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Tablet Shopping Guide: 8 Tips

The tablet market is more crowded than ever. Use our eight tips to avoid buyers' remorse this holiday season.

The holiday season's annual gift-buying bonanza is now in full swing, and whether consumers turn to Black Friday, Cyber Monday, or any of the other post-Thanksgiving sales, many shoppers will be looking for tablets.

A couple years ago, buying a tablet usually meant buying an iPad, but today's market boasts a veritable cornucopia of options. For those who've enjoyed Apple's tightly-controlled but highly-polished user experience, the newest iPads are better -- and just as expensive -- as ever.  But there are also tablets that run Windows software, Android slates that include features that iPads lack, dozens of different form factors, and options to fit virtually all budgets.

[ How does the Surface 2 stack up against the iPad Air? Read iPad Air vs. Surface 2: 9 Considerations. ]

Buying a tablet is more complicated and overwhelming than ever, but fear not: InformationWeek has eight shopping tips that will help you avoid a case of tablet buyers' remorse this holiday season.

1. Do you want a productivity tablet?

As Microsoft's current Surface 2 ad campaign asserts, some tablets are better than others at laptop-style productivity. If hybrid functionality is one of your priorities, Windows tablets are the most natural option, especially since they're the only kind that natively runs Microsoft Office. 

If your want a laptop-tablet hybrid, Windows devices are the most natural choice.
If your want a laptop-tablet hybrid, Windows devices are the most natural choice.

Many people are happy using iPads with third-party keyboards, however, even though iOS doesn't support true mulit-tasking, and Apple now offers iWork, its Office competitor, for free with new iOS devices. New Google tablets also come with Quickoffice, to say nothing of natural hooks to Google Docs. Office is more fully-featured than any of these competitors, but when you consider the use cases for which most people would choose a tablet, most of these extra tools don't matter. Document compatibility might be a different story, if you want to use your tablet as a BYOD device in, say, an all-Office environment.

But if you want laptop-style productivity, why not just buy a lightweight laptop? Convergence is a convenience, but it's also a compromise. Smaller 2-in-1 models that handle well as tablets generally aren't big enough to be used comfortably as laptops. And larger options with more display real estate and more spacious keyboard accessories are often too big and heavy to be treated as pure tablets.

It's also important to remember that tablets offer their own unique brand of productivity due to their portability, simple interface, and growing library of apps. Students can consolidate their textbooks into a single device and document experiments while in the field, merchants can accept credit card payments anywhere, fitness enthusiasts can track their health, and so on.

Some users might also enjoy slates with stylus support, such as the Galaxy Note series, or various Windows 8.1 models. A tablet might not replace a laptop for many users, but it can still boost productivity, even without a keyboard.  

2. Determine your budget.

The variety of tablet options can be a bit dizzying, but there's nothing like the cold reality of budget constraints to help you refine your choices. If you're unwilling to spend at least $299, you're already priced out of iPads, for example, and even if that cost sounds agreeable, you'd have to accept the cheapest iPad Mini -- a nice device, but one saddled with a non-Retina screen, a measly 16 GB of storage, no cellular connectivity, and a processor that's beginning to show its age.

Other options might not have the iPad's swagger, but they offer many of the same perks for less money. The base version of Dell's Venue 8, which ships with Android Jelly Bean, starts at $179.99 and is comparably powered, for example. Google's Nexus 7, which boasts a Retina-level display, is only $229. Other, more cheaply-built Android tablets can be had for even lower prices, and if you want a low-cost Windows experience, the Dell Venue 8 Pro offers the full 8.1 package, including desktop apps, on a 1200x800-pixel screen for only $299.99.

Apple's iPad Mini with Retina Display has won raves from reviewers but carries a steep base price of $399.
Apple's iPad Mini with Retina Display has won raves from reviewers but carries a steep base price of $399.

It's also important to consider that some devices aren't fully satisfying out-of-box. Many tablet-buyers will face added costs due to accessories, such as a $79 Smart Case for a new iPad Air, or a $129.99 Type Cover 2 for a new Surface 2. If you plan to trade in your device to offset the cost of a future upgrade, you might also pay attention to how various tablets depreciate; generally, more expensive models, particularly iPads, hold value better.

All in all, premium options such as the iPad Air or Surface 2 will be the fastest and best-built, but if buyers are willing to compromise a bit on display density or build quality, cheap-but-appealing options are plentiful and usually offer better deals on storage.

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User Rank: Ninja
11/30/2013 | 10:19:07 AM
Re: Never Surface RT
This is very informative and it gives good insight about table shopping which is valuable at present.
User Rank: Apprentice
11/30/2013 | 9:06:07 AM
The First Gentleman had it right
I do reviews for a big company online. After testing dozens of tablets it easy to see where people are misled by people pushing tablets. This wasn't a bad article. It didn't really push anything. The best kind. I really think Apple and Android are the same at this point. It really has to do with the echo system. This is where some people don't understand. There are Rolls Royces and there are Pintos. For the young people those are cars. From the very Rich to the very poor. Apple only come in one flavor. Size is the only difference. With Android Some tablets are Bad to Bone some are not. Some have big screens some have small screens. Top Android tablet should be compared to Apple not the other way. It isn't hard to beat a pinto if your driving a Rolls. Windows who..... Thats just made me think..They are not even in the game.... If they do anything with the product it will be two years before they can even reach the same level. The first guy had it right all the way around. Oh I have Every tablet worth having. From Ipad to the Google. 18 tablet so far. I really love the devices.


User Rank: Apprentice
11/30/2013 | 4:40:03 AM
Never Surface RT
I recently have a chance to compare Galaxy Notes 10.1 2014 and the new Windows Surface RT. Honestly there are not playing on the same ligue. The Samsung way outperformed the Surface RT on every aspect ( except Office). For people who really need Office, Polaris and particularly  QuickOffice are good enough alternative. Regarding MS compatibility aspect, QuickOffice is the best, then King Soft which is also free. In one hand, you have more than 1 million applications and other other hand, you have only 140.000. Not to mention that the new Surface RT is still very laggy  with Tegra 4.
User Rank: Ninja
11/29/2013 | 4:41:05 PM
some bargains
I would like to recommend to those constrain by a tight budget and still want to see what all the fuss is about the tablets, the $50-$100 price range ones.
You won't have the experience of an iPad, a Surface or (a high quality) Android, but for children, beginners; surf the web, emails, play games or watch some video are really good bargains.
Google Play is even available in some of them; which is a must have.
Some super store that I prefer not to mention has a couple of 7" for less than 70 bucks.
Not a bad deal if you ask me.
User Rank: Author
11/29/2013 | 9:17:25 AM
Tablet shopping surprises
The iPad retina display is the biggest example of "you must see it in person." I am using the original iPad mini (sans retina display) and loving it, but friends who have become accustomed to the retina can't go back. What else have people been suprised by in person while tablet shopping this weekend?
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