When developing apps to look good on Android tablets, it’s important to test the look and feel on these larger devices. Tablets are not just scaled up phone displays — the additional space can offer a much richer user experience, if the developer takes full advantage of it.

However, as with all Android hardware, there are so many options that you can’t possibly purchase them all. If you try, the pile of devices you need to test starts to look like this. That’s a bigger burden than most small app studios can bear. Most developers will likely benefit most from using the emulator and starting with a small number of tablets, so that means being selective.

Categories/families of tablets

A number of big vendors have several models available. You can likely eliminate older models from most vendors, leaving you with a smaller set of tablets to consider. I think buying the latest generation tablet will likely be the most effective, even if the previous device has a larger user base. Since the balance will change continuously after the release of new products, a more recent device will continue to become more relevant, while an older device will increasingly represent a diminishing user base. That still leaves a number of tablet vendors to choose between.

There’s another wrinkle — app stores outside of Google Play. I generally ignore the obscure vendors that run their own app ecosystem. Two options that do bear merit are Amazon’s Kindle Fire line and Barnes & Noble’s Nook tablets. These app stores allow access to a relatively large number of users (due to their retail presence) with a smaller set of device configurations to worry about.

That leaves me with three main configurations that I want to be able to test:

  • Google (e.g., the Nexus 7 or another brand tablet)
  • Amazon (Kindle Fire)
  • Nook

By getting one representative device from each of those categories, it gives me access to a large cross-section of Android tablet users.

Emulator options and considerations

There are quite a few options to emulate tablets and, unless you are collecting one of each device, it is likely that you’ll need to emulate some devices. The much lower cost of creating and maintaining these virtual devices can be deceptive. It still takes time to decide which configurations should be pursued, and it will take time to test on each selected device. Plus, emulation can be frustratingly slow.

The good news is Amazon and Nook have released specialized additions to the emulator that make the virtual device behave similarly to the real device. To get started with these emulators for specific devices, follow instructions from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Google. Even better news is that the recent release of the Android Virtual Device (AVD) Manager now supports directly creating named devices such as the Nexus 7.

Even when you buy physical hardware, there is a solid place in your testing strategy for virtual devices.

Cost/benefit considerations when making your choice

The “best” tablet for your organization might not be what others tout as the best tablet to buy. I evaluate tablets based on what business need they fulfill, and consumers may have an entirely different set of needs.

If business make purchases to save time and gain an advantage, small differences in the price of tablets shouldn’t drive decisions. The important thing is to gain access to precisely the right hardware and save hours of developer time. In the same vein, devices that appeal most to developers may not be the most useful for current business needs.

I have devices in each of the main categories: Google Play, Amazon, and Nook. This gives me access to the app stores on the devices, and lets me see how each device works as a whole. If I had to choose just one, I would pick the one that best represents the biggest market segment that I am currently pursuing and emulate the rest.