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

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Best tablet for web browsing   

Best tablet for games  

Best tablet for office productivity 

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Best tablet for typing 

What's the best app store? 

Google Android

For

  • Open to user customisation
  • Available on a wider range of devices than iOS
  • Some Android tablets cost a lot less than the iPad

 Against

  • Lacks consistency between Android versions and devices
  • Fewer tablet-specific apps available from Google Play

Google’s open approach of Android is in stark contrast to Apple’s tightly controlled iOS environment. The firm is responsible for the operating system software, its content store, and owns many popular services that are an integral part, including YouTube, Gmail, and Google Maps.

But the hardware is produced by third parties such as Samsung, Asus and Sony. This menas there's a bigger choice and a range of prices. Flagship Android tablets, such as the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 and Asus Transformer Prime, are about as powerful and well-built as Apple’s iPad (and cost a similar amount), but there are also much cheaper ones.

There’s a variety of screen sizes too, in both 4:3 and 16:9 screen formats. For example, the 8.2-inch Motorola Xoom 2 Media Edition is lighter than an iPad, small enough to hold in one hand, but still powerful enough to play high-definition video and games.

Asus Transformer Prime

Many of the cheaper Android tablets may seem bargains, but can have buggy software, poor build quality and in many cases, lack official Google apps or access to Google Play. Our advice is to avoid models that lack Google Play, and also those which have resistive, rather than capacitive, displays.

Android supports open standards, such as DLNA, and many (but not all) Android tablets have USB and a MicroSD card slot for expansion. When connected, Android devices show up as a folder in Windows, and files can be copied to and from it. The browser supports Flash, too.

Android's widgets - mini versions of apps which run on the desktop - provide an up-to-date view of things such as your email inbox and photo collection. One of the most appealing reasons to choose Android, however, is the freedom to customise things. If you want to use a different browser, you can. If you want to try a different media player, there are plenty to choose from. Even the onscreen keyboard can be customised.

Motorola Xoom 2

The version of Android you get varies depending on the tablet. The latest is called Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS), but many tablets run earlier iterations. When Google releases a new version, it has to be repackaged by the hardware manufacturer before it can be downloaded to your device. There's no guarantee the update will be available for every tablet.

 This is one reason why so far, Android tablets have been less popular with content creators and app developers than the iPad. The variety of software, screen sizes and resolutions means a game or app may look good on one tablet, but not on another. There are far fewer apps designed specifically for the larger screens of Android tablets than for Android phones.

Blackberry PlayBook OS 2.0

For

  • The PlayBook starts from only £169
  • PlayBook OS is responsive and intuitive

 Against

  • Small number of apps available
  • Long-term support uncertain

BlackBerry PlayBook

RIM’s 7-inch Blackberry PlayBook is an inexpensive alternative to an Android tablet or iPad. The cheapest PlayBook costs only £169, but is well-built and powerful enough to perform most tasks.

The recent update (version 2.0) added a much-needed email client and is far more polished than before. The combination of the operating system and hardware is surprisingly good considering the low price.

The 7in form factor means the PlayBook is lighter and easier to carry than a 10in tablet. Scrolling and zooming on web pages is smooth and the interface is responsive and easy to use. The screen is excellent, and the Blackberry App World store has some good software to try out.

But RIM is a far smaller player in tablets than either Google or Apple, and far fewer PlayBooks have been sold, which puts it lower on developers' lists. This is why there's a smaller selection of apps, and there’s a small chance that the firm will follow HP’s lead and choose not to continue developing the PlayBook in the future.

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?