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A little over one-third of U.S. adult consumers have a tablet—and over half (55%) have a smartphone that can run many of the same apps. If your family hasn't jumped into the pool yet, it's a great time to join the rush. A 7-inch Android tablet can be had for less than $200, but while prices start low, they can quickly climb over $500. If you're wondering whether you should spend more now to avoid having to buy again later, it's a good question. Of course, in the end, your needs and budget should drive the final decision. Before you buy, ask yourself:
Do we truly, madly, deeply want any iTunes-only apps?
It's possible—there are more than 375,000 native iPad apps available, many designed specifically for Apple's operating system. Android's Google Play market has lots too, but not every app built for Apple is available for Android or Windows. That may happen in the future, but not necessarily on your timetable. The leap to an iPad Mini (from $329) is not so far from a $150 7-inch Android tablet. So the question is: How much are you willing to pay for those iOs apps?
Should we consider a Windows RT tablet?
Maybe. These are very nearly a computer in a tablet body. They won't run all Windows software but will put the powerful and familiar Microsoft Office at hand. And they start at around $300. Add a keyboard and it's almost a laptop.
Is a tablet enough, or do we need a full-fledged computer?
A tablet delivers on the portability promise and has tons of functionality—but make no mistake, it isn't a computer. No keyboard, for starters, and inexpensive ones have nowhere to plug in your camera or printer. (Though, FYI, these peripherals are all going wireless at breakneck speed.) If you want a tablet for ease of carrying but need a computer with a keyboard, USB ports and an operating system that can run more-traditional software, consider a convertible tablet/PC like the HP Envy x2 (from $649). It's a laptop, but press a button and the screen separates to become a full-featured Windows 8 tablet. Sweet!
Kindle: With this app, any tablet, smartphone or computer can function as an e-reader. The next time your daughter insists she can't do her homework because she left Moby Dick at school, tell her to download it from the Kindle Store and get busy. Many of the classics that make up teachers' required reading lists are out of copyright protection now and free for Kindle. iTunes, Google Play and Windows Store, free
Audible: Wouldn't it be great if your teenager could read while he cleans his room? Not a problem. Audible.com has a huge collection of audiobooks and an app for most tablets and smartphones. Drop the app on his device and the days of him having to set aside time to read are over. Membership costs $7.50 for the first three months, then $14.95 per month. iTunes, Google Play and Windows Store, free
Providence eLearning Books on iBooks: Textbooks are heavy—not to mention mostly boring, compared with the media-rich Internet. This app is the answer. Download books (there are 200,000 or so from kindergarten level up, starting at $13) or read them online with any Web browser. Built-in flash cards and multimedia extras make these books much more interesting than the paper kind. Plus the ability to add digital sticky notes and highlighting encourages the development of solid study skills. Best of all, no more 20-pound backpack. iTunes, Google Play and kno.com, free