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What to Look for in Your First (or Next) Tablet

Android? iPad? Surface? You’ll find a multitude of sizes and prices

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It’s easy to see why tablets have grown so much in popularity over the past 10 years.

They’re thin, light and easy to tote around. Using your fingertip on a touchscreen feels incredibly intuitive, and you can expect instant start-up times and long battery life. A tablet also is perfect for curling up with a new e-book, unlike a laptop or desktop computer.

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If you’ve been a fan of tablets since the iPad debuted in 2010 but want to know what’s new, or if you’re not sure which operating system to invest in, we have a primer for you. Here’s a look at the three main platforms, along with some features worth considering.

If you would use a computer primarily to play Wordle and other simple games, read the news, scroll through Facebook or Twitter, and stream music or video, you may be more satisfied with a lightweight tablet than a laptop.

Choose your screen size based on what you do the most. If you watch videos, pick a larger screen. For e-books — tablets have more computing power than e-readers — a smaller size will weigh less and be more comfortable. Tablet sizes range from about 7 inches for a few Android and Amazon Fire models to almost 13 inches for an Apple iPad Pro and more than 14.5 inches for a Samsung Galaxy Tab S8 Ultra.

“My mom, when she was alive, always had a computer. And then at one point she stopped. She was able to do everything on her iPad, and it was much easier for her,” says Ed Bott, author of the ZDNet blog Ed Bott Report. “The screen was big enough, and the apps were simple enough. And if she couldn’t do it on an iPad, she said, ‘I don’t need to do it.’ ”

If you’ve been a fan of tablets since the iPad debuted in 2010 but want to know what’s new, or if you’re not sure which operating system to invest in, we have a primer for you. Here’s a look at the three main platforms, along with some features worth considering. 

IPad opened people’s eyes

Although Apple’s iPad wasn’t the first tablet computer, it was the first that consumers really liked. The iPad family of devices remains the most popular of all tablets.

Today’s devices are powerful, with screens that display crisp, bright images rivaling those of high-end TVs. They support the optional Apple Pencil, and you can interact with an iPad using your voice by talking with Apple’s personal assistant, Siri.

IPadOS — the operating system that powers Apple’s iPads — should be immediately familiar to those who own an iPhone. The look and feel are very similar to those of the iOS operating system.

All iPads offer a Wi-Fi version or a Wi-Fi plus cellular option, should you want wireless connectivity outside the home. Plans are typically $10 a month through your existing mobile carrier.

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Because of their popularity, you will easily find accessories for any iPad model: iPad mini (8.3 inches), iPad (10.2 inches), iPad Air (10.9 inches with a Liquid Retina display) and the supercharged and larger iPad Pro (12.9 inches with a Liquid Retina XDR display).

Like other Apple devices, iPads are very secure, and you have access to the App Store for more than a million iPad apps and games. IPads can also run most iPhone apps, and you can expand them to run full screen.

For people who like to use their iPads for video calls, a handy feature called Center Stage has been added to FaceTime. It allows the camera to follow you around, keeping you centered in the frame. Center Stage works with these tablets: the fifth generation of iPad Air, fifth generation of the 12.9-inch iPad Pro 12.9, third generation of the 11-inch iPad Pro, ninth generation of iPad and sixth generation of iPad mini. It also works with some MacBooks.

Just as Macs tend to cost more than Windows PCs and Chromebooks, most iPads are more expensive than Android and Windows tablets, though you’ll find some exceptions. IPads with Wi-Fi only start at $329; iPad minis, $499; iPad Airs, $599; iPad Pros with an 11-inch display, $799; and iPad Pros with a 12.9-inch display, $1,099.

Tablet ownership rises

In 2012, about two years after Apple introduced the iPad, 1 in 5 U.S. adults owned a tablet computer. By 2021, that number had grown to more than half. Adults 50 and older had lagged in tablet ownership but now make up a greater proportion of tablet owners than those younger.

Many alternatives with Android tablets

Choice is one of the best reasons to consider Android. More than a dozen companies sell tablets with this open operating system, and the devices range in size from 5 to 13 inches. Most are 8 to 10 inches.

Since Android is part of the Google family, most of these tablets have popular Google apps built in, such as Chrome for web browsing, Duo for video calls, Gmail, an integrated voice-activated Google Assistant, Google Drive for cloud storage, Google Maps, Google Photos and YouTube.

Not only do you have several options in hardware — Android tablets start as low as $40 for a 7-inch Amazon Kindle Fire tablet and $70 for a 10-inch Digiland tablet, and range up to $880 for the 12.4-inch Samsung Galaxy S8+ tablet with 256 gigabytes of storage and an S Pen stylus — you also have a greater selection of apps than in the Apple App Store and Windows Store combined. The Google Play store has more than 3.5 million downloadable apps and games, plus other stores have apps to download, too.

However, be cautious about downloading apps outside of Google Play or “side-loading” apps from a memory card or connected computer. They could carry malicious software. Apple’s approach may be restrictive, but the company has a rigorous vetting process for each app.

Some Android tablets let you expand the storage via a micro SD memory card and install software that way. Like iPad and Windows tablets, Android tablets have several accessories available for purchase, such as a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard, protective case, stand, stylus pen and wireless earbuds.

Keyboards often included with Windows tablets

Most of the tablets that run on Microsoft’s popular Windows 11 operating system have a keyboard and screen sizes that can be as large as 15 inches.

Some models have removable keyboards to convert the device from a laptop to a tablet, such as some of the Microsoft Surface-branded options, making them great for both work and play. With these versatile devices, which start at $400 for the 10.5-inch Surface Go 3, you don’t need to buy both a laptop and a tablet.

Windows-based tablets include a familiar interface and apps and files that sync to Microsoft’s OneDrive. Those who use Microsoft’s productivity software will find integrated support for the Microsoft 365 suite of applications including calendar, contacts, tasks and to-do lists; Excel for spreadsheets; OneNote for note taking; Outlook for email; PowerPoint for presentations; and Word for writing.

A Windows Store is built in for downloading new content to your device. And because Windows supports all kinds of accessories, you can easily connect extra hardware to expand your tablet’s functionality.

Prices for Windows tablets start at $380 for a 10.3-inch Lenovo IdeaPad Duet 3i, which includes a keyboard, or about $400 for an 11-inch HP tablet.

Turn your tablet into a computer of sorts

Tablets aren’t just for consuming media. Adding a wireless keyboard and mouse helps you easily create content.

Expand the versatility of any tablet by propping it up on a stand, which may be integrated into your case, and then starting to type on a QWERTY keyboard, which is ideal for emails or penning the great American novel you always wanted to write. A mouse will help you navigate around the screen.

Gamers may also want to add a Bluetooth controller to their device.

This story, originally published June 20, 2022, was updated with additional information on tablet sizes and versatility.

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