Tablet PCs are not for everyone. Most people are perfectly capable of making it through the day checking email, reading, and watching videos on their smartphone until they can make it home to their laptop. That being said, tablets were sent from on high for student life. They’re cheaper and easier to transport than laptops, yet they’re more substantial and full-featured than smartphones. Schools and colleges all over the country have taken note of tablets’ potential for enhancing the educational experience and many have begun to provide them for students. If your school has stiffed you but you still want a tablet, here’s a snapshot of what the market looks like right now for academic users.
High school and younger students may have a bit more (of their parents’) money to work with when it comes to buying a tablet, but we’re assuming price is the top consideration for you cash-strapped college kids. Tablets have been known to sell for as little as $99, but as the saying goes, you get what you pay for. If you’re serious about getting a tablet, shell out a little more and invest in something decent.
At $159, the original Kindle Fire would be the bottom-dollar tablet for the “decent” category, although there are other Fires at price points up to $499. The $199 Nexus 7 by Google is another solid, inexpensive option, even at $249 for 16GB. The iPad 3s are a hit with reviewers but at a starting price of $499 (and a max of $829, depending on the amount of storage and cellular capability), they represent the high end of the market that may be out of reach for many students.
Bottom line: $600, including tax and extras, should be more than enough to bring home a tablet fit for a student.
Even though you’ll promise your parents you’ll take good care of your nice new tablet, we know students are tough on their stuff. A case is an absolute must, but some tablets are tougher than others. The industry standard for tough, scratch-resistant screens is Gorilla Glass, which is found on Kindle Fires, Acer Iconias, Samsung Galaxy Tabs, Asus Eee Pad Transformers, and a few others. The Fire is widely recognized for durability, although like all Gorilla Glass products, glare in the outdoors is an issue, so college students who want to use their tablet in the fresh air should take that into account.
As for weight, most tablets come in around 1.5 pounds, meaning students won’t even remember they’ve got one in their backpack. The inexpensive Nexus 7 has scored high marks for its overall build. At just .41 inches thick, 4.7 inches wide, and 12 ounces it’s small enough to slip into the back of your Levi’s. Of course, a small body means a small screen. On the other end of the size spectrum would be a tablet like the Asus Transformer Pad Infinity TF700, whose plush 10.1-inch screen adds to its 1.31 pound weight. Throw in the optional peripheral keyboard and the weight is still under 3 pounds.
Performance and Productivity
When it comes to operating systems, your main choices are Apple’s iOS, Google’s Android, and Windows. The iPad is your only option for the iOS, which excels on the strength of its famous app market, over-the-air updates, and connections with other Apple products via features like Apple TV and AirPrint. The big negative: no Flash support (although many developers are adjusting). Google Play, the Android app market, comes installed on a host of Android tablets and though it may get less coverage than iTunes, it has half a million apps and a better feedback system for reading other users’ reviews easily. The strengths of its OS are multitasking, customizability, and no-fuss third-party app compatibility. The Windows app store is currently a clear third, but the Windows 8 store with “Metro-style” apps could level the tablet playing field. You know what you’re getting with a Windows device: it may be lacking cutting-edge creative tools but is definitely a workhorse when it comes to office/classroom tools.
Seeing as this is for school, you don’t need a tablet that enables Playstation emulation or perfect video playback. Probably 75% of your school activity on a tablet will be reading, whether its textbooks, magazines, or Web articles, so there’s no need to pay just for extraordinary video quality. The Nexus 7 is roundly cited as the best value if reading is your main concern. At the under-$400 price range, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 and the Asus TF300 both have nice 10.1-inch displays and fast processors to pull up your files quickly.
What you want under the hood will be dependent on how you’re going to use the tablet. If you’re a film student who is going to store film footage on it, you’ll need more storage, but some saved textbooks and projects don’t take up much hard drive space. Most tablets come in 16 or 32GB iterations, with the 32 costing $50 or $100 more. We touched on processor speeds, but anything that gets you 1Ghz to 1.6Ghz is fine. Do you really need your textbook to load that fast?
As you know if you’ve ever bought a laptop, battery life can be one of the most maddening parts of computer owner’s experience. Your tablet should be able to give you over eight hours of life; the Galaxy Tab 7.7, the iPad 2, the Nexus 7, and the Kindle Fire are all tablets that can pull off at least 10 hours.
If you’re going to be doing a lot of typing, tablets with optional keyboard docks like the Galaxy Tab or the Asus Eee make things a lot easier. With their USB ports, Windows tablets enable connecting with virtually any portable keyboard or mouse, but iPads require proprietary Apple peripherals. Of course, a good voice dictation app is always an option, as well.
Additional Features and Add-ons
It’s safe to assume that on an average day, you won’t have any academic use for built-in cameras, GPS, or Bluetooth. However, some extras come in handy and can be nice to have. An HDMI port, for example, enables connecting your tablet to a second monitor or screen for giving a presentation or just easier viewing. The Acer Iconia A100 has been out over a year (gasp!) but at $189 is a steal of a HDMI-equipped tablet. We haven’t mentioned Windows tablets yet, but all of them have at least one USB port and the forthcoming Windows 8 tablets will offer perks like microSD slots, Ethernet ports, swappable batteries, and Office Home & Student 2013.