How to buy a tablet: what to look for when buying an iOS, Android or Windows tablet

These portable powerhouses have revolutionised the way we work and play

For decades, Star Trek told us that tablets were going to be the future of computing, but until fairly recently all we had to show for it were clunky, inch-thick slabs from Microsoft. After the iPad arrived in 2010 (it feels like longer), everything exploded. Soon, we had tablets in various shapes and sizes, from large, widescreen ones ideal for watching fi lms, to little ones not much bigger than your phone.

Indeed, some people have dismissed tablets as just big smartphones – but that's kind of the brilliance of them. You get all the speed and simplicity of a high-end phone, but on a bigger screen, making it easier to watch movies and view photos. They're super-portable but have access to a colossal range of apps, meaning you can do almost anything with them.

Want to watch a film while you relax in the bath? Stick Netflix on your tablet and prop it up nearby. Want to make professional-level edits to some photos you've taken? You can do that, too.

The Apple of your eye?

The most famous tablet around is undoubtedly Apple's iPad, and T3 thinks its latest model, the iPad Air 2 (from £399), is a brilliant choice. It's blisteringly fast, it's thin and light, and its stunningly detailed (2,048 x 1,536) 9.7-inch Retina Display is perfect for both watching movies and working.

Apple also makes the iPad mini 3 (from £319), which is similar but has a smaller, 7.9-inch screen (though it boasts the same resolution). One advantage of the mini 3 over its bigger brother is that it's lighter, which means your arm won't ache so much if you're holding it aloft to read an e-book, and it's easier to carry.

The iPad Air 2 is stunningly detailed, with its 9.7-inch Retina Display, and blisteringly fast

All iPad models pack Apple's iOS operating system, which is also used on iPhones and ties into iCloud, Apple's online syncing and storage service. T3 likes iOS because it's extremely fast, secure and reliable, and works smoothly with the plethora of apps on the App Store.

However, it's pretty limited in terms of its customisation options, while the flipside of it being secure is that it's highly locked-down and you can't install apps not approved by Apple, which can be frustrating.

Tablets for hardcore Android fans

If Apple's walled garden isn't for you, you could always opt for an Android tablet, though there are hundreds to choose from, so it can be tough knowing where to start. Android has its own app store, Google Play, which offers thousands of titles, but – unlike with the Apple devices – you also have the freedom to install apps from other sources (manufacturers' websites, etc).

Android operating systems are very customisable, and you can change how they look and work drastically. This is a big draw for some tablet makers, as it means they can give their products a distinct identity. That's certainly the case with Amazon's Kindle Fire HDX (from £119). Measuring just seven inches, it's even smaller and lighter than the iPad mini 3, and it's much cheaper, too.

It boasts a 1,920 x 1,200 widescreen display – great for watching movies on the go – and can play 1080p video natively. The Fire HDX also comes with a few extra features that T3 loves, such as a 'Mayday' button for getting instant support from Amazon when you're confused; and different profiles for kids to use, so they can't get into your emails or play games you don't want them to.

Not keen on Apple? Consider the Amazon Kindle Fire HDX - it's small, light and cheaper!

Amazon also makes smaller versions of the Kindle Fire (the HD6 and HD7, from £79, which are cheap as chips but can't match the HDX for specifications), as well as a larger version of the HDX (the HDX 8.9, from £279).

Amazon's customised operating system ties heavily into its services for things like music and movies, and the company offers its own app store – you don't get the regular Android app store on here, and it doesn't tie in with Google's online services in the same way that other Android tablets do.

If you want even more of a bargain than the Kindle Fire HDX, look to Tesco's Hudl 2 (£99). At 8.4 inches, the screen is about the same size as the iPad mini 3, and it offers the same 1,920 x 1,200 resolution as the Fire HDX, so again it's great for watching movies. It's a fast worker, thanks to its quad-core Intel Atom processor, and T3 loves the fact that you can get it in a range of awesome colours, so you can break away from the boring black or grey you see on most current tablets.

The Hudl 2 comes with a slightly customised version of Android, but still gives you access to all of Google's services and Google Play's many apps.

Tinkerers and hardcore Android fans might want to consider the Google Nexus 9 (from £319), a nine-inch tablet made by HTC that's designed to offer a 'pure' Google experience; it's the cleanest, fastest Android tablet on the market, and it uses the latest (for now) version of the Lollipop operating system. Its 2,048 x 1,536 display provides a brilliantly sharp picture and, though it's by no means the lightest tablet in its size category, it pack a lot of computing power.

iOS is fast, secure and reliable

All of the tablets we've mentioned so far run on what are considered to be smartphone operating systems – and that's fine for most people. However, if you just can't be without a desktop OS, there's another option.

Microsoft's Surface 3 Pro is the perfect choice if you want a desktop OS

Microsoft's Surface 3 Pro (from £639) is basically a super-thin laptop without a hinge or a keyboard. The cheapest model runs an Intel Core i3 processor with 4GB of RAM, though you can ramp that up to a Core i7 with 8GB if you want to splash out. Both options are capable of running the full version of Windows 8, so all your desktop apps are available to use on it. Hell, even a bunch of games will run on the higher-end models.

With a 12-inch screen, it's one of the largest tablets out there, and it's about twice as heavy as even the iPad Air 2, which is the heaviest of all the other tablets we've mentioned. But, as we said, it runs a full desktop operating system, so if that's what you want in your tablet, we think the trade-off will be worth it. It even comes with a stylus, to make it easier to work in apps that don't have a touch-friendly interface.

Easy to set up and start using

All of these tablets are extremely easy to set up and start using, though they'll require you to register, or sign into, an account before you can use their online services. With an iPad, Apple will want you to have or create an Apple ID, which most people have these days, even if only from using iTunes years ago. Entering this will get you set up on iCloud.

iCloud works best if all of your devices are Apple ones, in which case it's totally seamless. Otherwise, you might not use it too much. It does, however, provide space for you to back up your iPad online – it's the best back-up system there is for balancing convenience and safety.

The 8.4-inch Tesco Hudl 2 is great for watching movies at a resolution of 1,920 x 1,200

With the Hudl 2 and Nexus 9, you can use a Google account to instantly start syncing all of the Big G's online services, from Mail to Calendars and more. Again, if you don't have a Google account, you can create one. You can back up your settings with Google online, too.

Amazon's tablets all tie deeply into Amazon's services: videos from Prime Instant Video, music from its store and more are all there instantly. You can wirelessly back up your Kindle Fire HDX, too, though it's just your settings and app layout, rather than your more important data – videos, photos, etc. Despite the operating system being based on Android, you miss out on the deep integration with Google here.

With the Surface Pro 3, you'll require a Microsoft account if you want to download apps from the Windows Store, but you can also install anything you want from anywhere, since it's just Windows 8. If you want to back up, you'll need to plug in a drive and do it the old-fashioned way.

Once you're set up, the key thing you'll want to do with your tablet is… well, just about anything you like! They all come with built-in apps for things like browsing the Web or checking your email, but things open up when you're on their app stores.

Bask in a huge number of apps

For T3, one of the biggest advantages of the iPad range is its selection of apps. Apple's App Store is full of brilliant software that isn't available on any other platform, including desktop-level photo editors, fast and powerful video-creation apps, 3D-modelling tools and loads of fantastic games, from little puzzlers to big console ports.

One of the key things is that Apple insists apps be optimised for the iPad's larger screen, so every app on there is specially designed to be more suited to tablet use.

That's not to say the Android-based tablets are missing out. There are almost as many great games available, and a massive range of apps, including many that rival the iPad for creative or professional use. You'll find apps for almost every major online service, and plenty of entertainment options. It makes the cheaper Android tablets fantastic as portable movie and TV machines, between things like Netfllix, NOW TV, iPlayer and so on.

If you already own a big smartphone, it might not make much sense to invest in one of the smaller tablets, as it won't offer that much over what you've already got. But once you get to the models that are larger than eight inches, the big screen can be great to have around, and it'll never cease to amaze you what you can do with one.

Like this? Read our guide to the Best Android and iOS tablets

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