if you’re thinking of using a tablet as your main device or as a secondary computer, then your applications will run more smoothly with more power at their disposal.
3 Can you skimp on the screen?
No. There are some areas where you can make compromises to get a cheaper tablet, but it’s not worth penny-pinching here. For one thing, resolution matters on a device that you’ll use at less than a bent arm’s length away. Some of the 800 x 1,280 screens on smaller tablets can be usable, but at 11in even a Full HD (1,920 x 1,080) screen can look fuzzy or pixellated, and a higher-resolution screen will be noticeably sharper.
That said, resolution isn’t the only factor. Brightness and contrast arguably make even more of a difference, especially if you’re streaming TV shows and movies. Some tablet screens even support HDR and HDR standards such as Dolby Vision. Colour reproduction is also crucial, particularly if you use your tablet for creative purposes.
One final gotcha. Be aware that, even if your tablet has a Full HD or higher resolution, it might not be able to stream Full HD video from many streaming services unless it has the Widevine DRM certification to do so. Check the specs carefully, and you’ll see some tablets listed as Widevine L3 certified and others as Widevine L1. Widevine L3, which uses software for DRM management, will see you stuck at SD resolutions in Netflix or Amazon Prime. All the tablets on test support Widevine L1.
4 How about audio?
On a smartphone, the speakers aren’t that important; if you’re planning on watching or playing something, headphones will beat the
built-in sound any day. It’s different on a tablet, where decent speakers working in stereo make using them more likely, at least around the home.
It helps, then, to have a solid set of speakers, but don’t get too caught up in the idea of built-in Dolby Atmos audio or other forms of processed surround sound. There’s only so much you can do even with two to four speakers.
5 What other hardware features do I need?
Physical connectivity can be much of a muchness. USB-C is now supported across all but the most budget tablets, though it may be limited to USB 2 or USB 3.2 Gen 1 speeds on cheaper devices. Those standards translate into peak transfer rates of 480Mbits/sec and 5Gbits/sec respectively, compared to the 10Gbits/sec speeds of USB 3.2 Gen 2 and 40Gbits/sec of USB 4 and Thunderbolt 4.
Even so, it’s hard to care as we so rarely transfer files to and from tablets by wire. Instead, focus on wireless connectivity. Bluetooth 5 and Wi-Fi 5 are now the bare minimum you can expect, but some mid-range and high-end tablets now pack Wi-Fi 6 or even Wi-Fi 6E. These will give you better speeds and a more reliable connection if and when you connect to a Wi-Fi 6 or Wi-Fi 6E router.
As for storage, if you’re looking to install a lot of apps and games then you really need more than the base-level 64GB option. True, you can stream media and run apps from a microSD card on some devices, but performance may suffer with your apps, depending on the card. Having more to start with is often a wise investment, if you can afford it.
Finally, cameras. A good or bad
rear camera might not sway things either way, but a good front camera is a must if you’re planning to use your tablet for video chats or conferencing.
How about software?
Apple’s iPad OS is still the gold standard for tablet operating systems, and has evolved to cover more creative and productivity scenarios with features such as multitasking, support for external displays and the new Stage Manager (this organises files and apps to make life more clutter-free). App support is fantastic, with most major apps designed to take advantage of larger screens and multitasking, or available in versions designed specifically for tablets.
By contrast, Android is patchy. Manufacturers such as Samsung, Huawei and Lenovo have designed enhanced UIs with stronger tablet-centric features, but app support remains comparatively slim, while Amazon’s Fire OS – a fork of Android – is more aimed at media consumption than serious creative or productivity applications.
Updates are another key issue. Apple supports new iPads with upgrades for roughly five years – and often more – while Amazon supports Fire OS tablets with at least four years of security updates, though full software updates aren’t guaranteed.
With Android, it depends on the manufacturer and tablet. You may be looking at just one major update and a couple of years of security updates, or this might extend to four years of updates with, say, Samsung’s Galaxy Tab S devices.
This, together with the excellent hardware, is one reason why Apple’s iPads hold their value better than Android and Kindle Fire tablets.
7 What about the extras?
With manufacturers following in the footsteps of Apple and Samsung, tablets are often supported by an ecosystem of firstand third-party accessories, including keyboards, cases, covers and pens. Factor these into your decision and your budget if you plan to use your tablet for productivity or creativity purposes, while a pen can be useful just for taking notes.