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How to Buy a Tablet

Can't decide whether to purchase an iPad, a Xoom, a Galaxy Tab or another tablet computer? Use our guide to find the one that's right for you.
Tablet computer
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Tim Marrs

By 7 a.m. on an average day, even before I say "Good morning" to my family, I grab my tablet to check e-mail, go over my Google calendar and scan the news headlines. Truth be told, I've gotten very attached to my tablet in a short amount of time.

I'm not the only one. Since Steve Jobs introduced the iPad in January 2010, more than 25 million tablet PCs have been sold—roughly 8 out of 10 sporting the Apple logo. Another 50 million are expected to be sold this year. Clearly, this is no flash-in-the-pan trend. Tablet PCs combine what's terrific about a data phone—instant on, always connected—with the functionality and larger display of a laptop. But with a dozen new tablets set to debut this year in a variety of sizes and operating systems, including Google's Android, Blackberry's RIM and Microsoft's Windows, choosing the right one won't be easy. Thinking through your answers to the following questions will put you on the right path.

1. Where do I go?
Tablets come in a wide range of sizes and shapes, from the 5-inch Dell Streak to the 9.5-inch iPad 2, with several stops in between. Though the iPad is astonishingly thin and lightweight, it's a bit oversize for toting in a purse, jotting notes on the fly or even holding up to read for any length of time. The same is true for the larger non-Apple tablets: Motorola's 10-inch Xoom, Acer's 10-inch Iconia and LG's 9-inch G-Slate. On the other hand, these bigger units are fantastic for surfing the Web, watching videos in crystal-clear high definition or playing Angry Birds while parked on the couch.

The smaller tablets, like the 7-inch Blackberry Playbook, Samsung Galaxy Tab and HTC Flyer, fit into just about any everyday bag.

Bottom line: If your tablet will be mostly a stay-at-home device, go big. If, like me, you plan to make yours a constant companion and want to be able to drop it into a not-huge pocketbook, a 7-inch day-planner-size model is a better pick.

2. What do I want to do?
All tablets have a lot of similarities—they spring to life on contact and have touchscreens that let you get around by tapping and swiping with a finger. (If you're not familiar with this wizardry, it's worth a trip to an electronics store to poke around. Trust me.) Most have cameras, and some have two: A front-facing lens for video conferencing and one on the back (ideally with a flash) for snapping pictures and shooting video. They surf the Net, play videos and games, access e-mail, let you chat via instant message and more.

Most of this is dependent upon apps—small programs that install in seconds over your Internet connection— making them a critical consideration when you shop. The apps you have access to will be determined by the operating system your tablet is running, whether it's the Apple iOS, Android, Windows 7, Blackberry RIM or HP's WebOS.

From the iPad, you shop for apps at the iTunes store, where Apple approves every app that it sells. (So if Apple doesn't like it, you can't have it.) Because the iPad came out first, iTunes offers the largest number of apps. Tablets that run on Android get their apps from the Android Market, which is catching up fast to iTunes and is expected to soon surpass it. Because Android apps don't go through a lengthy pre-approval process, there are fewer restrictions on what you find there. In a lot of cases, though, any major app that's available for one device is also available for the other, or will be soon. Blackberry and HP's touchpad tablets offer their own app markets, but the selection, at least until it is determined that these models will stick around, will be far more limited.