10 things to look for in a tablet computer

Choosing a tablet is about to get a lot more interesting -- and a lot more confusing. Deb Shinder examines all the factors you'll want to consider when the barrage of new models hits the shelves in the months to come.

Now that the iPad has broken the ice, the IT world is poised for a deluge of tablet-style computers to hit the market in the next few months. We're expecting to see several hit the shelves in time for the holiday buying season, going from basically one choice to an overwhelming variety of options. As many iPad users have discovered, the light, thin tablet format is great for those who need something more than just a smart phone when out and about, but don't want to carry around a full-fledged laptop or netbook. It's also excellent for checking a Web site or your email while lounging on the sofa or out by the pool at home.

If you're thinking about taking the plunge and getting a tablet for yourself or as a gift for someone else, you may be wondering whether to stick with the tried-and-true iPad or go with one of the Android or Windows 7 offerings that will be on the market soon. The answer depends on your preferences, budget, and how you plan to use it. Here are 10 things to consider when you choose your new tablet.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

1: Does size matter?

Everyone wants a tablet that's light and thin and easy to transport, but there's a difference of opinion regarding the best screen size for this form factor. The iPad set the standard at 10 inches (well, actually 9.56) and weighs 1.5 to 1.6 lbs (depending on whether it has 3G). Some users have expressed a desire for a larger (12-inch) screen, but more have mentioned that the iPad is just a little too bulky.

Several of the emerging competitors, such as the Samsung Galaxy Tab (which is coming to Verizon on November 11 and is expected to be carried by all four major U.S. cell phone companies), are going with a 7-inch screen size. The Tab weighs less than one pound, which could make a big difference to those who will be carrying it around all day. Steve Jobs apparently doesn't agree.

Some vendors are going with a larger size, such as the 12-incher rumored to be on the way from Asus. That company is also offering an 8.9-inch model.

And, of course, there's the Dell Streak, which at 5 inches, has a bit of an identity crisis: Is it a tablet or a phone?

Generally, the Windows 7 tablets seem to weigh more than their Apple and Android cousins, even when the dimensions are similar. For example, the CTL SL10 is only slightly larger in screen size than the iPad (10.1-inch) but weighs about a pound more. This is undoubtedly due to the extras you don't get with the iPad, such as an Ethernet port, microSD slot, two USB ports, mini-VGA port, high capacity hard drive, and camera.

There really is no "one size fits all" when it comes to tablets. What works for one person may be too big or too small for another, so it's important to get your hands on different sizes and consider how you'll be using it most of the time.

2: In storage

The iPad comes with 16, 32 or 64 GB of internal storage — and what you see is what you get. One of the biggest complaints I've heard about the Apple tablet is that there is no way to add more storage space without buying a new and more expensive version of the device. If expandable, removable storage is important to you, you'll want to look for a tablet that has an SD or microSD card slot. Fortunately, most of the Android and Windows 7 tablets have this feature.

The amount of internal storage still matters, though, as it may limit you in how many apps you can install. The Galaxy Tab comes with 16 or 32 GB of internal storage space and a microSD slot. Windows 7 tablets, such as the bModo, weigh more but come with features such as dual USB ports, allowing for connection of external hard drives.

The Windows 7-based CTL tablet includes a 250 GB hard drive, making it capable of storing far more and larger files than the Apple and Android models.

3: Assault on the battery

One of the iPad's strongest selling features is battery life. It easily gets 10 to 12 hours of usage on a charge, sometimes more. Samsung is claiming seven hours of high def video playback on the Galaxy Tab, or 10 hours of "less strenuous tasks." Some of the Windows 7 tablets are less impressive in that department. Running the more full featured operating system that's capable of heavy multitasking takes a toll on the battery. Engadget was impressed with all those extra features on CTL's 10-inch Win7 tablet, but it lasted only a little over two hours playing standard definition video. Ouch! (CTL's specs claim "up to five hours" battery life.)

If you want a tablet that keeps on going like an Energizer bunny, you may want to look at Apple and Android options.

4: 3G or Wi-Fi only?

Another decision you'll need to make is whether you want a tablet that's 3G capable or a Wi-Fi only model. The iPad comes in both iterations, and so will many of its competitors. The Wi-Fi only models cost less, but of course the 3G models (which can also use Wi-Fi) offer more flexibility. Remember, though, that 3G service plans add to the cost (varying from around $15 to $60 per month, depending on the carrier).

If you have mobile hotspot service on your cell phone, you may be able to buy a Wi-Fi only tablet and connect it to 3G over Wi-Fi instead of buying an additional data plan. Another option is a separate mobile hotspot device, such as Verizon's MiFi.

Or if you intend to only use your tablet at home, you can connect it to your own wireless network. Once again, it depends on your particular usage needs.

5: Open or closed?

Some folks prefer an open source platform such as Android, which allows for more configuration differences, different user interfaces, and apps that can be had from multiple sources without requiring approval by the vendor or carrier. Others like the consistency of Apple's products: As with Holiday Inn, you always know exactly what you're getting. The company exerts tight control over the distribution of the apps, what you're allowed to install, and what changes you can make to the look and operation of the device.

This is really a matter of personal preference and philosophy, but it could be an important consideration in choosing the right tablet for you.

6: Input options

Tablets like the iPad have proven to be great devices for consuming content, but less great for creating it. The onscreen keyboard isn't the most comfortable thing to work with for long documents, and the touch interface, while appropriate for many tasks, can be frustrating for others. There is a wired keyboard dock available for the iPad, or you can use a Bluetooth wireless keyboard with it.

Some tablets will make it easier and faster to use the onscreen keyboard by including Swype. It may take a bit of practice to get up to speed, but a lot of those who use Swype swear by it and won't even consider a device without it.

Many of the Android and Windows tablets will include USB ports, which should enable you to attach standard USB keyboards and/or pointing devices. Voice command is possible with the iPad if you jailbreak the device, voiding your warranty. The Vlingo voice control app is available in the Android Market; whether it works on the Android-based tablets remains to be seen. All editions of Windows 7 include built-in voice command functionality and dictation. Assuming the tablets have a microphone, you should be able to use these features. However, since none of the Windows 7 slates have actually been released, we'll have to wait to find out for sure.

7: Is the price right?

The iPad costs from $499 (Wi-Fi only, 16 GB storage) to $829 (3G, 64 GB storage), considerably more than the least expensive netbooks. The Samsung Galaxy Tab has been announced by Verizon at a price of $600 (3G, 16 GB storage with microSD expansion slot). There have also been many rumors that Sprint and T-Mobile will offer the Tab for $399 with a two-year contract.

The Windows 7-based CTL tablet (currently sold out and on backorder) is priced at $549 with Windows 7 Home Premium. Windows 7 Professional will cost an additional $55.

8: Smile: You're on camera

One of the iPad's most mentioned "missing in action" features is a camera. Although the form factor is a bit big for general photography, it's perfect for video conferencing, so a front-facing camera seems like a natural. If you want to be able to take pictures or video conference with your tablet, you'll want to skip the Apple product for now. If you already carry a smart phone, most have higher resolution cameras than the tablets and are easier to use for snapping pictures; thus a front-facing camera might be all you need on the tablet.

The Verizon Galaxy Tab sports two cameras, a 3 MP rear camera with flash and a 1.3 MP front-facing one. But according to some reports, the AT&T version will not have the front-facing camera. The Windows 7 CTL tablet has a 1.3 MP Webcam (front-facing) but no rear camera.

9: All about the apps

As with choosing a smart phone, a big consideration for many will be the apps available for a particular tablet platform. The Apple App Store boasts hundreds of thousands of apps, most of which will run on the iPad as well as the iPhone — but the number made specifically for the iPad is smaller. Those made for the iPhone may not display very well on the iPad. The Android Market has tens of thousands of apps available for its phones and a large number of these will undoubtedly be ported to the tablet format. Of course, a Windows 7 tablet will run most of the applications written for that desktop operating system.

We also expect to see some tablets that will run Windows Embedded Compact 7, like those demonstrated at Computex. Which apps will run on that OS is not clear. What we apparently won't see anytime soon is a tablet running Microsoft's new Windows Phone 7 OS:

Also to come in early 2011 are HP's tablets that run the Palm WebOS. We don't have any specs on those yet, although HP just recently released v2.0 of the WebOS operating system.

Choosing a tablet-based on operating system will mostly come down to the apps that are available, and it's not so much about how many there are as whether you can get the ones you want.

10: Compatibility issues

For most users, a tablet won't exist in a vacuum; it will be one of several devices. Although more and more people are comfortable living in a multi-platform world, some prefer more consistency from device to device. That means if you use a Mac and an iPhone, you might prefer an iPad. If you run Linux on the desktop and do your calling on a Droid, one of the Android-based tablets might be a better fit. And if you're a Windows guy or gal, the Windows 7 tablets will provide a more familiar experience.

Another compatibility-related issue has to do with wireless carriers. If you want a 3G tablet, you'll need one that's compatible with your cell phone company of choice. The Galaxy Tab is expected to be available in both GSM and CDMA versions to work with all four major U.S. wireless carriers, but with the iPad, you have to get a little more creative. Since it doesn't work on the CDMA network, Verizon sells only the Wi-Fi version, and then bundles it with the MiFi hotspot. This requires that you carry around a second (albeit small) device to connect.


Choosing a small, light slate tablet is about to get a lot more interesting — and a lot more confusing. We'll have numerous options when it comes to size, connectivity, storage capacity, features, operating system, and price. Picking the tablet that's right for you will be more of a challenge, but you'll be more likely than ever to end up with exactly the right fit for your lifestyle, usage habits, and budget.


Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 add...

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