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Tablet Buying Guide: A Primer for Technophobes, Luddites and the Just Plain Confused

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Every year it's the same thing. "Buy my super-duper awesome/hallowed/glorious razzle-dazzle technology coated in gold-flecked app sauce because we're the best and the rest stink!" Nice sales pitch? Eh. Overwhelming? Yep. Confusing for some? Oh yeah. It can leave you feeling like this:

And it only gets more frenzied during the holiday shopping season as everyone from Apple to LG trots out their blank glass slabs and requests, nay DEMANDS we glue our eyeballs to a screen the size of a comic book. Hopefully this guide will take some of the mystery out of your tablet shopping for a loved one. Or shopping for yourself, even. I'm cool with that.

This no-frills guide will help you make your choice. You might even choose not to buy one at all! I'm cool with that too. However, this guide will not recommend which tablet to purchase. No "Google Rules, Apple drools!" or "Jingle Bells, Samsung smells!" here. All the information here was gleaned from manufacturer websites, Wikipedia and personal experience. For brevity's sake, I will only cover models released this year. Otherwise, we could be here all holiday season. Here's how the guide will break down:

Part I - Quick and Dirty Glossary

Part II - Tablets. Skip to here if you want to skip the glossary and jump right to the meat of things. I don't recommend this though, if you're a first-time buyer.

The aformentioned companies, among others, like to dazzle with technical terms and detailed device specifications when advertising their wares. You will likely run across these when shopping online or in a store. Let me demystify some for you here:

PPI - One of the most common terms thrown around, PPI stands for "pixels per inch" and is a measure of how sharp the display is. The higher this number, the sharper the tablet screen. Practically speaking, anything above 260 PPI will deliver a clear, high-definition image on your screen unless you're the type to use a tablet with your nose mashed against the glass. FYI, screen resolutions are also shown as horizontal by vertical numbers of pixels like so: 1920 x 1200. The larger number refers to the horizontal pixels, the smaller to the vertical when the tablet is held in landscape.

App - Short for application. These are programs devoted to specific tasks such as watching video, reading ebooks, or playing games. Available through app stores from Apple, Google, Amazon and Microsoft.

Retina - Apple's marketing term for display sharpness.

Android - Google's mobile operating system, used by nearly all tablet manufacturers aside from Apple and Microsoft. Tends to be heavily customized by non-Google tablet manufacturers.

iOS - Apple's mobile operating system, only found on Apple devices. Don't even think about looking for it elsewhere.

Windows RT - Microsoft's tablet operating system, a steamlined verson of Windows 8 to allow for use on mobile devices.

IPS - Stands for In-Plane Switching. This is a type of display that offers wider viewing angles than standard LCD screens. In other words, Grandma, Grandpa and all ten grandkids can squeeze in on the couch and still see whatever Little Johnny is watching on his new toy. All the tablets mentioned here use this technology.

Quad/dual/octo-core - Refers to the number of CPUs a tablet has. Let's make it simple. All the tablets discussed below feel perfectly zippy and capable of running the latest software available in various app stores. The number of cores doesn't merit serious consideration when buying the current crop of devices.

Snapdragon - A commonly used processor in Android devices. Manufactured by Qualcomm.

A5/A6/A7 - Apple's name for its tablet processors.

Exynos - Samsung's processor, found in some Samsung tablets. Only some? Yes, others use Snapdragons. Long story.

Intel Core - A full-powered computer processor found in some Microsoft tablets.

Tegra 4 - NVIDIA's mobile processor.

MP - Megapixels. Anyone who uses cameras is familiar with this term. Also, most smartphones and cameras come with higher megapixel counts than tablets, so please don't look silly by using your new tab to snap family photos. As an aside, all the tablets discussed here have front-facing cameras to allow for video-chatting.

Here's a rundown on the tablets themselves and what to look for. I will list these in order by manufacturer. All of these tablets have at least 16 gigabytes of storage space, which is more than adequate for most users. Unless you've got 15 million songs recorded at the highest possible digital fidelity, but who does that?

Amazon Kindle Fire HDX - Amazon's current lineup comes in two flavors: the Fire HDX 7 and Fire HDX 8.9. The HDX 7 is a 7-inch slate with a 1920x1200 (323 ppi) resolution. The HDX 8.9 has 339 ppi squeezed into a 2560x1600 8.9-inch display. These models run from $229 to $544 depending on display size, storage and whether you opt for cellular connections in addition to wi-fi.

The Kindles come with the new Mayday feature which allows you to contact Amazon directly for technical support via video chat. They can't see you but you can see them and they can see your screen, allowing them to walk you through tech issues. In other words, if Mom or Dad drives you nuts with tech support requests, this is a good feature. Amazon also uses a heavily-customized version of Android called Mojito for its operating system. People who purchase a Fire will have access to Amazon's entire digital library, including Amazon Prime videos which are not available on other Android devices without using workarounds.

Unlike most Android tablets, however, Kindles will not give you access to the official Google Play Store for Android apps, only Amazon's app store. If you want the full app selection, perhaps go elsewhere. If you're content with a lot of movie-watching and book-reading, the Fire HDXs are fine choices.

Apple iPad - This is the 200-ton whale of the tablet world. For many people, this is the device that springs to mind when you say "tablet." That has changed a bit recently since the number of Android tablets on the market has increased drastically. Apple, like Amazon, has two new tablets available this holiday season: the iPad Mini with Retina display (bit of a mouthful but hey, take it up with marketing) and the iPad Air, which also has Apple's trademarked Retina display.

The Retina Mini and the Air use the same display resolution of 2048x1536. This turns into 326 ppi for the 7.9-inch Mini and 264 ppi for the 9.7-inch Air. Again, unless you're holding the thing an inch from your face, the displays on both of these will work just fine for watching Netflix or reading one of our ebooks.

"Whoa whoa whoa," I hear you saying. "How can the same resolution mean different amounts of ppi? Does that mean one isn't as good as the other?" The two tablets have different ppi counts because the Mini is fitting the same number of pixels into a smaller area.

Prices run from $399 all the way to $929 depending, once again, on the amount of storage space, connection options and screen size. Hint: the fully tricked out 9.7-inch Air is the one that will run $929. A caveat: if you're shopping for a Mini with Retina, you must make sure that's what the box says, as last year's Mini is still available for sale and store flyers do not make it easy to distinguish between the two. A good indicator is the price. If it's not in the neighborhood of $399, it's not the Retina model.

Apple's App Store does boast the largest number of apps among all the app stores. More specifically, it has the largest number of tablet specific apps, meaning they are optimized for the larger displays on tablets as opposed to smartphones. If you want app selection as well as streaming video, ebooks and Internet, these are a good choice.

Google Nexus 7 - Google partnered with Asus to manufacture their 7-inch slab. The Nexus 7 runs Google's Android operating system free of any outside modification by manufacturers like Samsung or Amazon. Also, being part of the Nexus line, it will always receive the latest updates to Android as long as the hardware can support it. This is similar to Apple's practice of upgrading iOS even on devices that are several years old. Other Android device manufacturers tend to take a longer time to update the operating system.

Whether this is a strength or weakness is largely a matter of user experience. What I can say is that the Nexus 7's screen is just as sharp as the competition's. At 1920x1200, it packs 323 ppi into the 7-inch screen so movies and ebooks will look just as good here as on other slates. It comes with full access to the Google Play Store AND you can install other app stores such as Amazon's if you like comparison shopping. This tab also comes pre-loaded with Google Now, a personal assistant that utilizes the GPS and other data to provide info about local conditions like traffic or weather, keep track of appointments, so on. Like having a secretary in your pocket.

Google Play is the second largest app store behind Apple, but is rapidly catching up although it does not have as many tablet-optimized apps. The Nexus 7 can run you $229 for the base model up to $349 for the tricked out LTE version. eBooks, streaming movies and games look fine here too, making these a good choice. Are you detecting a pattern?

Microsoft Surface - Microsoft was a late entry to the tablet wars with its Surface line last year. This year it offers up two Surface tablets for your perusal. There's the Surface 2 which utilizes Windows RT, a version of Windows 8 specifically designed to run on the lower-power tablet processors. On the higher end is the Surface Pro 2 which runs more like a fully fledged laptop than a tablet thanks to its Intel processor and full version of Windows 8. Both tabs sport a 1920 x 1080 resolution on a 10.6-inch screen, bringing their ppi count to 206. One more time, your streaming flicks, gaming and library ebooks will look perfectly fine on these displays. They're high definition displays, meaning you won't see a pixel unless you make like a kid in a candy store window. Yes, I know some people do. Shush.

One of the main selling points Microsoft uses is the cover, which doubles as protection and as a keyboard. These do add $169 to the base price of $449 for the basic Surface 2 and $899 for the Pro. Another selling point has been the built-in kickstand on both devices, which is nice for propping on a table to watch your flicks. Both devices will also run Microsoft Office, with the Surface 2 running a streamlined version for ease of use on tablets. The Windows app shop does not boast as many programs as the competition, but all the important ones like Overdrive are there. You can get your Netflix or Hulu fix as well as download a Kindle or Nook app for your ebook needs. App selection is not as much of an issue on the Pro since it runs the full-fledged Windows operating system which means it will satisfy the Skyrim or Warcraft player in your life if that's the goal. These also make good choices for your special techie.

They're all fine choices, really. It's hard to argue for one device's superiority over another when all of them have crisp displays, speedy processors and plenty of content choices available. My final piece of advice? Go to the store and play with each device. Pick them up, see how they feel in the hand. See if you like how they work, whether they're responsive enough to your touch, and how the displays look under the harsh store lighting.

If it's not comfortable to hold, feels too heavy, or looks washed out to you, then all the bells and whistles will mean nothing. All of these tablets will do the important stuff like email, Internet surfing, movie watching and ebook reading. Most important of all, they all let you check out our ebooks using Overdrive! Pro tip: it really doesn't matter what color the tablet is either. Black, white, hot pink, it all works.

Comments

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More tech info to come?

Joshua. This was a great review and clears up a lot of information about tablets. Have you considered doing a review on ereaders such as the Kindle, Kindle Fire and Nook?

just what I was looking for

Joshua, this was a great review. I have been confused by the many claims of the different tablet makers and instead of just throwing in the towel and buying the iPad or Kindle, its nice to know the ins and outs of all the major brands. I, too, would like you to consider reviewing Nook tablets, Kindles and Kobo in a format similar to this. These tablets are tied to "locked gardens" of content and I am more interested in downloading ebooks from Overdrive, but I do realize some $.99 ebooks are too tempting. FYI I don't own a tablet yet. Happy new year!

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