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Tablets buying guide: introducing your next portable PC

A smartphone and a computer rolled into one

Simple, portable, user-friendly, and affordable. Say hello to the device of the future: a PC and smartphones rolled into one… the tablet.

Tablets buying advice: Why should you get a tablet

But why get a tablet at all? Surely the laptop provides most, if not all of the functions available on a tablet. The key isn’t what tablets do, it’s how they do things. Typically a tablet will do fewer things than a laptop, in many cases far fewer; but they do things in a much better manner. The idea has been to focus on the few things people want: Web browsing, email, Facebook, photos and videos, and to do these things in a simplified manner that makes tablets a joy to use.
Mobile Web browsing is generally much more satisfying: If what you want to do is read the latest news on your favourite sites, you’ll discover that ditching the touchpad and keyboard of a standard laptop in favour of a spacious touchscreen will enable you to swipe and tap your way effortlessly around the net.

Reading and responding to email is also largely satisfying because – like smartphones – these devices have persistent data connection, ensuring that your messages are there whenever you switch on, wherever you switch on. Typing with a virtual on-screen keyboard instead of a real set of keys is a different experience, however, and tablets are typically suited to short messages rather than long written articles. While it’s possible to create and work with documents, including Microsoft Office ones, tablets aren’t ideal for any kind of work that requires a lot of key pressing (they are great for presentations though).

Reading books – particularly in the dark, where paper books and E-Ink-based readers alike tend to fail without the aid of external lighting attachments – can be a joy on a good tablet. Amazon’s Kindle app, and Kobo.com’s eBooks app all support multiple OS and device platforms, so you can begin reading on one device, put it down, and move to another device without losing your place.

Watching video on a tablet is a great way to unwind during a long flight without having to park a netbook or laptop on your tray table. And when you’re connected via Wi-Fi, streaming services are awesome. Mobile email on a tablet is an order of magnitude easier to manage than mobile email on a phone. Nevertheless, you won’t be tempted to write your next dissertation on a tablet’s on-screen keyboard: The amount of space viewable on the display shrinks considerably when you activate the on-screen keyboard, and the unfriendly ergonomics will soon have your back muscles crying out for a massage.

On the whole though, there’s no doubt that many people consider a tablet to be the must-have gadget of the moment. Apple sold 14 million iPads in the first year, and Motorola, Samsung, HP and BlackBerry all hope to have similar levels of success this year… that’s a lot of love for touchscreen tablets.

Tablets offer a new kind of computing experience: they switch on instantly, enable you to browse the internet, send emails and use apps while holding it in your hand and there’s little of the complexity of computers, and few worries about viruses and malicious software. There’s a lot of reasons to love tablets, and there are plenty of great models to choose from.

Tablets buying advice: Choose your operating system wisely

 On the computing side of things choosing an operating system is pretty simple: either you get a Windows PC or you opt for a Mac. In the tablet world, however, there are at least five different platforms vying for your attention. Apple’s iOS, which powers the iPad 2, iPhone and iPod touch, currently leads the pack, thanks to its compatibility with a massive selection of more than 300,000 apps.

Google Android is, however, on the march. The platform behind the majority of non-Apple tablet offerings, it will be available on more than a dozen major releases in 2011. Current tablets offer Android versions 1.6, 2.0, 2.1 and 2.2, but the one to watch out for is Android 3.0 (also known as Honeycomb). This will be available on the newer 10in tablets such as the Motorola Xoom. Android has slightly better multitasking than Apple’s iOS, and it’s a more open system with a wider range of apps.
Research in Motion has entered the fray with its BlackBerry Tablet OS, which will debut on its BlackBerry PlayBook. One quirk is that it only works in horizontal format, but it’s a smooth interface and promises integration with BlackBerry Messenger software.

HP will be launching WebOS with its TouchPad. This offers a slick interface that makes it easy to work on multiple items at once. It also offers close integration to all of HP’s other products (such as printers) and a host of apps will be available.

In among all this Microsoft continues to advance Windows 7, although it’s not a bespoke tablet OS and is really better suited to laptops.

If you have already sworn allegiance to one platform or another, your choice could be an easy one. But if you prefer to base your decision on a careful comparison of features and utility, the coming barrage of tablet operating systems could make the old Windows/Mac platform war look like a teddy bear’s picnic. Apple iPad and Google Android tablets are the safe bets; WebOS and BlackBerry Tablet OS are the more esoteric options.

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