Best tablets in 2018: The best tablets to buy this year
Buyer’s Guide: What you need to know
Software and operating system
Most tablets sold today run one of the three major mobile operating systems: iOS, Android and Windows 10. Android and iOS are the most popular two, with Windows trailing behind. However, you’ll only find Apple’s iOS on iPads.
As a general rule of thumb, if you’re familiar with iOS, you’ll be able to pick up and use an Android device without too much effort, and vice versa. Both operating systems share a roughly similar layout and mode of operation.
Watch out for Android tablets with heavy customisation, though. Amazon’s Kindle Fire range, for instance, not only alters the layout and design, but also places restrictions on the OS’s renowned flexibility, replacing the Google apps and Play Store with Amazon’s own services and tools.
Users tend to take a little longer to familiarise themselves with Windows 10 tablets. That’s not to say it’s a bad OS; it simply does things differently. Plus, with a Windows tablet, you get the added bonus of being able to run full desktop software packages such as Photoshop or Microsoft Office, alongside tablet-specific apps.
Storage and RAM
Storage and RAM are much easier to understand. Simply put, you want as much of both as you can afford. The more storage you have, the more apps, games, movies and music you can store locally, without having to use up your data allowance when you’re on the move. The more RAM you have, the more responsive your device will remain when you’ve got a lot going on.
It’s worth looking for a tablet with a microSD slot, too, since this provides a means of cheaply expanding storage with external memory cards. If you plan on moving apps to your SD card, though, do bear in mind that microSD cards generally aren’t as quick as internal storage.
You won’t see storage expansion on iPads, however, and an increasing number of high-end Android tablets also neglect to include this feature.
With a tablet’s processor, it’s once again a case of the faster the better. However, it’s important to recognise that clock speed – which you’ll see expressed in gigahertz (GHz) on a tablet’s specifications sheet – is only a partial indicator of overall performance.
The number of cores a processor has affects its ability to multitask effectively; the way a processor has been manufactured affects its efficiency and, therefore, battery life; and its integrated graphics capabilities dictate how smoothly it will be able to render the latest mobile games.
The most common processors found in tablets today are based on British company ARM’s designs. You’ll find ARM processors (manufactured by various different companies) in Apple and most Android devices. Windows tablets are invariably powered by Intel chips.
When it comes to a tablet’s display, you might think that the more pixels the better, too, but that isn’t the case. Here, you need to look at the pixel density.
This is a useful figure, because unlike resolution it gives you an absolute measurement of screen sharpness, independent of screen size. What it doesn’t tell you is how sharp a display needs to be at normal viewing distances. This is where Apple’s handy “Retina” definition comes in.
Simply put, a Retina display is one where, when held at a “typical viewing distance”, the individual pixels are not visible to the human eye.
For example, if you were to view your tablet screen from a distance of 50cm, a pixel density of only 170ppi is enough (here, an 8in 1,280 x 800 screen). If you’d like your tablet screen to look crisp from 30cm, you’ll need a pixel density of 280ppi (here, an 8in 1,920 x 1,080 screen will do).
Since most tablets are sharp enough, we find that brightness, contrast and colour accuracy are better indicators of a panel’s quality. We test for these values using a colorimeter and you’ll find the results of our findings if you read the reviews linked to below.
Most tablets come with at least 802.11ac and Bluetooth 4 connectivity these days; a few budget models may cut corners with 802.11abgn standard, but that’s becoming increasingly rare.
Also look out for capabilities such as Miracast, Wi-Di, “beaming” or “throwing”. These technologies allow you to display what’s on the screen of your tablet on a smart TV over your local wireless network. Apple’s equivalent is AirPlay, but iPad owners need an Apple TV to make this work.
A simpler way to connect your tablet to a TV or monitor is HDMI: if a tablet doesn’t have an HDMI output (most don’t) look out for SlimPort or MHL compatibility. These allow you to use a converter cable to display a video signal over USB.