How to buy a tablet

Tablets are everywhere today, and many more are on the way. We tell you what to consider, before you buy

As more tablets come to market, be prepared to be wowed by the power that some of these slates are capable of. You'll find plenty of models out there, including tablets with impressive dual-core processors or even quad-core chips. And many tablets can satisfy specific needs. The iPad 2 shines bright, but it isn't the only star in the tablet universe.

Be aware, however, that the lower-end models you may see advertised at rock-bottom prices come with lots of gotchas. The following three key points are critical to keep in mind before you buy.

1. You Get What You Pay For

The supercheap tablets you see advertised around the Web carry those low prices for a reason. Typically they lack the processing power, memory, display quality, or responsiveness (or some combination thereof) to provide a satisfying experience. Not that tablets should be all about specs, but right now, if you're going to buy, do pay close attention to specs. Single-core models, or those with CPUs offering a clock rate less than 1GHz, are going to be slow performers. In addition, watch out for resistive touchscreens, which generally lag in responsiveness, and for low-resolution displays.

The one bonus: None of these inexpensive models require a service contract with a carrier, so you'll have the option to ditch your first tablet with less pain than if you had signed a contract.

2. Service Contracts Risk Your Ability to Upgrade

While it's possible to get a tablet via a service carrier without a contract, you'll pay more for that privilege. The unfortunate reality is that many tablets--especially those that have 3G connectivity--are tied to contract obligations with mobile broadband service carriers. That means that if you buy a tablet today with a carrier contract, you won't be eligible for an upgrade anytime soon. Never mind the two-year wait for a contract to expire; in the tablet universe, the technology is evolving so rapidly that the market will shift again in six months, let alone one or two years. For example, tablets based on Nvidia's dual-core Tegra 2 and quad-core Tegra 3 chips came out in the same year.

Before signing up, get a sense that the unit you're buying is the one you want, and not just a stopgap until the next great thing comes along (though something is always around the corner). The amount you save up front may not offset what you'll pay down the road--and the freedom to change devices may be something it's not worth putting a price on.

3. For Android Tablets, Look for Google Services

Let me preface this by saying that a number of alternative app stores are around, such as GetJar and Amazon's Appstore. But the bottom line is, they're not the official Google Android Market. Having the Android Market on a device--along with other Google services such as those for maps and email--just makes using an Android tablet more fluid, and stronger on the whole. The "Google Experience" encourages a certain consistency and expectation of what you're going to get, so if you're bothering to plop down the bucks for a tablet now, consider that the more complete and well-rounded your experience, the more likely it is that you'll love your tablet. Think of what has made Apple's iPad so strong beyond the easy-to-use interface: It's the simplicity of accessing a deep array of apps.

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