Tablet Shopping Guide: What to Look For, and What is Best?

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What’s New in Tablets

The tablet market has not matured as quickly as some observers had indicated it would, but it is finally making the conversion from an extremely niche market to a more mainstream market for mass consumption. That means there are more options available, and there are more differences between those options.

For consumers, this means it’s more likely now than ever that there is a tablet that will fill your needs. Yet this has a inevitable downside - the confusion that comes with choice. What tablet do you buy? What’s the difference between a Toshiba Thrive and a Motorola Xoom? Why do Android tablets seem so obsessed with Honeycombs?

Let’s have a visual look at what’s going on in the market, and ultimately reach a conclusion as to which tablet is best for most buyers.

More Form Factor Choice

Most tablets made today have 10-inch displays. They offer a nice multimedia experience, but can be a bit bulky for use with a single hand, or while traveling. Smaller tablets, generally with displays around seven inches in size, solve this. Samsung used to be the only provider of these, but now BlackBerry and Amazon have joined the fray as well.

Consumers who see themselves using their tablet frequently in bed, on a plane, or in other situations where a tablet might need to be held with one hand, may prefer a smaller 7-inch device. They’re much lighter than 10-inch models, and when it comes to holding something for long periods of time, every single ounce counts.

More Choice

As the tablet market has grown, more brands have thrown their own entries in to the ring. For example, the Lenovo IdeaPad K1 shown above is a trendy, attractive table available with a wide variaty of color choices (along the back, not visible here). It also includes a custom Android interface with a prominent menu in the middle of the display, from which many critical system functions are available. Reviewers have commented that this makes accessing many Android features easier than on tablets from other companies.

Competition usually results in better products. There’s far more competent options in the market today than there was a year ago, and this does seem to be increasing the quality of the products available. Interface features, price, and style are key differences on which companies are seeking to make themselves different from everyone else. It’s now possible, for example, to buy several tablets (like the ASUS Eee Pad Transformer) for about $400.

New Options

There are now some entirely new choices available on the tablet market that weren’t there a year ago. Peripherals, for example, are expanding. Above you see the ASUS Eee Pad Transformer which, despite what your eyes may tell you, is not a netbook.

It’s actually a tablet with a keyboard dock. If you’d like, you can entirely remove the display portion and use it just like any other Android tablet. In fact, it’s a very good tablet when used without the keyboard – one of the best around.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Lenovo already sells a tablet like this is China, and may bring it to U.S. shores soon. The same company is also working on the release of a ThinkPad tablet that may include external keyboard/case peripherals. These extras do cost extra, but in some cases they’re well worth it.

Displays Still Matter

Though internal hardware continues to advance, what’s on the outside remains a tablet’s most important features. The display is both an input and output device on a tablet, and it can’t be replaced.

If possible, try to find a retail store with that tablet you’d like to buy before you make a purchase. When examining a tablet in person, have a look at how it renders images. Pay particular attention to darker areas. Do they appear washed out and lacking in detail, or do they appear rich and textured?

Also pay attention to how both images and text appear when you view the tablet from off-center. Does the display quickly become unusable, or does it retain its image quality well?

iPad 2 - Still the Champion

Though there have been many new challengers, the iPad 2 remains the best choice for most consumers. If you’re looking for a tablet, you’ll likely end up with one – and you should.

Why? On the design front, the iPad 2 remains among the thinnest and lightest tablets around, beating almost every 10-inch Android example with the notable exception of the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1. The hardware is powerful, too, particularly when it comes to 3D graphics. There’s a reason why beautiful games like Infinity Blade II primarily are developed for the iPad.

Finally, there are the apps. Android’s app market remains fairly so-so, but the app market for the iPad is gigantic, and there are many more apps that are tailored specifically for the tablet rather than cheaply ported over from the phone.

And it’s not as if there’s a big price premium for the iPad 2. At $499 for the basic 16GB WiFi model, it remains reasonably affordable.