Tablet Buying Guide: So You Want to Buy a Tablet...

The world is now more mobile than it used to be, and the best tablets these days allow you to balance your bank account and launch a marketing campaign right from the palm of your hand — not to mention watch movies and TV shows, follow the latest news, check stock quotes, read books, participate in Web chats and conference calls, and play games, too.

Interest in tablets has surged in recent years, at least partly because of this increased functionality. Now, more people are buying tablets than laptops and desktops. In fact, Forrester Research predicts that by 2017, 60 percent of online consumers in North America will own a tablet.

Whether you go with an iPad Air, Samsung Galaxy, a Google Nexus 7 or some other model, and whether you’re a first-time buyer or you’re looking to upgrade, you’ll find a tablet that fits your needs at Staples. But before you make your purchase, check out this tablet buying guide.

Why a Tablet Might Be Right for You

Business Users
Tablets provide many of the same features your computer does, just in an ultra-portable format. You can create and modify documents with Microsoft Office apps. You can even add a keyboard accessory if you’ll be typing long memos or taking notes at conferences. Access to Wi-Fi and 4G networks lets you videoconference and deliver presentations using programs like WebEx.

You can also interact with customers and clients in an engaging way using your tablet. Deliver more informative sales pitches, and then close the sale with a mobile credit card reader. Collect feedback on the spot with a survey app, or have customers add their names and contact information to your marketing mailing list. While it may not completely replace your computer, a tablet may just become one of your most important business machines.

Personal Users
Tablets can be a great source of entertainment and information at home, too. A tablet puts your email, Facebook profile, family photos and much more right at your fingertips. Entertain the kids with games and movies they can play and watch while traveling in the car. Check TV schedules, search recipes, make dinner reservations or plan your next vacation or shopping trip. With so many uses, your tablet will be a family favorite.

Take your tablet to the gym or the beach, or use it to connect with the world from the comfort of your bed. These devices make it easy to schedule your day, communicate with family and friends, and keep up with world news. If there’s a Web site you visit or a program you use frequently, you can probably find an app for it and streamline your experience. Before long, your tablet will become an integral part of your daily life.

Operating System Preference

Choosing a tablet often comes down to your preference of operating system. Each has its own strengths, depending on what you want from your tablet experience. Here are three of the biggest players in the tablet space:

Apple iOS
The iPad features the same operating system as the iPhone and iPod, and it’s been designed to work seamlessly with those devices — as well as other products in the Apple universe — allowing you to sync your movies, music, contacts, photos and apps across your Apple devices with little effort. The clean, easy-to-use interface starts up instantly and is highly intuitive, making the iPad perfect for both heavy tablet users and tech novices alike.

The Apple iTunes app store has almost a billion free and paid apps available, and more than a third of these are customized for the iPad, so you can manage your bookkeeping, home security and travel plans, or handle nearly any other task, from just about anywhere.

Google’s operating system powers devices from several manufacturers, including Google’s own Nexus tablets, Samsung devices and Amazon’s Kindle. Each update has a different sweet name, such as KitKat, Jelly Bean and Ice Cream Sandwich. Most Android tablets sync with Google’s tools and services, so you can sign in with your Google account and your photos, emails, contacts, bookmarks and Google Play purchases are ready to go. Android also allows easy multi-tasking and features a customizable home screen, rich notifications, resizable widgets and deep interactivity. Another plus? Android offers support for multiple user logins, so you can share your tablet with a friend or family member without worrying about giving them access to your private information.

Just keep in mind that Android isn’t the same everywhere. It’s open-source software, and manufacturers can create different versions of Android for their different devices, some with more features than others. For example, Fire OS Mojito, the exclusive version used only on the Amazon Kindle Fire HDX, is so highly customized for Amazon that it’s barely recognizable as Android (it’s not even compatible with apps found in the Google Play store). Barnes & Noble’s Nook also comes with its own customized version of Android, and it is compatible with Google Play apps.

The company that made PCs a billion-dollar industry wants us to think of its tablets as mini PCs — so much so that some Microsoft Surface tablets run full-fledged versions of the Windows 8.1 operating system. These Windows-running tablets are known as “convertibles,” since they function almost as well as laptops as they do tablets. In fact, users can easily switch back and forth between using the Surface as a laptop and a tablet when a keyboard accessory is attached. Throw in bigger screens, laptop-grade processors and docking stations, and you have some pretty robust machines.

Microsoft Windows 8’s crisp, tiled touch interface makes using apps and socializing easy. The Windows App Store offers thousands of apps, and Microsoft's cloud services let you access your files from anywhere. (For the more cost-conscious who don’t need all the bells and whistles, Windows RT is a more limited version of the same operating system.)

Tablets Are Meant for Mobile

A tablet is a mobile device, which is why all models come with built-in Wi-Fi connectivity. It’s the tablet’s symbolic way of saying, “Don’t keep me in one place. Take me with you.”

Your tablet will work just fine in Wi-Fi hotspots, like your home or office. But if you’ll be on the go a lot and want to be able to access the Internet in places where Wi-Fi networks aren’t available, then you should buy a device with built-in cellular functionality, like your cell phone has. This will make your tablet a more expensive purchase, not including the monthly cell service charge, but if you're a power user or frequent traveler, it’ll be worth the upgrade.

Screen Size Matters

Another reason tablets are meant for mobility? Their size. Screens typically start at a modest 7” display and go up to about 12” (measured diagonally). The weight is generally less than 1.5 pounds. That means carrying a tablet around is about as easy as carrying a folder filled with important documents would be.

While smaller devices offer amazing portability, consider the various ways you’ll be using your tablet when making your purchase: Larger ones are better if you spend more time browsing the Internet, conducting video calls or working on documents. And, of course, watching your HD movies is always better on a big screen.

How Does it Look?

Tablet manufacturers like to brag about how great their screens are. That’s for good reason: Tablet screen resolution is often quite impressive. But that’s not the whole story. Tablets feature an LCD screen that uses a light source placed behind the image. In other words, when you look at a tablet screen, you’re essentially looking directly into the source of light. That’s great if you want to read in the dark or in an area with low light, but it's not so good if you’re sitting in bright sunlight.

If you’re planning to use your tablet for reading lots of books in outdoor settings (at the beach, for example), then you may want an eReader that’s not backlit.

Dual Cameras

Another important consideration when buying a tablet is the device’s camera (or cameras). While a camera is a rather straightforward and standard feature on a tablet, it’s important to understand the difference in resolution: Most tablets now come with back- and front-facing cameras, allowing you to take high-resolution photos and conduct video calls. Just keep in mind that the back camera will have higher resolution (read: more megapixels) than the front camera will, so the pictures taken with the back camera will be sharper.

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