Mom, dad and daughter look at an iPad or tablet

Remember when the word “tablet” conjured up ideas of ancient stones etched with mysterious languages and pictures? That changed in 2010 when Apple launched the original iPad,[1] a device that helped catapult thin, touch-screen computers into the spotlight. A decade later, tablets are a part of our daily lives. But which tablet is best? Some are sophisticated enough to replace a laptop, while others are better suited for kids playing mobile games. This buying guide will help you tell the difference between iPads vs tablets from other brands, plus how to compare tablet features so you can choose the model that works for you and your family.

Already know your stuff? Check out our favourite tablets for adults and for kids.

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1iPad vs tablet: What's the difference?

Most tablets, whether an Apple iPad or one made by another manufacturer, share some basic features. They’re flat and thin, have touch screens and rechargeable batteries, and run a variety of apps ranging from web browsers and email to productivity suites and games. The main differences are price and operating systems:

Model Price Operating System
Apple iPad Expensive; Around $400 for older, refurbished models to over $2,000 for the latest, greatest iPad Pro iOS is intuitive and reliable and technical issues are rare
Google Android Affordable to expensive; Under $100 to well over $1,000 for something like a top-of-the-line Samsung Galaxy S7 Google’s OS provides many customizable options and settings that are used by brands like Samsung, Lenovo and Huawei
Microsoft Surface Expensive; Around $500 for a 10.5-inch Microsoft Surface Go 2 to beyond $2,000 Windows 10 is an ideal fit for workers who need to run desktop apps like Microsoft Office
Amazon Fire Affordable; Around $100 for models like the Amazon Fire HD 8 Fire OS has a customized user interface that makes it easy to shop for digital content

2What tablet specs should you consider?

It’s tempting to choose a tablet based on looks, but a quick peek at features and specifications will tell you whether the tablet you’ve got your eye on will satisfy your needs. Here are some of the most important specs you’ll want to check:

  • Dimensions and weight: Bigger isn’t always better. If you’re going to be toting a tablet around with you, it’s a good idea to make sure it fits in your bag and that it won’t break your shoulder during long hauls.
  • Display: If watching movies and TV is high on your tablet to-do list, you’ll want to keep a lookout for the following screen specifications:
    • Resolution: The bigger the number, the better. A resolution of 1920×1080 (full HD) should be your baseline for crisp, clear images.
    • Pixel density: Similar to resolution, density is the number of pixels per inch (ppi). High-end tablets will have well over 250ppi.
    • Aspect ratio: A ratio of 16:9 height to width is a safe bet, as it will limit the amount of screen space wasted by letterboxing (a.k.a. those black bars at the top and bottom of the screen).
    • Refresh rate: The faster a screen refreshes, the clearer the image. Most higher quality displays will have a refresh rate of 120Hz, which means the screen displays a new image 120 times per second.
    • Brightness: If you plan to view your tablet outdoors or in brightly lit rooms, look for a screen brightness of 400nits or higher. Some high-end screens can approach up to 600nits.
  • Battery life: Most manufacturers claim their tablet batteries will last eight hours or more, which should be sufficient for a full day’s use. Just keep in mind that this number is dependent on how you use the tablet, including your screen brightness setting, whether you’re reading email or watching streamed videos and if you’re using cellular service.
  • Storage: Photos, videos, movies, music and apps all require storage space. You can save significant money by buying a tablet with low storage capacity—say, 8 to 16GB—but you may find yourself regularly uninstalling, deleting and uploading stuff to free up space.
  • Connectivity: If you plan to use your tablet primarily at home or in the office, you can save money by buying a model that supports Wi-Fi. Getting one that can connect to cellular service will let you hop online almost anywhere—but you’ll need to sign up for a data plan, which will increase the overall cost of your tablet.

3What features are important for gaming, drawing or reading?

If you plan on using your tablet for one specific task, that could impact your choices and how you compare tablet features:

For Gaming

Microsoft 12.3-Inch Surface Pro VDH-00001

  • CPU/GPU: Processing chips are how games get rendered on screen, so the quicker and more powerful, the better. But it’s tough to compare CPUs without diving into the technical weeds. A simpler method is checking for a dedicated GPU (graphics chip). If the tablet has one, chances are it was made with gaming in mind. 4GB or more RAM will help, too.
  • Display quality: For the best gaming experience, look for a high ppi, quick refresh rate, high maximum brightness and a good contrast ratio.
  • OS and App Store selection: Apple’s App Store and Google Play have huge libraries of games, but some games are exclusive to each store. Check to make sure the games you want to play are available for the device you’re considering.

For Drawing

Cintiq 16 Creative Pen Display, DTK1660K0A

  • Stylus: If your tablet comes with a pen, then that’s a good sign it was designed with drawing in mind. That said, you can still buy and use a stylus with many tablets that don’t ship with one.
  • Display: Artists typically prefer bigger, brighter, higher-resolution screens, which make it easier to do fine detail work. If you’re a casual drawer, then buying a tablet with a big screen will reduce the need for zooming and scrolling.
  • Pen-pressure sensitivity: This specification—which defines how sensitive screen is to the touch of a stylus—is often omitted from spec sheets, but it reveals a lot about a tablet’s potential as a drawing platform. A PPS of 2,048 is a good start, but professional drawing tablets can have upwards of 8,192 pressure levels, allowing for more artistic freedom.[2]

For Reading

Kobo Clara HD eReader N249-KU-BK-K-EP

  • Display: Fancy AMOLED and Apple Retina displays can cause eye strain for some people over extended reading sessions. You may want to consider a dedicated e-reader tablet with an “e-ink” screen that mimics paper and doesn’t emit light.[3]
  • Size and weight: If all you plan to use your tablet for is reading, an eight-inch screen is plenty big enough. Plus, it should weigh well under a pound.

4What should you keep in mind when buying a kids’ tablet?

Kids use tablets for the same things we do including games, YouTube videos and communication. Still, purchasing kids’ tech requires a few extra considerations:

  • Cost: Kids break stuff. Spend accordingly.
  • Durability: If a tablet has an IP code—an international durability rating for devices—that’s generally a good indication that it can weather minor falls and splashes. Though more common in smartphones, the codes also appear on some tablets. Check out the IP ranking system here.
  • Parental controls: Operating systems offer varying levels of parental control that can help ensure kids only have access to age-appropriate content. Third-party apps such as Qustodio can also augment the OS features for parents who are especially concerned about what their kids might stumble upon.

5What screen size will work best for you?

Display size of iPad Mini, iPad Air and iPad Pro

While there are no standard screen sizes for tablets, they can generally be broken into three categories that are measured diagonally:

  • Small, 7 or 8 inches, like an iPad mini: Typically used for reading, surfing the web and playing simple games. They can also be great for kids.
  • Medium, 10 or 11 inches, like an iPad or iPad Air: Good for all-around use, including watching TV and movies, playing more intense games and even doing a bit of work.
  • Large, 12 or 13 inches, like an iPad Pro: Often used by pros who need more workspace and processing power, though they can be great for gaming and movies, too.

6How much is an iPad or tablet going to cost you?

Tablets can range in price from as little as $50 to well over $2,000. High quality and reputable brands like Apple iPad, Samsung Galaxy and Microsoft Surface, which start in the mid-hundreds, provide the widest range of uses and typically the best reliability. Less expensive tablets are fine for many uses, but will likely sport dimmer, lower-fidelity screens, offer less storage and may not be able to run demanding apps.

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Figure out your essential requirements, then prioritize a few nice-to-have features. This method will help you effectively compare tablets while keeping within your budget.

7Are there any tablet accessories you’ll definitely need?

  • A protective case: Cases are, hands-down, the most vital tablet accessory because they protect your investment if you drop it or bang it.
  • A screen protector: Not to be confused with a case, a screen protector is a clear layer of film that sticks to your display to protect it from scratches and scrapes without interfering with touch functionality or display quality.
  • A keyboard: Touch keyboards are fine for quick emails and web searches, but if you plan to do any serious typing, then a keyboard is a must-have.
  • A stylus: A stylus isn’t a necessity for everyone, but it’s indispensable for anyone who wants to draw or take handwritten notes.
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Quick Tip
Double-check to ensure the accessory you want to buy is compatible with your device. Cases and screen protectors are designed to fit specific models, and competing technologies and standards mean that every pen or keyboard won’t work with every tablet.

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