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.
3. How will I connect?
Since the point of having a tablet is to be connected to a full-fledged, app-laden Internet experience wherever you are, the way it hooks up to the Net is extremely important. Options range from Wi-Fi—only, typically cheapest, models to ones that also have a 3G (fast-ish) or 4G (fast!) cellular data connection. The advantage of Wi-Fi alone is that you don't get socked for a monthly data plan. If you are almost always near a Wi-Fi connection, this may be a solid choice. If not, you could end up frustrated. Still, the easy fix is to buy a portable Wi-Fi device like the Novatel MiFi (bestbuy.com, price varies with service provider). A 3G or 4G tablet lets you access the Net from any place with a decent cell connection, without having to hunt down a Wi-Fi hotspot. If you occasionally travel, a smarter option may be a pay-as-you-go data plan (available from most carriers), so you don't have to fork out $30 or more every month. But keep in mind, as with cell phones, there's a deep discount if you commit to a two-year data plan.
4. How much do I want to spend?
Prices are all over the map. Even if you have narrowed your choices to a particular tablet, you still face decisions about how much storage and speed you need, two major determinants of cost. A basic Wi-Fi–only iPad, for example, is $499, but the 3G model (with 64 GB of storage) is $829—a gigantic jump. Getting the Galaxy Tab for $200 with a data plan might seem like a superb deal—until you add up the $30 to $85 a month that the plan will cost over two years and then compare that with the $350 Wi-Fi model.
To Buy or Not to Buy an iPad
A not-insignificant number of people believe that the only tablet to buy is the one manufactured by Apple. Initially, the iPad was the only game in town, giving it a major head start in capturing consumers' hearts and imaginations. Though that's no longer the case, it still enjoys a certain cachet, as much (or more!) about emotion than functionality. I liken it to that yearning for, say, a certain pair of shoes or a purse. You can't articulate why exactly, you just want it. If that's the case, you may not care about the iPad's failure to support Flash animation or its sizable dimensions. The fact that you are getting the "it" device may supersede any other consideration. If that's the case, by all means enjoy.
Originally published in the September 1, 2011, issue of Family Circle magazine.