Let us take the headache out of buying a new tablet
Families used to fight over TV channels, but we now simply watch things on our own personal 10-inch tablets. But is there more to them than just watching movies? What do you need to know when buying a new model? And which ones are best value in today's market? Adrian Weckler offers a plain-English guide to buying a tablet today
What's the difference between an iPad and another type of tablet?
In terms of what you see when you switch a tablet on, most tablets fall into two different types: iPad or Android. In general, the differences are similar to those between iPhones and Android phones. In general, iPads are slightly easier to use for beginners but are a little more expensive with no 'budget' models. Both iPads and Android tablets have roughly the same number of apps available, although iPads still retain an edge on the latest apps. In general, iPads are best-sellers partly because of their quality. The other main category, Android, is divided into the usual manufacturers: Samsung, Sony, LG and a host of others. Some of the higher-end Android models are very impressive, with great screens and super-slim form factors.
A third type of tablet runs Microsoft Windows. These tablets have far fewer apps available than iPads or Android tablets, although many of the big apps (like Netflix) are there. Because Windows tablets run the same operating system as your laptop or work PC, some of them can be used as substitute laptops.
I only have a budget of €100. Can I get a usable tablet for that?
Yes. But bear in mind that you'll be compromising on a lot: don't expect a super slim powerful model with ample storage. Ironically, some of the best €100 tablets are Windows-based models. (The main compromise is there are fewer apps.)
Can I print from a tablet?
Yes. For an iPad, it's easiest if you have a printer that's compatible with Apple's 'AirPrint' wireless printing system. There are lots of these printers: HP, Canon and Epson all have models for €100 from Irish shops. Once you have one, print your document by tapping 'share' (or open 'settings') and then tap 'AirPrint'. Your iPad should detect the AirPrint-compatible printer and print to it. Printing from an Android tablet is a similar process, except using a printer that accepts Google Cloud Print (most of the big brands have models that are compatible).
What's the best tablet to buy for a child?
For toddlers, there are special tablets you can get with a basic operating system that only lets them do a handful of things. An example is VTech's Innotab. For kids over the ages of six or seven, games such as Minecraft start to come into their own. This is where you'll need access to a proper app store, such as Google's Play Store. Try Samsung's Galaxy Tab 4 (€150, see buyers' panel, above). One piece of advice here is to avoid a Windows tablet for kids: they may be cheap, but they have a small fraction of the apps that Android tablets or iPads do. (However, they do play Netflix just fine.) For young teens, the choice is similar to that of an adult. Many teens now have iPads as standard for school work. That's the gold standard, meaning they may not be satisfied if they're handed a random €100 tablet.
What other parental controls do I need to consider for a child's tablet?
Almost any tablet you can get for your child has parental controls. These are available through the tablet's settings, whether it's Android or iPad, and allow you to manage app permissions and a certain amount of web content filtering. If you really want to lock out any sort of inappropriate web content on your child's tablet, you should consider app services such as Metacert, which blocks any adult content within search results and web browsers.
Can I use Microsoft Word on a tablet?
Yes. Microsoft now has decent Office apps available for both the iPad and Android tablets. They're custom-made for tablets and they're free to use for individual accounts (a subscription is required for business accounts).
What about Amazon Fire tablets, are they any good?
While Amazon Fire tablets are inexpensive, they are of limited use in Ireland. This is because part of their pitch is as a device to run Amazon Prime video content (a rival to Netflix, with 'home-grown' series such as Top Gear). But while this video content is available in the US and Britain, it's not available in Ireland. So you're basically buying a cheap tablet shell with less functionality (it doesn't have the full Android app store on it) than other tablets at the same price.
Is it a good idea to get a tablet instead of a laptop for general use?
It depends. Cheap Android tablets will usually not replace a laptop. On the other hand, some custom tablets might do. For example, Microsoft's Surface range (which starts at over €600) is pitched at this market: high quality tablets that also work seamlessly as laptops when you need them to. (They run Windows instead of Android, too.) For iPads, there are plenty of decent external keyboards you can buy that are comfortable to use and work well. But you must bear in mind that there are no cursors on iPads or Android tablets. Also, switching between applications - which is an important part of working on a laptop - is much slower on a tablet. That said, tablets have great battery performance and are usually lighter and easier to pack than laptops.
Can I attach a keyboard easily to a tablet?
Yes. There are dozens of keyboards you can buy that connect to tablets wirelessly (using Bluetooth). These range from budget models at around €25 to slick professional keyboards that cost more than €100. Logitech makes some really good keyboards for tablets: try its K380 or 'Ultrathin' ranges.
What's the best tablet for taking photographs on holidays?
I've always thought this was a little weird. But lots of people do it, especially when travelling: they say they like seeing the pictures on the big screen straight away. The tablets with the best cameras tend to be the same brands as the phones. That means Samsung, Sony and Apple, although it's firmly at the higher end (over €300). Try Sony's Z3 Compact 8, with its 8-megapixel camera.
Is there any difference between them for watching Netflix?
Yes: you generally get the screen you pay for. Anything under €150 is unlikely to have a HD screen, with washed out blacks and relatively faded colours. By contrast, iPads, Surfaces and other tablets that cost more have crisp, sharp HD screens that bring movies to life.
Should I get a full size tablet or a 'mini' tablet?
It used to be that tablets came in either 'full' size (10 inches) or 'mini' size (7 inches or 8 inches). Today, they range from 6 inches (Amazon's kid-oriented Fire tablet) to 13 inches (Apple's iPad Pro) and all sizes in between. In general, a 'mini' tablet is considered to be eight inches or under with anything over that attracting a 'full' size label. The advantage to mini tablets - such as Apple's iPad mini or Google's Nexus 7 - is that they're cheaper and more portable. But they're still big enough to watch a movie on: a 7-inch tablet is actually twice as large as your large five-inch smartphone. On the other hand, bigger tablets are better if any part of your reason for getting one involves work: it's almost always better to have more screen space when this is your work device.
How much storage memory should my tablet have?
You should really look for at least 16GB of storage, although it's possible to get by on 8GB. The downside to 8GB is that it usually leaves you with just 3GB of usable space to store things like apps or photos on. This isn't a lot, even if your tablet comes with an external memory card slot.
Is there any way my tablet can directly play DVDs?
Not for Android or Apple tablets, unless you first convert the DVDs to digital files with special software. Doing this for copyrighted DVDs is usually illegal.
Do I need a tablet if I have a large phone?
Anyone with a phone such as an iPhone 6 Plus or a Samsung S6 Edge Plus may not get much usage from a tablet that's only a couple of inches bigger. However if you use a tablet to watch movies or videos, it's still a much better experience on an 8-inch or 10-inch device than a five-inch one.
What's the difference between a cheap tablet and an expensive one?
The main problem with cheap tablets is that their screens react poorly, they're underpowered and they've very little storage. The first of these is a big deal: there's little more irritating than tapping and swiping on a screen several times to get it to register your command. Similarly, if you get a machine that has just basic power and minimal storage (8GB, for example) you can forget about using it to handle photos from a camera or store movies on it. It will also struggle with some apps and you'll run into a storage limit with apps quickly, especially if you let kids use it for things like games. In general, treating a cheap tablet as a 'starter' machine is like buying cheap wine. It will work but it will give you a mediocre impression of the thing you're consuming. That said, some cheaper tablets are fine (see panel, above).
So it's worth spending an extra €100 then?
If you're going to use it a lot, then it is worth it, yes. You'll get a much better overall experience. And most evidence shows that people tend to keep their tablets for several years, a lot longer than their phones.