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Which is the best tablet: iPad, Android, or BlackBerry?

Expert buying advice on tablet computers

Tablet computers such as the iPad are a brilliant innovation. For the first time, there’s a category of mobile device that’s powerful enough to run complex software, connects to the internet via wireless and mobile networks, and is portable enough to be used anywhere.

Unlike a smartphone, tablets are just the right size for reading and editing text comfortably, but they’re smaller, thinner and lighter than any laptop. The benefits of computing and the web can now can be squeezed into a device small enough to be used in places where it simply wasn’t possible, or convenient, to have a computer before. It’s no surprise then, that tablets are popular.

High Street and online stores now tempt you with shelves and pages full of tablets, from dozens of manufacturers and with varying screen sizes, software and storage capacities. Prices range from as little as £100 for a 7-inch tablet such as the Disgo 7900, up to £660 for Apple’s third-generation iPad with 4G and the largest 64GB storage capacity.

You can’t choose a tablet on its specification alone though. The software it runs is just as important as the hardware wrapped around it. Google's Android and Apple's iOS have different quirks and nuances that have a big effect on how you’ll use a tablet. Browsing the web, managing pictures, videos and synchronising contacts and emails with a desktop PC is very different on iOS, which uses iTunes, from the way it's done with an Android device.

Of course, these aren't the only operating systems. There's also BlackBerry's PlayBook OS and, soon, Microsoft will add Windows 8 to the mix. Each platform has its own app store, and there’s a big difference in the quantity and quality of software available in each. Without apps, you'd be stuck with the capabilities of the tablet as it ships, so it pays not to overlook this aspect of tablets.

Our aim is to help you find the right tablet for your needs. Let's now take an in-depth look at the different tablet operating systems and, afterwards, examine how each performs common tasks, such as web browsing, multimedia and email.

Apple iOS

For

  • Widest selection of high quality apps
  • Stability and high performance
  • Clean and consistent structure and layout

 Against

  • Available on a limited range of expensive devices
  • Tied to cumbersome iTunes software

Apple iOS 5.1 on iPad

When the first iPad was released in 2010, it reinvented the concept of tablet computing, and has become a benchmark for other tablets. The iPad is synonymous with style and quality, the latter due to the sturdy aluminium chassis and fantastic screen. All iPad models have a 9.7in display.

Apple has launched a new iPad every year since the original. The iPad 2 had improved performance, especially in 3D games. The new third-generation model adds a good-quality rear camera and high-resolution display. The iPad 2 currently costs £330, and the new iPad £400, both of which have 16GB of storage. Note that the Wi-Fi versions (without 3G) don't have GPS receivers and can only approximate your location when near a hotspot that's in Apple's database.

Hardware is nothing without software, and iOS is one of the main reasons you might choose an iPad over anything else. Its user interface is incredibly responsive, allowing for smooth swiping between pages. It’s rare for an iPad to crash, and there’s a wider choice of apps and other content available from Apple’s App Store than from Google's Play (the new name for the Android Market) or Blackberry’s App World.

Apple App Store

Part of Apple’s success is down to its control of the iPad hardware and iOS, the software that runs on it. This leads to a better user experience, as app designers know the exact specifications and capabilities of the device they are developing for.

However, this stranglehold has its downsides. For example, all content in the app store must first be approved by Apple, and Safari, the iPad’s web browser, cannot display Flash content. This is still prevalent on the web, and it means you'll occasionally have to resort to a laptop to watch a video or access certain websites.

As with the iPod and iPhone, the iPad has to be managed with iTunes, Apple’s software for desktop computers. To put films, music or any other content on the iPad, they have to be connected to your iTunes media library (or purchased from the iTunes app on the device itself). You can't copy files across in Windows Explorer, nor download files such as music and videos from an iPad. This idea takes some getting used to, but it eliminates a lot of incompatibility issues.

Despite this and relatively high prices, the iPad has still become the most popular tablet platform, outselling its rivals by a considerable margin.

NEXT PAGE: Android and BlackBerry OS

Click the following links to jump to the task you're interested in:

Best tablet for email

Best tablet for photos, video and music 

Best tablet for web browsing   

Best tablet for games  

Best tablet for office productivity 

Best tablet for printing  

Best tablet for typing 

What's the best app store? 

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