Talking tablets: Good, better, best...
As tablets increase in range and fall in price, there's never been a better time to buy. But how to find one that suits your needs?
Smaller tablets, such as the 7-inch iPad Mini or the Google Nexus 7, are cheaper and more portable than their bigger siblings, the more common 8.9- to 10-inch tablets, but don't usually have the same grunt. If you're after a compact tablet you can hold in one hand and easily slip into your handbag (or large pocket), then why not go small? But if you're after a more powerful beast for getting the best movie and gaming experience then go for a bigger model.
Resolution is king when it comes to screen quality - the higher the resolution the sharper the image. Resolution is measured by pixels, such as the fourth generation iPad's 2048 x 1536 pixels. There are two basic types of touchscreens: Capacitive and resistive. Resistive touchscreens - often in cheaper models - sense pressure, such as that from a finger or stylus. Capacitive screens don't rely on pressure, instead sensing the conductive properties of certain objects such as your finger. They are more responsive to gestures such as swiping and pinching. Also, check that the screen is multi-touch - able to recognise at least three different touches at once - as this enables handy features such as pinching your fingers to zoom in or out on a screen, and many apps are designed for multi-touch screens. Tablet screens are typically measured in inches, diagonally.
Most tablets have at least 16 gigabytes of inbuilt storage, and some have a range of storage options (the iPad is available in 16GB, 32GB and 64GB versions). Be prepared to pay more for more storage - in Apple's case about $150 more for each storage upgrade. Some tablets (not the iPad) also have memory card slots so you can use a memory card to boost your storage by up to 32GB. If you're just going to use your tablet for light browsing, emailing, web streaming and the odd photograph then you shouldn't need lots of storage, but if you'll be downloading movies, games and lots of apps, go for more.
This software will dictate how you interact with your tablet and the apps you can download. The tablet you buy dictates the operating system you'll use. There are three major operating systems:
1. iOS: Apple's operating system for mobile devices, iOS is widely praised as the most user- friendly software for smartphones and tablets, and it has the biggest range of apps, including 275,000 apps specifically designed for tablets.
2. Android: Google's mobile operating system has been adopted by a range of manufacturers so there are plenty of Android tablets to choose from. Android is more customisable and open than iOS - Google doesn't vet the apps that are developed for it - and has the advantage of seamless integration with hugely popular Google services such as Gmail and Google Maps. Unfortunately, its tablet apps are often rehashed versions of Android smartphone apps rather than tools and games specifically designed for tablets.
3. Windows 8/RT: The new kid on the block and still relatively untested, Windows 8 is Microsoft's latest operating system and has been designed with touchscreen devices front of mind. Although it's still light years behind in terms of apps and other content, it's winning some praise for its usability.
If you're going to use your tablet mainly at home or work then a wi- fi-only tablet (which connects to the web via wi-fi networks) will probably suffice, but if you're roaming and want web on the go, then it's a good idea to spend a bit more for a wi-fi and 3G mobile broadband version.
These are the brains behind your tablet, processing and prioritising all the instructions that allow it - and you - to surf the web, play games and movies. Processor power is measured in Gigahertz (GHz). While the make of the processor is important, as a general rule of thumb the higher the GHz number the faster it is. The number of cores a processor has is also important - dual core processors are better at multitasking than their single core counterparts, and quad-core processors are another step up altogether. If you can, go for at least a 1.2GHz, dual-core. Gamers should look for something faster still. It's important to note that the higher the processor's speed, the more power it will use.
Battery life is important - the point of a tablet is to create and consume content untethered from your power point and on the go. Most of the time battery life is described in milliampere hours (mAh) to give an idea of how long the device will run before the battery needs recharging. The rule of thumb is that the higher the mAh number, the better the battery life, but this is not hard and fast as it depends on the the tablet and what you use it for. A Google search should be able to give you an idea of how many hours a battery lasts for on average. If you can, go for eight hours-plus, and get a tablet with a replacable battery.
The more RAM, or memory, the better. RAM temporarily stores data such as applications or files so they can be easily retrieved, for better performance. If possible go for at least 1GB of RAM.
There are several other hardware features to look for. They include front and back cameras for snapping pics and video calling, memory card slots, high-definition video output jacks, and stereo speakers. Some also come with extras including detachable keyboards - which convert your tablet into a laptop and are handy for serious typing.
* Asus Google Nexus 7: 7-inch, 1280 x 800 display, Android, 1.3GHz quad-core Tegra processor. From $439.
* iPad Mini: 7.9-inch, 1024 x 768 display, iOS, A5 dual-core processor (1GHz). From $479.
* Toshiba AT270: 7.7-inch, 1280 x 800 display, Android, 1.2 GHz quad-core Tegra processor. $699.
* Apple iPad (fourth generation): 9.7-inch, 2048 x 1536 display, iOS, A6X dual-core processor (1.4GHz). From $729.
* Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1: 10.1-inch, 1280 x 800 display, Android, 1.4GHz, quad-core processor. From $799.
* Toshiba AT300: 10.1-inch, 1280 x 800 display, Android, 1.2GHz quad- core Tegra processor. $699.
Tablets with detachable keyboards
* Hewlett-Packard Envy X2: 11.6-inch, 1366 x 768 display, Windows 8, 1.8GHz, dual-core Intel processor. $1299.
* Samsung ATIV Smart PC: 11.6-inch, 1366 x 768 display, Windows 8, 1.5GHz, dual-core Intel processor. $1299.
* Asus Eeepad Transformer Lite (TF300T): 10.1-inch, 1280 x 800 display, Android, 1.3GHz quad-core Tegra processor. $829.
Kids' tablets let you download a range of fun and educational apps.
* Oregon Scientific Meep! tablet: 7-inch, 800 x 480 display, Android, wi-fi, 1GHz Cortex A8 processor. $269.
* LeapPad 2: 5-inch, 480 x 272 display, Proprietary operating system, no wi-fi, 550 megahertz processor. $200.
* VTech InnoTab 2: 5-inch display, no wi-fi, 400 MHz processor. $220.
Sources: The New York Times, Engadget, ZDnet, PC Mag, PC World, TabletConnect, Samsung, Asus, Toshiba, Hewlett- Packard, Apple, Consumer Electronics Association, CNET, Noel Leeming, Dick Smith, Oregon Scientific, Leap Frog, VTech, TheSpec.com.
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