State of the slate: A tablet guide for newbies

State of the slate: A tablet guide for newbies

Summary: Tablets are things you either love or hate, but whatever side of the fence you are on they are going strong and here to stay. Here's how to make the most of the stroll through the tablet aisle.


As we head into the holiday season no doubt many are considering tablets for the first time, either for themselves or to give them as gifts. This has tablet makers scrambling to produce models to appeal to shoppers and get them to open their wallets. It can be a daunting task for tablet newbies to decide which slate is just the right one. It's worth taking a look at the current state of the slate to shed some light on what is out there.

When the iPad first appeared a few years ago many said it would never take off, that tablets were just a fad. That's been proven wrong millions of times over and they aren't going away any time soon. There are little tablets and big tablets of all makes and models. Let's break down the biggest choices.

Windows 8

Dell Venue 8 Pro
Dell Venue 8 Pro (Image: CNET)

This fast growing tablet segment is in a way the last to appear. While Windows tablets actually predate all the others, they haven't taken off until Windows 8 arrived. They've gotten a big boost from the recent release of Windows 8.1, as Microsoft has refined the OS to better handle all sorts of tablets.

There are many different styles of Windows tablets, from bendy, twisty convertible notebooks to simple slate designs. While the convertibles can function as tablets, albeit not very svelte for use, most tablet newbies will likely want to look at pure slates. These are most like the competition in appearance and thus most likely the preferred form for most.

Most of the major PC makers are now producing Windows 8 tablets and any of those would be good choices. Microsoft is really pushing its own Surface brand, and they are nice tablets. The Surface 2 is Microsoft's attempt to single-handedly keep Windows RT alive, but you don't need to worry about that. The Surface 2 is a solid tablet that will be a good stocking stuffer this year.

Those looking for a smaller tablet now have a good one from Dell as an option. The Dell Venue 8 Pro is an 8-inch slate that runs Windows 8.1, and reviews are pretty good. It's also gentle on the budget so a good one to consider.

Expect big holiday discount deals this season from both the OEMs and big box retailers like Amazon and Best Buy.


iPad Air (Image: James Kendrick/ZDNet)

The tablet that kick-started the whole tablet phenomenon may be the best fit for some consumers. The new iPad Air is a solid performer and will be a good purchase for many. It's a bit expensive but has all the bells and whistles that will satisfy most buyers.

Apple very recently upgraded the iPad mini and the new model will be the choice of iPad for those wanting to buy a smaller tablet. It's easy to throw in a small pocket in a bag and will even fit in some jacket pockets. 

The two iPads are very similar, so the purchase decision comes down to size preference. Other than screen size there's not much else separating the two, except price. Don't expect big holiday deals as Apple doesn't tend to do that.

Samsung/ Lenovo/ Nexus (Android)

Lenovo Yoga Tablet 8 and Yoga Tablet 10 (Image: James Kendrick/ZDNet)

Android tablets are great in number, and unfortunately that means a great variance in quality and capability. New tablet shoppers should probably stick to the name brands to be sure of getting a decent slate for the price. Like Windows tablets, there are some Android tablet models with docks that turn them into a laptop. Tablet newbies should probably avoid these and stick to pure tablets.

Samsung is the big Kahuna in the Android tablet space, with a whole line of devices of different sizes. The Galaxy line of tablets from Samsung are all basically the same other than size and any of them will meet most buyer's needs.

The two most popular sizes of Samsung Galaxy tablets are 8-inch and 10.1-inch. The company makes each size available either with or without a pen, so take care to get the one desired.

Lenovo has a line of Android tablets that are good choices for tablet newbies. They have simple slates, and the new Yoga line of tablets for those looking for something different. Like Samsung's tablets, the Yogas are available in both 8-inch and 10-inch sizes. See the ZDNet review of the two Yoga tablets for more information.

Google's Nexus line of tablets consists of a 7-inch model and a 10-inch model. They are competitively priced and thus good first tablets for newbies. They run 'pure' Android, but that's not a big consideration for new tablet buyers. Like the other brands mentioned, the Nexus brand indicates good quality at a decent price.

Kindle Fire

Kindle Fire HDX (Image: James Kendrick/ZDNet)

While technically Android tablets, the Kindle Fire line from Amazon has grown out of the company's electronic reader devices. They are full-fledged tablets and should be considered by shoppers, especially those wanting simple operation at a good price.

The Kindle Fire HD and HDX are powerful tablets that Amazon has produced to be simple to use. The heavily modified variant of Android used on the Kindle Fires, Fire OS, is designed to make them easy to learn and fun to use. The unique MayDay feature on these tablets (that Amazon is featuring in its current TV ads in the US), demonstrates how newbies can get live help with the touch of a button.

The Kindle Fires are competitively priced and a good first tablet.


The tablet is alive and well and there's a big assortment to consider by tablet shoppers. While there are many brands at all different prices, it is a good idea for newbies to stick to the major brands and platforms covered in this article. There will be no question of receiving a good product for the purchase price, and all of them are good tablets.

Those wondering which platform/ brand will be best, odds are any of these mentioned will be just fine. While they use distinctly different operating systems, they all provide a good tablet experience and will likely be good purchases.

If there's any concern about the learning curve of a new tablet, the Kindle Fire would be a good choice for the reasons mentioned earlier. The iPad is also good for those wanting an easy tablet to operate, and those living near an Apple store can get hands-on support from the Genius Bar.

If the target of the tablet purchase is technically savvy about mobile technology, one of the many Android tablets or the Windows tablets might be a better purchase. They have a steeper learning curve but can do a lot once the user gets familiar with the function. Of course, if having Microsoft Office is important to the recipient of the tablet, Windows 8 is the way to go as it's the only platform that has it in pure form.

See related:

Topics: Mobility, Android, Apple, Google, iPad, Samsung, Tablets, Microsoft Surface, Windows 8

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  • :)

    "The tablet that kick-started the whole tablet phenomenon may be the best fit for some consumers. The new iPad Air is a solid performer and will be a good purchase for many. It's a bit expensive but has all the bells and whistles that will satisfy most buyers."

    I love how you took the marketing speak and inserted a few words (may, some), and substituted others to make it true.
    • Plus, they didn't kick-start it all.

      Tablets existed for many years before the iPad. They just sucked. What Apple really did was refine the tablet into a device people actually wanted to use. As usual, it comes down to design. That's the one thing Apple excels at. They're one of the best industrial design firms in the world. It's how they keep introducing versions of existing products which instantly blow away the competition in sales. The iPod wasn't better than any other MP3 player. It was just a more appealing design. There were also a number of smartphones which predate the iPhone and had nearly all the same capabilities. Yet, the iPhone installed base surpassed all of them in weeks. People buy good design.
      • Yes, they did!

        As you say Bill, "Tablets existed for many years before the iPad. They just sucked. What Apple really did was refine the tablet into a device people actually wanted to use."

        Well, if that isn't a "kick-start" then nothing is...
      • Oh,

        so the Newton never existed ?
        • Newton

          Newton was not bad at its time but it didn't define nor redefine a category. And it lived only a short life. Compare that with iPad...
      • Key words there is - Revolution

        Tablet PCs that predates the iPad did not start a tablet revolution in the market. Didn't even come close to it. They were big, heavy, ugly, complext and expensive. Just like how the iPod kickstand the portable digital player revolution, the iPad kickstarted the portable tablet revolution.
        • Meant to say phenomenon not revolution.

  • beware of the $49 to aproximately $150 price range

    A search on Amazon and other sites or the Internet for "tablet" will show a lot of cheap tablets mostly Android tablets that have minimal specs (4-8GB storage) ranging in price from $49 to around $150 and maybe up to $199. These typically also have low screen resolutions and should be avoided. I suspect a lot of buyers will be drawn into these "deals" only to end in dissatisfaction and regrets. Proceed with extreme caution or just pass on it.
    • We use cheap android 7-8 inch as signature pads for cost reasons

      Most appear cheap right out of the box or shortly after firing up.
      HOWEVER, the HiSense Pro at $129 from Walmart continues to amaze with quality throughout. I found it in a ZDNet thread and all I can say is THANK YOU to the commenter. 5MP rear with flash and autofocus, 2MP front, quad core Tegra3, Android 4.2, NFC, Micro USB, Mini HDMI, Bluetooth 3.0, GPS, HD card up to 32 GB.
      If HiSense can make it to sell for $129 then so could the rest. They're just not trying hard enough.
      • You're welcome

        I think that was me. Yeah, it can take some shopping to find a winner in the bargain bin, but they're definitely there.
    • What about for the kids?

      I have 3 little ones at home who are getting increasingly tired of using obsolete iPhones to play games on. We have one "kids" computer, so they fight over its usage. Solution - for Christmas, we got 3 $80 Proscan tablets, with all those niggling specs mentioned. As my wife & I set them up, they really are not bad, even for an adult only concerned with content consumption. They seem pretty snappy, nice screen, latest Android version (not Kit-Kat, obviously), & guess what? Unless they just stop working or fall apart, they will serve the kids' needs. So far, so good....
    • In the less than $200 range...

      Except for the major manufacturers on discount, almost everything is junk. The one exception is the Kindle line (which is great for the technically challenged). You can get an older model (not used - older as in model sequence) for as little as $129.
    • Stick to well known brands.

      One of the most important aspects of a tablet is its screen quality and most of the cheap ones fund in these box stores have horrible resolution. Unless you don't care about your kids eyes.

      We bought the kids Kindles last holiday and continue to be happy with it as a "cheap" tablet for Netflix, Amazon Prime and games. Great customer service were also a key determining factor when choosing a "cheap" tablet for the kids. Anything happen (they're kids) you want to know the company have your interests at heart.
  • Huge factor over looked....IMO

    Where is the key point between the IPAD, Surface 2, AND Surface PRO II?

    If you want a tablet that can ALSO run regular computer addition to some "APPS", Your ONLY choice IS the Surface Pro II.

    What many general consumers fail to understand and what some reviewers fail to clarify IS.

    The Surface 2 (aka Surface RT) is an ARM based system that can only run apps and is NOT a PC Tablet, just like the IPAD. The Surface Pro (I & II) have an intel cpu and ARE full fledged computers, capable of running any program you currently have on your desktop or laptop. My office has two Surface Pro's (Gen I) with SQL Server, Oracle Client, and Toad installed. It's just as easy to install Adobe suite. You could even install Auto CAD , but you will be somewhat limited in the graphics capability.

    The new Surface Pro (Gen II) has the option of 4 or 8 gigs of ram and 64Gig - 512 Gigs' SSD. No IPAD has the same capability...and this even more closely competes with Apples Air ultra book.

    First thing one should do is....figure out what features and cablablities they are looking for...then look for the right tool for the job.

    Want to carry one device that can function both as a tablet and ultrabook? Surface Pro II is what you should seriously consider.

    Already a member of the Apple community....Iphone, will probably be best suited to get an IPAD (AIR, MINI, etc.)
    • Agreed, but the Surface Pro2 isn't the only choice

      There is an excellent offering from Asus in the transformer T100 that would suit the needs of most people and for hundreds less than a SurfacePro, iPad or many Androids.

      For $350 they can get a tablet and a notebook that are each very capable devices. No it isn't in the range of ultrabooks, but it is certainly as good as entry level notebooks, plus it converts into a very good tablet that is quick and has long battery life.

      That IMHO is the real sweetspot that has been missing in the Windows offerings. It is just a shame they are so hard to come by right now.
      • Agreed

        It is a tremendous bargain, and will do well this holiday season. The next step up (Dell Venue 11") is a way better product (display alone is big upgrade vs Asus), though the price is also almost double after you add a keyboard.
    • surface 2

      Is also the only choice if you like to see the BSOD and enjoy dealing with driver incomparability issues.

      Unlike the other tablets Surface II has all the problems of a PC that people try to avoid by purchasing a tablet in the first place.
      • 1999 called...

        ...they want you to stop co-opting their legitimate Windows complaints for your current biases.
      • When was the last time I saw a BSOD?

        I'll tell you I have one problem PC in work at the moment... and that's it. Anyone mouthing off about BSOD is simply incompetent or running rubbish on rubbish hardware. It's a thing of the past and has been for along time in my experience.

        One problem PC in many years does not constitute an issue of any kind for me. Its a one-off that needs fixed; much like the ipads I upgraded to IOS7 but decided they preferred to go into recovery mode.
    • viruses

      Keep in mind, once they run regular Windows programs, they also run regular viruses. The ASUS Tranformer T100 appears to be a good value, and runs Windows 8.1. This is good. Of course if you are into the tablet side of things, then it could be that true tablets - tablet OS may be best you those people.