Making a new tech purchase can be a nerve-wracking process. There are dozens of brands to be aware of, lots of models to choose from, tons of tech terms that you may or may not understand, and even more mistakes that are way too easy to make. (Just take a look at our list of common computer-shopping mistakes for an idea of how easy it is to go wrong.) Shopping for a tablet can be a similarly complicated undertaking, but once you understand the basics of navigating the process, you’ll be much better prepared to make a good decision.
The easiest way to figure out how you should shop for a tablet is to be aware of the mistakes you shouldn’t make. Read on to learn from the six mistakes that people make way too often when they’re buying a tablet. Having a little bit of preparation and foresight can help you avoid wasting money on a tablet that isn’t right for your needs and struggles to meet your expectations.
1. Ignoring the software that powers a tablet
Just like when you’re buying a smartphone, the operating system is one of the first things you’ll need to decide on when you’re buying a tablet. Are you an Apple fan who wants a tablet that’ll play nice with your iPhone or your Mac? Then an iPad, which is powered by Apple’s iOS mobile operating system, is probably your best bet. Similarly, if you’re an Android fan or a Windows Phone user, you probably already know which operating system you might want in a tablet.
However, it’s important to look closely at the capabilities of the software you’re considering. That applies both to choosing an operating system carefully, and paying attention to which version of an OS a given tablet uses. For instance, iOS has some (albeit limited) multitasking features, while Android Marshmallow offers none to speak of, and Android N is expected to bring some split-screen capabilities. If a new version of Android offers a feature that you really want, make sure that you don’t buy a tablet that ships with an older version of the OS and likely won’t get an update anytime soon.
It’s also important to ensure that the Android tablets you’re considering don’t restrict access to the Android app store, impose limitations, or make other changes to the OS that will prevent you from making the customizations that you want. Similarly, if there are specific apps that you’re envisioning using on your brand-new tablet, check out the developer’s website and figure out whether there’s a tablet-optimized version of that app, or whether you’re simply going to be looking at a blown-up version of the smartphone app. You can access the Play Store and the App Store online, so it also pays to look around at a platform that you’re unfamiliar with to see what kinds of apps you’d be able to load on a given tablet.
2. Not thinking carefully about connectivity options
Different tablets offer different connectivity options, and it’s important to figure out when and where you plan to use your tablet in order to choose the right configuration for you. Tablets feature 3G or 4G, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and GPS capabilities in various combinations, and you can figure out what you need by evaluating how you’re going to use your tablet.
3G or, preferably, 4G connectivity enables a tablet to access the Internet from just about anywhere that your smartphone can. But the downside is that is that you’ll need to pay for a data plan each month — something you won’t want to do unless cellular connectivity will really be useful for you. With a tablet with Wi-Fi capability, you can connect to the Internet anywhere you can access a Wi-Fi network, like your apartment, your office, or your local coffee shop. (But you should probably think twice about relying on public Wi-Fi networks.)
If you’re frequently within range of a Wi-Fi network, and envision using your tablet primarily where Wi-Fi is available, then opting for a Wi-Fi-only tablet can be a good choice. Other types of connectivity to consider include Bluetooth, which enables you to connect your tablet to a Bluetooth speaker or other devices, and GPS, which can be useful if you plan to use your tablet for navigation in your car, though that’s easiest to do with a tablet that has 4G connectivity.
3. Choosing a tablet that’s misaligned with your needs
Beyond the operating system and connectivity options, there are lots of other choices to make when selecting a tablet, and it’s easy to forget about your priorities when you’re faced with an overwhelming variety of choices and perhaps a few models offered at enticing sale prices. So in some ways, it can be easier to think about what you need from a tablet before you really dive into what’s available.
If you want a tablet that you can easily throw in the pocket of your briefcase and use on the subway, then a smaller screen size is probably more practical than a giant tablet. If you want to use your tablet to video-chat with your friends, then you’ll probably want to find a tablet with a decent front-facing camera (test it out, and don’t believe megapixels are an indication of quality). If you plan to use lots of apps or store a decent amount of music and photos locally, you’ll likely want to pay attention to how much storage a tablet has, or whether its storage can be expanded via a microSD card slot.
4. Assuming that a tablet will easily replace your PC
For many users, the idea of ditching a cumbersome PC and using a tablet instead can be an appealing idea. But in reality, that won’t actually work for every kind of user. Reviewers have agreed that even the expensive iPad Pro, which benefits both from the multitasking features that Apple integrated into iOS 9 and from the introduction of the Smart Keyboard and Apple Pencil, really won’t work as a laptop replacement.
Most tablets, the iPad Pro included, don’t enable you to access full-featured versions of the software that you probably rely on for work, whether that’s Microsoft Office or Adobe’s design tools or Slack’s chat platforms, or don’t offer apps that are specifically optimized for the size of your screen. As Apple pushes iOS forward and developers get on board with the new iPad and its capabilities, it’s very possible that it’ll be able to replace your PC in the future.
If you’re thinking of using a tablet for work, make sure that you know what you’re getting yourself into. You won’t have access to the easy multitasking or file systems that you’re used to on your laptop or desktop computer, and you should familiarize yourself with the features and limitations of the tablet you’re considering to take a realistic look at whether or not you’ll really feel comfortable working, in whatever capacity is relevant to you, within those confines.
5. Automatically choosing the cheapest option
The cheapest tablet at your retailer of choice, whether you’re searching Amazon or walking through the aisles of a big box store’s electronics section, is usually going to be an off-brand device or an older model of a tablet that’s since been updated. But you should always be wary of opting for an old or off-brand device, particularly because the adage that you get what you pay for often turns out true when it comes to tech shopping.
Off-brand tablets often use outdated versions of the Android operating system or versions that have been excessively customized and limited by the manufacturer. You can also run into compatibility issues, either with the apps you want to use or the accessories you want to buy, and no-name tablets are more likely to suffer from software glitches and hardware problems. A similar line of logic reveals the problems with outdated models; you probably won’t be getting the latest software, the security situation is likely to be compromised, and you’ll be missing out on improvements and bug fixes that were made in subsequent models.
6. Skipping the research
It’s difficult to figure out what kind of tablet will be the best for you if you don’t do some general research on what’s available to you. If you only take one piece of advice away from our list of guidelines, remember that doing thorough research is the most important part of buying a tablet. The quickest way to waste hundreds of dollars on a device that won’t really work for you is to neglect to do your research to figure out what you need and what tablets on the market most closely align with your needs.
Take a thorough look at all of the specifications of each tablet you’re considering, not just the ones that the company highlights in its marketing materials, and read as many articles and reviews about the device as you can. Don’t rely on a single review of a tablet to decide that it’s the right one for you, and try to look critically at each reviewer’s biases and preferred use cases. Get a feel for the different ratings that reviewers assign the tablets you’re considering, and look carefully at the strengths and weaknesses they identify. Doing your research goes a long way toward ensuring that you’ll end up with a tablet that’s suited to your needs and matches your expectations.