A tablet is a personal, handheld computer that's larger than a smartphone but smaller than a laptop. These wireless devices feature a touchscreen and a variety of software applications, and they're designed to be portable, convenient and easy to use.
In terms of what it can do and how it works, a tablet is somewhere between your phone and your desktop computer. Like your phone, tablets use mobile operating systems and are built for mobility. However, they can also be used like a desktop PC or laptop to type longer documents, store files and stream videos.
With their touch-sensitive screens, tablets allow you to interact with the information on the screen using your finger or a stylus. You can also wirelessly connect a keyboard or mouse to the tablet.
Types of tablets
Tablets come in a variety of shapes and sizes and can generally be split into a few separate categories:
Slate tablets are probably the best-known variety of tablet. These devices, including the Apple iPad, feature an integrated touchscreen.
Also called "hybrid" or "2-in-1 PCs", these options are essentially slimline laptops with removable keyboards. Convertible tablets, including the Microsoft Surface Pro, are designed to offer the increased power of a laptop, but the convenience and portability of a tablet when you remove the screen.
Originally designed for reading ebooks, some of these devices also include tablet-like features, such as colour touchscreens and access to apps.
Some tablets are specifically designed for younger users. Rather than the light and slim design favoured by ordinary tablets, these devices are designed to be rugged and durable. They're also usually cheaper than "grown-up" devices in case they get damaged and need to be replaced. Amazon offers a kids' edition of its Fire HD tablet.
Much like smartphones, tablets don't all run in the same way. The operating system can sometimes be the most important consideration when browsing for a device, as, after all, it's the interface you'll have to interact with all the time.
For the most part, tablets run one of three operating systems: Apple iOS, Google Android and Microsoft Windows
Apple iOS. iPadOS is Apple's tablet operating system, running almost identically to the version of iOS found on its iPhones with a few added bonuses designed to make its tablets more versatile and feature-rich. iPadOS, for example, adds multitasking features to help improve productivity and allows users to move the keyboard around their screen.
Google Android. Google's Android OS is the most widely used operating system out there. It's found on devices made by brands like Samsung and Lenovo. It allows for seamless integration with Google's apps and services like YouTube, Maps and Gmail, and connects you to the Google Play Store's two-million-plus apps.
Microsoft Windows. Windows is an increasingly-popular option for tablet devices, with devices like Microsoft's Surface Pro range using the operating system. If you're looking for a tablet that can do pretty much everything a PC can do, one running Windows 10 is the way to go.
The operating system that your smartphone runs should play a role in which one you end up choosing. For example, if you're already an iPhone user, you'll get better value from an iPad as you're already part of the Apple ecosystem. This means you'll already have all of your Apple accounts set up and ready to go. It also means you'd have all of the apps, movies and music you've already purchased ready to go straight away, and existing gear and cables (like chargers) will work between your devices. The story is much the same for Android phones and tablets.
If you're considering a switch from Apple to Android (or vice versa), make sure you've weighed everything up first. The process of migrating all of your data can be time-consuming and nightmarish.
How to compare tablets
When shopping around for a tablet, you should consider the following factors:
Prices range from less than $100 up to $1,500 or more. If you're looking for a top-of-the-line device, you can expect it to set you back at least a thousand dollars. If you're just looking to grab something to watch Netflix on occasionally, you can pick up a device for less than $300.
Larger screens can make for a better viewing experience while on the go and can help with productivity if you're looking to use your tablet for school or work. Smaller screens often come paired with a lower price and are more convenient to haul around.
Resolution refers to the number of pixels on the screen. Tablets with higher resolution have a higher picture quality than one with less. Choosing a budget device with low resolution can make watching content on the device less enjoyable.
Make sure you check how long each tablet lasts between charges to get a general indication of battery life. Also, check how long the device takes to fully charge.
Some tablets feature all-plastic shells and screens, while others sport premium aluminium builds with glass displays. The build quality of a tablet should roughly reflect the price tag associated with it. Cheaper devices are often less durable.
If you're only going to use your tablet to surf the web, stream videos and other basic tasks, 16GB or 32GB of storage space may be enough. However, if you're using the device for professional purposes or to store videos, you may need more space. Many Android and Windows devices also have microSD memory card slots so you can expand your storage.
The processing power of a tablet isn't likely to be much of a factor unless you're looking to play graphically-intensive games or run heavy-duty apps on it.
Most tablets come bearing Wi-Fi and Bluetooth for connectivity. Some devices use a SIM card to connect to your mobile network but they usually cost a lot more.
If you'll be using the it to take still photos or for video chatting, check the quality of the front- and rear-facing cameras. Can you record videos in HD?
Jack Baker is a regular contributor at Finder, covering a wide range of technology and gaming issues. He's especially keen on PC gaming hardware and peripherals and Android phones, and he's always hunting down the best deals.
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