State of the slate: A tablet guide for newbies

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.
Written by James Kendrick, Contributor

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.

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