For a long time, you didn’t have much choice if you were in the market for a tablet--Apple’s iPad was the only good option. But that’s starting to change: Though the iPad 2 remains the top slate overall, the best choice for you may well be one that runs Google’s Android operating system.
It all depends on what you need from a tablet. Lots of Android models beat the iPad 2 in specific respects. Some have longer battery life, for instance. Others make it easier to get work done. Some are simpler to use with a camera or TV. Others may come in a size that you find more convenient.
Of course, a tablet’s operating system is hugely important. iOS is consistent, polished, and dependable. If you buy Apple’s tablet, however, you also buy into Apple’s universe--and you can use only the apps that Apple okays.
Android gives you more freedom and control (although it doesn’t always work as smoothly). And Android offers several other benefits. For example, Android 3.x Honeycomb was made to take full advantage of larger tablet displays, and it does a better job than iOS 4.x or 5.x in effectively using the screen for notifications, email, Web browsing, and image viewing.
Android is dynamic and customizable. You can tailor the home screens’ look and function. Many apps have live widgets that let you preview email or weather from the home screen, without opening the app. Some tablets have custom apps with navigation shortcuts; Lenovo’s favorite-apps ring stands out, as does Sony’s customizable menu design. In contrast, iOS screens are static; the icons are just graphics that open apps.
You have more Android hardware choices, too. Tablets come in varied screen sizes: 7 inches, 8 inches, 8.9 inches, 9.4 inches, 10.1 inches. Some have screens of a higher resolution than the iPad 2’s display, some offer the option to add more storage with a memory card, and some boast integrated ports.
Android can’t compete with iOS, however, in the number of available apps. More than 100,000 apps are designed to run on the iPad, but at this point it’s unclear how many apps are made specifically for Android Honeycomb tablets. It’s difficult to know for sure because Google’s Android Market doesn’t make it easy to find apps created especially for tablets.
Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, coming to phones in the next few weeks and to tablets in early 2012, should encourage developers to create more apps that will work on Android tablets. Theoretically the new OS will let developers scale their apps from small screens to large, so one app can serve both phones and tablets. Don’t expect Android 4.0 to be an instant cure, however. It will be some time before you see a jump in the number of apps that properly employ tablets’ larger screens. And finding apps may continue to be a problem: Although Google says the Market returns results that are appropriate for the device you’re searching from, in our experience it’s no guarantee that a listed app will display or work well on a tablet.
Top 10 Tablets
We examined more than two dozen tablets for this roundup, working with each model extensively and running all of them through the PCWorld Labs suite of tablet tests. The iPad 2 is our top choice overall, primarily because of the strength of its app ecosystem and how it allows you to find apps. However, Android tablets, led by the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, are hot on the trail of our leader, excelling in areas such as enhancing productivity and playing well with other devices. For more details, see our Top 10 Tablets ranked chart, and read on to see our picks for the top tablets in media handling, openness and expandability, battery life, productivity, and gaming.
Next page: Best tablets for media and expandability
Photos, Music, and Video
Best: Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1
For many people, a tablet primarily serves as an entertainment device meant for viewing photos, listening to music, or watching video. For those uses, no tablet beats the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1. It benefits from Android’s open platform, which lets you transfer media files from your PC to the tablet directly, no software intermediary or video transcoding needed. In our tests, transferring media files to the Tab 10.1 took half as long as doing so to the iPad 2, which required iTunes software.
Furthermore, Android’s Gallery app is more flexible, and provides more options, than Apple’s built-in photo viewer. Video looks great on the Tab 10.1’s sharp display, too.
Apple’s iPad 2 uses iTunes to sync music and video to the tablet. This arrangement is fine for music and video already in your iTunes library, but not great for video captured from other sources. Syncing images through iTunes is a pain as well.
The iPad 2’s biggest strength is its display, which has good color accuracy and skin tones, and the best balance of colors we’ve seen. The display lacks the resolution necessary to produce crisp, detailed images, however, and it struggled to render text on our image of a Web page. For those reasons, the iPad 2 tied the Tab 10.1 in our subjective display tests.
Though the Tab 10.1 had a few issues of its own, it still finished way ahead of the pack. Colors were oversaturated, to the point where a purple outfit took on blue hues, and reds resembled candy-cane stripes. We also detected a Gallery glitch that affected our Tab 10.1 model, in which images required a pinch-and-zoom action to sharpen to full resolution. Samsung has identified the issue and plans to fix it in an update.
Meanwhile, all of the Android models we’ve evaluated struggle to some degree at properly reproducing the browns and neutral shadings of skin tones. That failure is so consistent on tablets from different manufacturers that I can only think something in the way Android handles colors is off.
None of the tested tablets produced terrific audio through their built-in speakers. All of the Android models tended to sound tinny, with soft volume piped through Google’s included music player. Again, the universality of this issue makes me wonder whether Android’s audio processing is at fault. Here’s why: When I played the same tracks through the speakers of the Sony Tablet S in the Google Music Player and in Sony’s own music player, the audio sounded transformed in the latter. The audio from Sony’s player--which uses several enhancement technologies that the company says it developed for its Walkman series--was far superior, with better bass and body.
Openness and Expandability
Best: Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet, Sony Tablet S, Toshiba Thrive
The iPad 2 is an island--you can’t connect it to another device without a dongle, and even then you may get limited functionality. And you can’t add storage; whatever capacity you buy is what you have for the duration.
In contrast, generally Android tablets connect to a TV or camera much more easily, and they let you add more storage through a memory card.
The Sony Tablet S has two features that are handy when you want to use your tablet in your living room. Several tablets, including those from Asus and Samsung, have software for streaming content from your tablet over a home network. But Sony’s Tablet S is the only slate that integrates the ability to send content to a device (such as an HDTV) with a simple tap directly from whatever content you want to transmit wirelessly. The Tablet S is also the only model in our Top 10 that can double as a universal remote control. (It’s one of just three tablets at this writing to offer a universal remote; the others are Vizio’s 8” Tablet VTAB1008, which didn’t make our chart, and Samsung’s Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus, which came out too late for inclusion in our testing batch for this story.) The Tablet S has an infrared blaster like the ones in conventional remote controls, along with a well-designed on-screen remote to use with your home entertainment system.
For a reliable connection to your HDTV, be sure to select a tablet that has a full-size, Mini, or Micro HDMI port built in. Tablets that lack integrated ports--such as the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 and Apple iPad 2--require bulky dongles that will set you back about $40. Aside from the Galaxy Tab 10.1 and the Galaxy Tab 8.9, all of the Android models in our Top 10 Tablets chart have an HDMI output of some kind.
Memory card slots obviously make tablets more versatile, but beware: Not all card slots are equally useful. Some tablets permit you to transfer files from a card, but won’t allow you to store apps and data on one. And full-size slots--as opposed to MicroSD slots--mean that you can take the card from your camera and put it directly into your tablet to view your pictures.
Of the three tablets on our chart that come equipped with a full-size SD Card slot, one, the Sony Tablet S, can merely transfer files from the card, not use it for extra storage (Sony says that it will support doing so in a future update). The Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet and the Toshiba Thrive can use memory cards as storage space. And the Thrive is the only tablet to support SDXC, a card format that accommodates up to 100GB of digital data. Both the ThinkPad Tablet and the Thrive also have a full-size USB port for use with flash drives or hard drives.
Best: Apple iPad 2
If you spend much of the day away from power outlets, the Galaxy Tab 10.1 may be the best tablet for you. It finished on top in our battery-life tests, running for 10 hours, 42 minutes while continuously playing a 1080p video. The Tab 10.1 lasted 2 hours, 18 minutes longer than its closest rival, the Apple iPad 2, and 3 hours longer than the Motorola Xoom.
Unfortunately, the Tab 10.1 was slow to recharge: It needed 5 hours, 34 minutes, more than double the time that the best performers (the Xoom, the Thrive, and the Acer Iconia Tab A500, A501, and A100) required. The iPad 2 wasn’t the fastest at recharging; but at 4 hours, 10 minutes, it provided a better balance between battery run time and charge time than the Tab 10.1 did, so we think it’s a better choice in this category overall.
Best: Asus Eee Pad Slider, Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet
Tablets may not be able to perform hard-core video or photo editing, or crunch macro-filled spreadsheets, but they will let you handle key productivity tasks such as responding to email, writing and editing business documents, and browsing the Web.
Our two picks here distinguish themselves for very different reasons. The ThinkPad Tablet stands out in one clear way: It’s the only 10-inch-class Android tablet on our chart to support pen input, which makes it useful for annotating, sketching, and writing free-form notes. It uses N-trig’s digitizer pen (a $30 option), and even offers a spot for you to tuck the stylus away. Yes, you can find numerous capacitive touchscreen pens, but none of them have the precision and accuracy of N-trig’s tech. The ThinkPad Tablet’s business-friendly security features and options, such as the terrific $100 Keyboard Folio case (pictured below), also make it one to beat in this category.
The innovative Asus Eee Pad Slider, our other selection for productivity champion, lacks business-specific options, and it’s the heaviest tablet we’ve tested. But it’s the only slate available that has a built-in physical keyboard--a terrific option if you plan to walk and type at the same time, or if you want the speed and convenience that only an integrated, slide-out keyboard can provide. The slide-out keyboard isn’t as roomy as some optional external keyboards, such as the ThinkPad Keyboard Folio Case, but the usefulness of having the keyboard present at all times is unmatched. I also appreciated the fact that the display was set at a comfortable angle when I pulled out the cramped but functional keyboard; the only thing I missed was having an integrated pointing device.
If a pointing device is important to you, consider the other Asus tablet on our Top 10 chart, the Eee Pad Transformer TF101. It pairs with the company’s $150 dock, resulting in a combo that folds together like a clamshell netbook. And when you don’t want the bulk and weight of the keyboard, no problem--just detach it and go. The dock also has a USB port and an SD Card slot, plus an extra battery and an integrated touchpad.
Although external Bluetooth keyboards and keyboard/case combos are options, it’s important to look at a tablet’s built-in software keyboard, too. An inefficiently designed keyboard can give you much grief in the long run--especially if you can’t replace it, as is the case with Apple’s native iOS keyboard.
Regrettably, Apple’s keyboard is one of the most awkward on-screen keyboards I’ve used. Other keyboard layouts and designs are far superior, with better key placement and spacing, and more-useful shortcuts. I can touch-type more quickly on the default Android keyboard than I can on the iPad 2 keyboard. The new split thumb-keyboard design available in iOS 5 is good, but you can add something similar to Android by buying one of several replacement-keyboard apps. That Android lets you replace the keyboard with a third-party app is a critical productivity difference between iOS and Android.
Many Android tablets come with a customized keyboard from the get-go. The Tab 10.1 has one of my favorite custom keyboards; I find it well designed and finger-friendly. The Asus, Lenovo, Sony, T-Mobile, and Toshiba models on our Top 10 Tablets chart also supply their own on-screen keyboards.
The iPad 2 is subpar in content creation as well, since iOS lacks a central file-management system. That means files end up associated with specific apps--and you can get those files out only if an app is written in a way that allows it. For example, if you use Dropbox to access a file, you can open that file only in an app that’s written to interface with Dropbox; the same condition applies if you open an email attachment. Bottom line: On the iPad 2, you don’t have full control over your data.
Android tablets permit you to access the central file system, messy though it may be. The advantage becomes clear the first time you want to, say, transfer a file from an SD Card, edit it in one app, rename it, open it in a second app, and then email it to a new destination. Or you might want to move images around into different folders, a task that’s quite easy to do in a file-manager app on Android, but not on iOS.
I also prefer Android’s included productivity software over the apps that iOS offers. I like the way the Android Web browser works, and the way the Gmail app is designed, too.
Productivity is one of the few areas in which Android tablets compete with the iPad in the availability of apps. You’ll find suites such as Documents to Go, Polaris Office, Quickoffice, and ThinkFree Mobile Office designed for Android tablets. The Android Market also features a plethora of file managers and remote control software.
For productivity, generally you should go straight to the larger models: The 10.1-inch Android tablets have roomy, widescreen displays that offer almost as much real estate as a netbook does. However, the 7-inch, 1280-by-800-pixel T-Mobile SpringBoard has one advantage: It’s the first of a new wave of high-resolution displays. In our tests, its smoothly rendered, nonpixelated text stood in sharp contrast to the text on most Android models. While text is certainly readable on other tablets, going from one of them to the SpringBoard reminds me of when an optometrist makes a simple adjustment and the eye chart goes from slightly fuzzy to crisp.
Best: Apple iPad 2
A great gaming tablet needs to have capable hardware and a terrific selection of games. On both criteria, the iPad 2 can’t be beat. In its sheer ability to process frames per second, it leads all comers. The iPad 2 produced 52 fps on our gaming test with antialiasing off, scoring 27 percent higher than the nearest Android rival, the 7-inch, 1024-by-600-pixel Acer Iconia Tab A100, which hit a frame rate of 41 fps. (The test we run, GLBenchmark 2.1, is representative of a 3D game using OpenGL. We run the test at the tablet’s native screen resolution; if a slate has a comparatively low resolution, it could do better in this metric.)
We saw a wide variance among the test results for Honeycomb tablets. In fact, among Android 3.1 and 3.2 models with the same core components (Nvidia Tegra 2 CPU, 1GB of memory), the difference was as large as 77 percent. Some of that variance might be attributable to the tablets’ different screen sizes, while some might stem from the optimization changes that manufacturers make to the Android software. However, most of the tablets with Tegra 2 chips averaged between 20 and 30 fps. (On desktop and laptop PCs, we consider 30 fps the minimum playable frame rate for games, although some games may play acceptably at lower frame rates.)
The benchmark we use stresses a given tablet’s 3D-graphics performance, but few games available today will push an Android tablet to anywhere near its limits. (If you’re interested in such games, however, take a look at titles optimized for Nvidia’s Tegra 2 processor.) Popular games such as Angry Birds and Bejeweled, for example, won’t stretch your tablet’s graphics capabilities.
In fact, you’ll find relatively few games available for Android tablets at all. A far larger selection of games is available for the iPad, and more marquee developers are working on iOS games than on games for Android. And as with Android apps in general, you may not be able to tell from the Android Market description whether a game will even work on a particular Android tablet, let alone whether it’s optimized for a tablet.
Now that Android 4.0 has arrived, however, the situation may begin to evolve. We expect to see more tablet-friendly games, since, as noted earlier, Ice Cream Sandwich changes how Android scales apps for different-size screens. Additionally, by default the new OS enables hardware graphics acceleration for smoother gameplay.
Sony’s Tablet S, in particular, has the potential to play a wider variety of games than other Android tablets because it has access to Sony’s PlayStation Store, which is gradually ramping up its selection of titles (about a dozen are becoming available through the fall, and more are expected by year’s end). The company intends to provide Android versions of classic PlayStation and PlayStation Portable games. For instance, the Tablet S comes preloaded with Crash Bandicoot, which was a hoot to play once I got accustomed to the on-screen replica of the PlayStation controls. The graphics of this 1996 title seemed ragged in my tests, but the game remains entertaining. Sony plans to open access to its PlayStation Store to more tablets; for now, though, this is Sony’s secret weapon for game lovers.
In our gaming tests, the Tablet S tied with the Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet, achieving an average of 30 fps, enough to handle challenging game graphics smoothly.
Looking ahead in gaming, Android has one wild card in its favor: The OS supports physical game controllers connected via USB or Bluetooth. This capability is a big boon, assuming developers take advantage of it. Apple’s offering has no similar feature: The iPad 2 lacks a USB port, and iOS doesn’t allow Bluetooth game controllers to interface with the tablet.