Recently I went through the process of choosing and buying a new tablet. Making my selection was harder than I had initially assumed it would be, due to the existence of a few worthy contenders in the marketplace – each of which appealed to me for various reasons.
I’m sharing those reasons and my findings about each here in the hopes that they might help other shoppers. This isn’t the world’s shortest post, but its length should prove very helpful if you’re in the same boat.
The following is a list of tablets that I considered at the beginning of my selection process:
Before being able to pick the right tablet, you should ask yourself why you want a tablet in the first place.
For me, a tablet is a device in between a laptop and a smartphone.
My personal workstation is a 15″ edition of a fully loaded MacBook Pro, which I chose specifically for its suitability as a development machine and other media intense activities. Its power comes in handy anytime I have programs such as Lightroom, Photoshop, or Xcode open or if I’m performing data analysis in Python. Its large retina screen is beautiful and easy on the eyes while programming.
Its sole downside is that it’s not overly portable. Lately I have been doing a lot of traveling in Western Canada (multiple trips per month). I usually travel with my work laptop (which is also a 15 incher). Carrying a second laptop for personal purposes wouldn’t be practical. Furthermore, I’m pretty certain that a 15″ laptop doesn’t fit on the tiny airplane trays on the backs of the seats aboard the relatively small airplanes I’m usually on for such trips. In short, I love my MacBook Pro but it’s cumbersome on the go and I needed something that I could easily take with me on the go.
While traveling, I have come to rely on my smartphone (a Samsung Galaxy Note3 phablet). Unfortunately despite its – huge by phone standards – screen, it’s still too small to get real work done without fatiguing my farsighted eyes. Are we seeing a bit of Goldilocks situation here?
A tablet seemed like a good middle ground. Small and light enough to have it with you just about anywhere, yet large enough to easily use for productive purposes as well.
What would you use it for?
The second question I asked myself was what would I use the tablet for. I mean, yes, it’s going to be a portable computer of sorts, but what am I’m actually going to use it for in practice? As you go through this thought exercise yourself, be realistic and honest about your needs, so as to hopefully help you make the best choice possible.
An entertainment device (e.g., Netflix, YouTube, Social Media).
Writing posts and articles on the go.
Communication (e.g., Email, Facetime, Skype, Hangouts).
Even at home, if I’m not in my office chair in front of a 32″ screen (a BenQ BL3200PT), since getting my new tablet, I find that I rarely reach for my laptop anymore.
What screen size for a tablet?
Having established that a tablet was indeed a good idea, the question became what screen size. There are roughly four categories to keep in mind here:
Extra Large (12″+)
Considering that my smartphone’s screen is already ridiculously large (i.e., 5.7″), I could only justify getting a tablet if it was sufficiently larger than that. It simply wouldn’t make sense to buy a different device only to gain an inch or two diagonally. For books, taking online courses, and watching media larger tablets are also simply better.
These considerations helped me eliminate three candidates from the list – namely, the iPad Mini, the Samsung Galaxy Tab S 8.4“, and the 8” Sony Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact.
Before we move on to the rest of the list, I’ll devote a few words to those who don’t care all that much for larger screens. 8″ tablets are somewhat of a sweet spot ergonomically (at least for my medium sized hands). They also tend to have very sharp, pixel packed screens.
It’s easy to see why someone would opt for one of these three. The Galaxy Tab S 8.4″ has an absolutely gorgeous super-AMOLED display and a microSD slot for storage expansion. The iPad Mini 2 is currently on sale for a steal of a deal and is an all-around good tablet. The Xperia Z3 is expensive, but it offers a top notch performance, great screen, and some snazzy features, including the ability to use it in a Jacuzzi, as it’s fully waterproof.
In my case however, when it came time to chose between “a little easier to handle” and “a lot more screen real estate” I opted for the latter. I readily admit that it’s a compromise. In the case of 12″+ tablets, the handling becomes too much of an issue for me so I didn’t give them any kind of serious consideration.
My thought process led me to narrow down the race to four medium/large tablets:
iPad Air 2
Samsung Galaxy Tab S 10.5
Amazon Fire HDX 8.9
Stick to what you know and your ecosystem of choice
Another aspect to consider when selecting your new tablet is the ecosystem of devices you already possess. Do you own a PC or a Mac? Do you use an iPhone or an Android device (or something else)? Are you mostly using Apple services or Google services?
It pays off to be consistent and use devices that can easily synchronize and work together.
In my case, this principle didn’t offer much guidance. I use a Mac, but my personal phone is an Android device. I have two Apple TVs, but one TV also uses Google Chromecast. I have extensive experience with both OSes (iOS and Android), so there would have been no learning curve no matter which device I picked.
Assuming you are not an outlier like me, I’d recommend sticking to what you know and what you use already (unless you’re currently dissatisfied with it).
This discussion on the ecosystem around your tablet actually brings up the reason why I didn’t get the Amazon Fire HDX 8.9. It’s a gorgeous, light, powerful, and fairly well priced device, however, unfortunately much of its value comes from its integration with the Amazon ecosystem.
The apps that you buy for it come from the Amazon Appstore for Android, which has a good selection but nowhere near that of Google Play or the Apple App Store.
Fire OS (an Amazon centric version of Android) is also very well integrated with Amazon Prime’s free goodies options such as video and music streaming. As a Canadian Prime subscriber, unfortunately I don’t get to partake in any of those benefits (only faster shipping), so I passed on what I still consider to be a good device (I recently gifted the 7″ version to my father-in-law, for example, and he absolutely loves it).
I was down to just three contenders then. As you might have guessed, they were the ones mentioned in the tile of this post. It became a matter of iPad Air 2 vs Nexus 9 vs Samsung Galaxy Tab S 10.5.
Aspect ratio and power
The choice between those three became somewhat unnerving. They were all excellent devices, and you couldn’t go wrong with any of them. With a fair bit of cash at stake however, I simply wanted the best option for me and a tablet I wouldn’t regret.
To make my choice a little easier I headed to the store and tried out the brand new iPad Air 2, as well as the out-for-a-few-months-now Tab S 10.5″. The Nexus 9 wasn’t available in retail stores yet unfortunately.
I found the iPad’s aspect ratio of 4:3 to be nicer to hold, browse, or read books with. The 16:9 aspect ratio of the Tab S was great for videos, but little else. The 10.5″ tablet felt too long in portrait mode. All in all, that meant a definite point in favor of the iPad.
The Tab S screen was stunning in person. Way more vibrant and contrasty than the, by all means great, iPad screen. It would have been squarely a point in favor of the Tab S had I not noticed significant screen burns. I opened a white page, and I could clearly see the ghost of the launcher’s dock icons. I tried several Tab S devices, in multiple stores and encountered this issue each and every time.
Now, don’t get me wrong. This is clearly nitpicking. But older iPads (e.g., iPad Air demo units) did not manifest the same problem. Suddenly the screen, a theoretical advantage of the Galaxy Tab S 10.5, became something to be slightly concerned about.
The mortal blow for the Tab S 10.5 came when I tried to display a technical PDF. The iPad Air 2 was extremely smooth in handling the PDF and could zoom and refocus on a particular area in no time. When I tried the same on the Tab S, there was significant delay. Interestingly, scrolling wasn’t that smooth either. The reading experience (potentially in part due to better software) felt considerably nicer on the iPad.
Benchmarks have shown that the iPad Air 2 is significantly faster than the Tab S. From my experience in the store, the difference is remarkable in real applications as well.
I must acknowledge not only the Tab S’ gorgeous screen (screen burn aside), but also give it Brownie points for having a microSD slot that allows one to add up to 128GB of data to your tablet. Considering that these cards are not too expensive, one could in theory have multiple cards when traveling for virtually unlimited media consumption on the go.
I’ll also must concede that, while not a fan of Samsung’s TouchWiz interface and bloatware, they do provide you with an extra GB of RAM (3 in total, versus the 2GB of the iPad Air 2 and Nexus 9) and the single best multitasking feature of any Android (or iOS) tablet out there. You can have two programs running at the same time on the screen and drag and drop between them. I find the feature extremely useful on my phone, and it would have been certainly all more useful on a large tablet.
Finally, Samsung offers a tablet app so that you can pilot selected phones (including my Note3) through an emulator running on your Tab S. Very handy!
It was tough to say no to the Tab S, but in the end I decided that I had to (above all, for its outdated performance compared to that of the brand new competitors).
iPad Air 2 vs Nexus 9
It all came down to a Battle Royale between these two tablets. The flagship Apple tablet and the flagship Google/HTC tablet running an unadulterated edition of Android Lollipop, the latest and best incarnation of Android.
The truth of the matter is that, by this point I had determined that there was no right or wrong answer. I could have flipped a coin and ultimately have been very happy with the outcome either way.
For the sake of my decision though, I came up with a list of pros and cons for each choice. They can be briefly summarized as follow:
Advantages of the iPad Air 2 over the Nexus 9
A larger/better/less reflective screen;
Build quality and QA;
The models cap at 128GB and not 32GB;
Thinner aluminum body (but I don’t really care that much there);
Slightly better battery life;
Buttery smooth browsing with no lag;
It has/will have the largest ecosystem of accessories on the market;
A larger pool of tablet applications available (several apps are currently iOS only);
New apps tend to ship on iOS first;
(Opinion) Apps tend to be more visually pleasing and consistent;
Less risk of dealing with malware (not a huge concern for me, but for some it might be);
A simple operating system that just works;
AppleCare+ in North America provides accidental coverage and it’s fairly cheap ($99);
(Personal) It works well in tandem with my Mac.
Advantage of the Nexus 9 over the iPad Air 2
Easier to handle due to its more compact size;
High-quality front facing speakers for media consumption;
Support for multiple users;
More powerful and customizable operating system (e.g., launchers, widgets);
It has some apps which are not technically possible on iOS (e.g., RescueTime);
Many apps are free on Android (if you can live with ads) while requiring a payment in the iOS version;
(Personal) It works well in tandem with my Android phone;
Better Google integration.
In the end I went for the iPad Air 2. Specifically a 64GB with Wifi+Cellular in Gold (what can I say, “I love gold”).
If by reading the same list you reached the opposite conclusion and buy a Nexus 9, I can’t fault you for doing so at all.
Before you make your final decision though, I’ll add a few final points:
I understand their business model, but I still think it’s ridiculous that both companies opted to create 16GB base models at the end of 2014. Google in particular really dropped the ball by not adding a microSD slot. Had that been in place, it might have changed the outcome of my purchase.
16 GB is simply not enough on a tablet for most people. If you are opting for the Nexus 9, get the 32 GB model. If you are opting for the iPad Air 2, get the 64GB or 128GB model.
If you travel or commute on a regular basis, do yourself a favor and grab the cellular version. Tethering with your smartphone can work in a pinch but it’s a pain in the neck to do on a regular basis (and it drains your phone battery very quickly).
Consider making the purchase through a zero interest monthly plan with your cellular carrier, if any available. It’s much easier to pay, say, $320 upfront + $20/mo interest free for two years, than plunk down $800 + taxes (in Canada) all at once. On that note, I absolutely love my iPad even if, objectively, it does feel overpriced. If the model I chose were to cost $500 instead of $800, I would recommend getting one to anybody without hesitation.
Get a really high-quality keyboard if you intend to reply to long emails or write with your new tablet. For example, for the iPad Air 2 you can get the BrydgeAir and essentially transform your tablet into a smaller, touch screen laptop. That way you can switch to whichever mode is more convenient (e.g., tablet mode for reading, laptop mode for writing). For the Nexus 9, Google will be releasing their own keyboard case, which looks worthwhile as well.
There you have it. If you are, or already have, pondered this same scenerio, let me know what you opted for and whether my write-up helped you reach your final decision. In the end, I really hope you enjoy your new tablet as much as I’m having a great time with mine.
Amusingly, the volume of travel I’ll be doing for work was heavily slashed just a few days after I acquired a new tablet. Non, je ne regrette rien. ^
I work from home, so this statement concerns my spare time. ^
I say “new tablet” because I still have a heavy and obsolete iPad first generation, but it’s virtually useless today. You’ll find out which tablet I went with in a moment. ^
Yes, the iPad Mini 3 was a utter disappointment. Apple upgraded nothing but Touch ID and the iPad color. Some would argue that we shouldn’t reward the company by buying a product that essentially has specs from 2013. The iPad Mini 2 at $100 less, while quantities last, is still a great deal however. ^
Note that this list is not exhaustive, as I didn’t factor in camera comparison, slow motion video, or other considerations that were irrelevant to my needs at the time. ^
It wouldn’t be fair to list it as an advantage over the Nexus 9 here, but for the record I do appreciate the fact that the iPad Air 2 allows me to test iOS apps on a physical device. ^
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Antonio Cangiano is a Software Developer and AI Evangelist at IBM. He authored Ruby on Rails for Microsoft Developers (Wrox, 2009) and Technical Blogging ( The Pragmatic Bookshelf, 2012, 2019). He is also the Marketing Lead for Cognitive Class, an educational initiative which he helped grow from zero to over 1 Million students. You can follow him on Twitter.