Not since The Ten Commandments have tablets been in such demand. While you probably don't need a tablet, once you use one, you'll probably want to own one.
What Exactly Is a Tablet?
A tablet is a touch-screen media device, a cross between a computer and a phone. Tablets lack the memory and operating system of computers, but enable you to consume all sorts of media -- books, emails, movies, videos, games, and music. In essence, tablets are lightweight versions of laptops: They weigh less and are lighter on features.
Researching the Researchers
Like with dating, you'll probably want to a get a feel for a few tablets before you commit to one. You can first compare tablets at websites like Tablet Comparison and Tablet Leader. Do check out the blogs by tech junkies and journalists, like David Pogue of The New York Times, as well as tech-focused sites like Gizmodo and Wired. (Of course, Consumer Reports can be useful here too.) These folks constantly review the latest gadgets, so reading them will help you decide if it's better to hold out for a soon-to-be released model or to buy right now.
Operating Systems Et Al.
Ultimately, the brand, model, and, most importantly, the OS (operating system) you choose will largely depend on your personal comfort, as well as what operating system you use for your phone and home or work computer(s). Once you pick an OS, you may want to buy some bells and whistles, like a Bluetooth add-on keyboard. No expert can tell you whether you're more comfortable with a slide-out keyboard or a virtual keyboard, but, luckily, you can try them out at major retailers, such as Best Buy (BBY) and Apple (AAPL).
Is There an App for That?
It's hard to know what there isn't an app for, but depending on your passions and profession, certain apps will matter more to you than others. The chief benefit of the iPad is that it offers the greatest number of apps, with 90,000 (and counting) tablet-specific titles and applications. Google's Android, on the other hand, requires in most cases that you sideload apps. Android 3.0 does have its benefits -- configurability, Adobe Flash support, and easy integration with Google applications; it just features fewer apps. Evidently, no competitor can come close to the iPad, because apps made for Android OS must function across multiple screen size, whereas iPad apps are designed for a single tablet. Check out Wired to see some fun video demonstrations of these apps.
Size will always be an issue of personal preference. Do know, going in, that a "10-inch tablet" typically refers to the size of the screen, measured diagonally, but not the size of the tablet itself. Apple only offers the iPad in one-size fits all (9.7-inch screen). The BlackBerry PlayBook also comes in a single 7-inch screen size. However, Samsung offers its Android Galaxy Tab in multiple screen sizes: 7, 8.9, and 10.1 inches.
In order to store all those apps, you'll need a lot of space. As of now, tablet storage capacity is relatively limited, with around 64 GB of flash-based memory. Tablets with greater storage capacity can be as expensive as full-featured laptops, especially when you factor in the costs of cellular service plans. A top-end 64 GB iPad with Verizon (VZ) or AT&T (T) wireless service can cost around $830, plus a monthly fee, and that figure doesn't even include taxes!
Wi-Fi Only vs. Cellular Models
If you want your tablet to function like your cell phone or laptop and get online anywhere, opt for a model with a cell radio, such as the Verizon Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 or the AT&T Acer Iconia Tab A501. You'll need to pay for cellular service, so, as with your phone, try and stay within data-usage limits to avoid additional fees.
You can sometimes use your phone as a Wi-Fi hotspot for your tablet, but check with your carrier. Definitely find out if the tablet enables you to use either Wi-Fi or cellular service, as few offer both options.
Lastly, ask friends who own tablets and have similar buying patterns or work in similar fields to get a sense of their experience. You may find out that you want a tablet more than you realized, or that you'd rather hold out until they build a model that also files your taxes and nails.
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