Help! Which Tablet?

My clients often ask me for advice on which tablet to buy. With so many on the market: Apple, Samsung, Google, Asus, Amazon etc. etc., how can you possibly choose?

With this week’s announcement of the new Amazon Kindle Fire HDX I thought you might find it useful to have a simple, jargon-free explanation of the differences between iPads, Android, Google, Amazon, Samsung etc., because choosing the right tablet isn’t just about screen size and processing power: you’ve also got to become betrothed to — for want of a better term — a content market.

Most people who buy a tablet will want to use it for applications (“Apps”), to play games, watch films, read books and listen to music. The main providers know this of course and embrace it, because it’s in the sale of software and media that the real money is to be made. To quote a saying from my old retail days, “It’s all about the add-ons.”

So, let’s introduce the main players and describe how they want their products to be used:

  • Apple (iPad, iPad Mini, iOS, iTunes, iBooks, News Stand)
    • Not first alphabetically, nor even the market leader anymore, but the biggest household name. Whenever anyone comes to me for advice on buying a tablet, “iPad” is mentioned in their first sentence. It’s almost got to the point where iPad means tablet to people, in the same way that vacuum cleaners are “Hoovers”, regardless of make.
    • Apple want you to pay a premium price for the device, AND buy all your content from them, AND lust after each new version launched. They play on the gadget lust of the main bread winner in the house, knowing that when he upgrades, last year’s model will be handed down to a family member, and they double the Apple consumers at that address.
    • iOS (OS stands for Operating System) provides a smooth, simple, easy-to-use experience and is very reliable. The price you pay for this polished, safe environment is that the device has few options for customisation. Aside from the wallpaper in the background of the screen, an iPad is an iPad is an iPad.
    • Apple wants you to buy all your apps from the App Store, your films and music from iTunes, and your e-books from iBooks.
  • Microsoft (Windows 8, Surface)
    • Microsoft are trying to jump on the mobile device bandwagon and are singularly failing to make a dent in it. Their restrictive, closed-minded business philosophy from their desktop PC / Windows history has bled through, leaving mobile devices that mildly amuse at best, but are mostly underwhelming. (Can you tell I’m biased?)
    • Don’t bother.
  • Android
    • Android is not a device, nor a single company (although Google is the leading player). It’s an operating system, like iOS. The main difference is that, while iOS is closed, proprietary, and available to Apple alone, Android is open, customisable, and available to all the other device manufacturers. So, while Apple = iOS, all the rest of the tablet makers below run Android, in one flavour or another.
  • Google (Nexus, Play Store)
    • Right, this is where it starts to get complicated.
    • Google provide their own devices (Nexus), but their main interest is in locking consumers in to their content platform.
    • Android without a Google account is like a slice of bread without butter. You kind of need both. Sign in to an Android tablet with a Google account and clever, useful things start to happen. It will prompt you for upcoming appointments in your Google calendar, alert you to incoming Google mail — sure, they all do that, but then it will pop up asking if you want it to provide navigation instructions to the place that you searched for on your PC the day before. When you launch the web browser, you find that your bookmarks have magically sync’ed over from your PC (assuming you’re using Google Chrome as your browser).
    • Essentially, the deeper you get into bed with Google for everything, the smoother and more pleasant the ride.
    • They want you to buy all your apps, films, e-books and games from the Play Store
  • Samsung (Galaxy Tab, Galaxy Note)
    • Samsung is the giant among Android tablet providers, and they have at least six tablets on the market at any one time.
    • Build quality and features are great.
    • Galaxy tablets run Android, but it’s a customised, Samsung-ised version. This means it’s more polished than plain Android, but again it’s designed to suck you in to Samsung’s content stores.
    • Galaxy tablets (because they’re running Google’s Android when all said and done) also work much better with a Google account, and the Play Store is there. But there is also the Samsung app store, Samsung account, Samsung instant messaging (between Samsung account holders).
  • Amazon (Kindle, Kindle Fire, Kindle Fire HD, Kindle Fire HDX)
    • This is the biggie, as far as this post is concerned. Even if you don’t have and are not considering buying a tablet, you’re probably an Amazon customer. You can buy just about anything from them, at a good price and with good service.
    • Where devices are concerned Amazon is best known for the Kindle: not only an e-book reader but the best e-book reader there is. Period. If reading e-books is all you want to do, just get a Kindle.
    • In addition Amazon is in the tablet market, originally with the Kindle Fire and most recently their newly-announced Kindle Fire HDX. Interesting for several reasons.
    • Amazon’s device strategy is different from the others, in that they don’t care about making a profit from tablet sales, and encouraging you to upgrade to a new one every year. Instead they sell the tablet pretty much at cost and look forward to all the money you’re going to spend with them on content.
    • Amazon has done something interesting with Android. If you look at a Samsung tablet and a Kindle Fire alongside each other in a shop you’ll notice it straight away: gone are the multiple homescreens, app shortcuts and complicated settings panels. They are replaced by a simplified user interface that focuses on your content. With Amazon it’s all about just using the thing for entertainment, not about geeking out with Android settings and customisations. You get a streamlined, easy to use experience that will have you quickly doing email, reading, watching, playing and listening.
    • The new HDX has some nifty new features too, most notably “May Day”. May Day is a new way of getting help with your tablet when you get stuck. Hit the May Day button and a live support person appears on your screen. Yes, a video window showing a live person talking to you. You can see and hear them, they can hear but cannot see you. If you need help with something they can remotely control your tablet, or even draw arrows and circles on your screen to direct you to the next step. See the video below for a demo.

So, whichever route you go down, know that you’re not just buying a tablet but also jumping into a boat to an island of digital content and media, and there are no bridges to let you hop from one island to another. If you have fallen for the image of being an Apple Head, get an iPad. If you like to tinker and customise, go with Google or Samsung (or one the other Android vendors), and if you don’t care about any of that and just want something that’s easy to use, works really well, and won’t ask you to set up a new account, go with Amazon.

Any clearer?

How well do you know your gadgets?

A quick poll for the weekend: Think about the mobile device you use most — iPhone? iPad? Android phone? How well would you say you know all its features? If you could quickly vote in my poll you’d help me out in determining what the most common teaching needs are.


One last question: if you feel like answering this one please leave a comment: If there was one thing you could change or improve about your mobile device and the way you use it, what would it be? What’s the difference between today and your perfect tomorrow?