We all have our technological line in the sand: that imaginary border separating the gadgets we’re willing to buy and use and those we are not. For a while, many of us resisted smart phones, arguing we already had a computer and didn’t want to get sucked further into the digital addiction such devices seem to engender. Today, I suspect, tablets like the iPad have many of us straddling that line.
I’m here to push you fence-sitters over.
The first thing to realize: Tablets are actually intended to make your life simpler. They can do essentially everything your computer can, with the benefit of being much smaller and lighter. You can Skype with your kids as you walk around the house or edit vacation photos while you fetch the mail.
By design, tablets have a minimum of physical buttons — sometimes just a power switch and volume controls — and instead of a keyboard and mouse, they offer a large touchscreen where you choose functions, browse content or tap out messages with your fingers.
The great thing about a tablet is that you can use it for the most basic of functions (email, Web-surfing) or enlist it for such major projects as editing home movies. Apps to do all this and much more are plentiful and usually priced at a fraction of the cost of computer software.
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An Introduction to Tablets
Launched in 2010 by Steve Jobs, the iPad took the world by storm, selling a million units in its first month. Other companies quickly followed with their own versions, and last year an estimated 120 million tablets were sold worldwide, accounting for at least one-fifth of all computers shipped.
Most tablets work in fairly similar ways. To download apps and use your tablet online, you need to connect to the Internet. All tablets can link to wireless networks at home or in hotspots. Some can also use the cellphone network (3G or 4G) for access on the move. These tablets generally cost a bit more, plus you have to pay for the data you use. Without an Internet connection, you can still play games and take pictures, but you’ll be missing out on all the fun.
Switch on a tablet and the home screen lights up. This is like the main screen on your smart phone or computer, and you can always get back here by pressing either a home button or a little house symbol, usually located in the bottom left corner.
The home screen has a grid of colorful app icons. On some tablets, these icons change automatically as things happen, displaying the first line of a new email or a rain cloud shifting to sun on a weather app. If you want to go into a particular app, simply touch its icon, and it will expand to fill the screen. When you’re done, hit the home button/icon to return to the home page. Swiping with a finger lets you turn a page or scroll through a document, while using two fingers to pinch zooms in to pictures or maps.
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Why Choose a Tablet Over Other Devices
First and probably foremost, tablets are thin, light and highly mobile. Most can last up to a full day on battery power before needing to be plugged in. On top of that, they can connect to wireless hotspots or 3G and 4G networks for Internet access almost anywhere you find yourself — and they’re made to be easy to use. Touchscreens might take a little while to get used to, but once you’re over that, you’ll find few confusing menus to navigate and little or no jargon to tackle.
Want more? They’ve got (practically) everything you need. Tablets come with built-in apps for email, calendars, Web browsing, music and video. You can buy ebooks, songs and movies with just a tap, and many come equipped with a camera and GPS.
Most have built-in speakers that vary in quality from tinny to loud and tinny. So you don’t need earphones, but you might prefer to use them. Also, you can usually connect speakers wirelessly via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, although that can get a little techy. All tablets will synch to your iTunes libraries on either PCs or Macs.
What doesn’t come preloaded is easily purchased. If you want more features, just download an app. Tens of thousands are available and they do virtually anything you can think of, from ordering a pizza to saving money on everyday activities. Many apps are free, most are less than $1 and only a very few cost more than $10 — and those are mainly powerful office apps like Pages, or beautiful interactive books like Solar System or the latest games.
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What Are the Downsides of a Tablet?
Despite their many advantages, tablets still have their limitations. Because they don’t have keyboards, a virtual typewriter pops up on the screen anytime you need to enter information — like when you open a writing app or click on a text box on a Web page. If you can type with more than two fingers, you’ll find these cramped keyboards slow, and you certainly wouldn’t want to tap out your memoir on them.
If you’re comfortable toggling between windows, you might be frustrated by the fact that tablets can display only one app at a time. And connecting devices like printers to create photos or cameras to download your snaps can be cumbersome.
But many companies are now making gadgets and accessories just for tablets. Wireless keyboards, for instance, let you type at full speed. Some tablets have rests that prop them (or a keyboard) up while you type or that double as a protective screen cover when you're not using it (which, you’ll probably find, is an increasingly small amount of time). Also, many newer cameras and printers now have Wi-Fi built in to connect with tablets wirelessly.
How to Choose the Right Tablet for You
There are dozens of different tablets on the market, but most fall into four basic categories. Each has its own particular apps and ways of doing things, but popular services like Facebook and Skype are universally available. First-time users should be fine with the most basic model in each range, although paying a little more for a 3G or 4G connection can be worth it you plan to use it regularly on the move.
- Apple iPad: The original tablet, it’s still the most popular, accounting for nearly half of all tablets sold. iPads have beautiful design, sharp, colorful screens and long battery lives, as well as the best selection of high-quality apps. Obviously they are fully compatible with iPhones and Mac computers, and it’s easy to share apps and content across the different platforms. The drawbacks: They come in just two sizes, 9.7- and 7.9-inch, and are significantly more expensive than most rivals. Ideal for: Anyone looking for the widest range of apps and a machine built to last ($329 – $929). The least-expensive is an entry-level mini with just 16GB of storage and Wi-Fi connectivity only. The top of the line is full-size and offers 128GB of memory and Wi-Fi plus 4G connectivity.
- Android: Google invented the Android operating system, and today dozens of manufacturers make Android tablets ranging from under 5 to over 10 inches. Google’s own great-value Nexus range offers high-resolution screens, fast performance and Google’s excellent mapping and email software. Not every Android tablet is built with the same attention to detail, so try before you buy. Ideal for: Users looking for a powerful tablet at a low price ($150 – $750). With the more expensive models, you get larger screens, more memory and more features.
- Amazon Kindle Fire: These competitively priced tablets are closely integrated with Amazon’s online stores, making it a snap to buy digital books, music and video, as well as a large library of Android apps. They lack GPS for maps and cameras for snapshots, however, and come in just two sizes, 7- and 9.7-inch. Ideal for: Anyone wanting a tablet for primarily for reading, watching movies and armchair shopping. ($159 – $499).
- Microsoft Surface: The newest kid on the block is very well made and runs Windows software, so apps might be familiar from your desktop computer. Surface tablets work a little differently than others, having their own quirky gestures to navigate apps and features, although these are quickly learned. Surface currently comes in only one size — 10.6 inch — and because it’s so new, long-term support from software developers is still uncertain. Ideal for: Fans of Window-based PCs ($499 – $999).
More Things Your Tablet Can Do
- Read (or listen to) ebooks for free. The built-in digital stores on your tablet are great, but they won’t tell you that you can download tens of thousands of ebooks for nothing. Project Gutenberg has more than 40,000 classic volumes, while Librivox offers thousands of audio books, read by silver-tongued volunteers.
- Unlock your digital entertainment center. Your tablet probably can’t hold as many songs, videos or photos as your computer — but it doesn’t have to. There are loads of great apps for “streaming” digital files from your computer to your tablet by beaming it over your wireless network at home. Apps like Ustream even let you turn your Android tablet into your very own TV station and stream video live online.
- Get help fast. If you want to learn more about your tablet, help is never more than a finger swipe away. Websites like iPad Academy and Android Academy have an archive of tips and tutorials with clear, explanatory screenshots. Often better are the homemade video walkthroughs you can find on YouTube, with lessons on advanced topics, like editing videos and setting up Skype.
Tablets are not just a passing techno-fad — they’re the future of computing. By freeing computers from the desktop, tablets put the digital world at your fingertips, wherever you may roam.
Mark E. Harris is a British science, technology and lifestyle journalist based in Seattle. He also writes for The Economist, The Sunday Times and Wired UK. He tweets from @meharris.