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A guide to buying the best tablet

It's difficult to remember a time before tablets, but it's been just shy of three short years since the original Apple iPad hit the scene, and the current tablet market was born. Since then, we've seen scores of manufacturers trying to snag a slice of the tablet pie, which so far has been dominated by Apple, now on its fourth iPad iteration. Growth is so rapid in the segment that some analysts claim tablet sales are set to outpace laptops by 2016. There's no denying that the tablet is here to stay.

But which tablet is right for you? Whether you're eyeing an iPad, a Windows RT slate, or one of the many Android tablets available, here are the key factors you need to consider when shopping for a tablet.

Want or need?

Simply put, tablets aren't really filling any true need – even three years in, they're still not replacements for either computers or smartphones. While you can tackle productivity tasks on a tablet, you won't get a desktop-grade operating system like you'll find on a PC. Plus, since we're talking about slates here, we're talking about on-screen keyboards.

Of course, there are plenty of worthy add-on hardware keyboards, especially for Microsoft’s Surface and indeed the iPad, but few provide the same comfort you'll experience with a laptop or a desktop. The main focus of the majority of the tablets we'll discuss here is media consumption.

Tablets do have advantages over both laptops and phones, offering a more portable way to check email, browse the web, video chat, watch movies, listen to music, and play games than your laptop can provide, but with a bigger screen than your smartphone. Even so, you probably don't really need one – but if you want a tablet, read on.

Choose your operating system

Just like with a fully-fledged computer, if you're getting a tablet, you need to pick an OS camp. And just as with a computer, your decision will likely come down to your gut feeling. Right now, the top two contenders are Apple with its iPads and iPad mini, and Android with its many hardware choices from the likes of Acer, Amazon, Asus, Barnes & Noble, Google, Samsung, and others.

Microsoft recently entered the race with its Surface tablet running Windows RT, a slimmed-down version of Windows 8 which runs on mobile devices with ARM processors. At the time of writing this piece, few other RT tablets have hit the market, but more models from major hardware manufacturers are on the horizon.

Generally speaking, Apple's iOS, the operating system on the iPad and iPad mini, has two major pillars of strength: It's very clean and intuitive, and the wide selection of iPad apps that you can buy – there are more than 275,000 iPad-specific titles – work uniformly well with very few exceptions. (You can check out our full iOS 6 review here).

Google's mobile OS, Android, is a more complicated story. Besides having your choice of hardware from several manufacturers, at any given time there are a few iterations of Android floating around on various devices.

The latest version, Android 4.2 (Jelly Bean), is the best yet, with maximum configurability, a top notch notification system, fast and smooth web browsing, and seamless integration with Google applications like Gmail, Google Maps, and Google Talk for video chat. Android 4.2 also has an improved version of Google Now, which delivers relevant information specific to your location. You can find Jelly Bean 4.2 on Google's own Nexus tablets.

So far, Windows RT provides the closest thing to a desktop experience on a tablet, with its aesthetically pleasing tiled interface and familiar Windows desktop. With split-screen functionality, multitasking is strong here, and you get Microsoft Office (sans Outlook) with the OS. But RT can take some getting used to; many reviewers have complained that it's not terribly intuitive, and since it's new on the scene, Windows RT apps are scarce (more on that in the next section).

What about apps?

What's a tablet without quality apps? If you want every third-party app under the sun, right now, nothing out there beats the iPad with its 275,000+ programs and games designed specifically for Apple tablets. The App Store is well-curated and monitored, offers a deep selection, and includes every popular app you can think of. If your main priority is a wide range of compelling apps that look good and work well on your tablet, Apple is your best bet.

Android has made some strides on app selection in the past year, courting more developers and offering more high quality tablet apps, but it’s still nowhere near the number Apple offers. It's tough to say exactly how many tablet-optimised Android apps are available, but it would seem to be more like just hundreds, rather than the hundreds of thousands the iPad boasts. There are also Android phone apps, which might look decent on a 7in tablet, but not a 9in or 10in one, so you're likely to have more problems getting high quality apps for larger Android tablets.

Microsoft claims there are "thousands" of apps for the freshly launched Windows RT, with more being added all the time, but don't count on finding all of your favourites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Words With Friends, or Spotify, for example. At least not yet. You do, however, get a desktop-grade version of Internet Explorer with RT. The upcoming Surface Pro will run fully-fledged Windows 8 desktop apps when it arrives in January, but with prices starting at $899 (£550), it's in a different class altogether.

Screen size and storage

This consideration is a bit obvious, but size – both in terms of screen real estate and storage capacity – are very important factors. First things first: When you hear the term "10in or 7in tablet," this refers to the size of the screen, measured diagonally, and not the size of the tablet itself.

7in tablets are considered small screen, while 9in to 10in tablets are considered large screen. Apple iPads, Google Nexus tablets, and Barnes & Noble Nook HD tablets all come in both small and large screen versions. Samsung certainly wants you to have multiple choices, so it offers Android tablets in multiple screen sizes (10.1in, 8.9in, 7.7in, 7in, and even a phone/tablet hybrid, the Galaxy Note II with a 5.5in display and a stylus).

Screen resolution is important too, especially for eBook reading and web surfing. A sharp, bright display is key. Right now, the Google Nexus 10 is the sharpest you'll find with a 2,560 x 1,600 300 pixel-per-inch (ppi) resolution. The fourth-gen iPad with its 2,048 x 1,536 pixel (264 ppi) Retina display is no slouch either. If you're in the market for a 10in Android tablet, look for a display with at least a 1,280 x 800 resolution. For 7in models, the Amazon Kindle Fire's display is 1,024 x 600, and is perfectly viewable, even for eBook reading, but line it up side-by-side with the same-size Kindle Fire HD's 1,280 x 800 screen, and you'll definitely notice the difference.

The weight of a tablet is one definite advantage it has over a laptop – but let's be clear, at around 650 grams (in the case of the latest iPad) it's not mobile phone light. This is true for small screen tablets as well. After you hold one with a single hand on a train journey for 20 minutes, your hand will get tired. Setting it flat in your lap, rather than propped up on a stand, can also be a little awkward. And few tablets will fit in your pocket, unless it's an extra-large pocket.

Cloud storage is an option for many tablets (iCloud for iPads, Amazon Cloud Storage for Kindle Fires, and SkyDrive for the Surface tablet to give a few examples), but when it comes to on-board storage, more is always better. All those apps, when combined with a typical music, video, and photo library, can take up a lot of space. Right now storage tops out at 64GB of flash-based memory, with most of the tablets we've tested available in either 16GB, 32GB or 64GB varieties.

Larger capacity models can get as expensive as fully-featured laptops, though – the 64GB Wi-Fi iPad rings up at £559, and if you add cellular/4G service, you're up to £659. A few Android tablets have microSD memory card slots that let you expand storage, and the Surface has one as well – this is a very handy, cost-effective option.

Wi-Fi vs. cellular

Many tablets come in a Wi-Fi-only model, or with the option of always-on cellular service from a network operator. If you want to use your tablet to get online anywhere, you should opt for a model with a cell radio, like the aforementioned fourth-gen iPad. Of course, this adds to the device's price, and then you need to pay for cellular service. Generally, though, you can purchase data on a month-to-month basis with a tablet, so you don’t have to sign up to a contract if you don’t want to.

There’s also another way to get your tablet online: Use your 3G or 4G phone as a Wi-Fi hotspot for your tablet. However, this won't work with every phone/tablet combo (and may be charged for by your network), so you should check the details out with your carrier before you seal a deal.

Finally, before you buy, if possible head to your local electronics store to get some hands-on time with some different tablets, so you can see which feels and works best for you.