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Grow Your Business Technology

Tablet Buying Guide: How to Choose the Best Tablet for the Job

image for sergey causelove/Shutterstock
sergey causelove/Shutterstock

This tablet buying guide will help you find the right device for your business, even if you're not an experienced tech shopper. Whether you want a sleek Android tablet for watching movies and playing games, a powerful PC tablet with a detachable keyboard, or a rugged waterproof device with a high-resolution screen, we've got you covered. While other websites will offer you top-10 lists and sponsored posts for recommended devices, our tablet buying guide puts the power and knowledge in your hands so you can make informed buying decisions for your business for years to come.  

The best way to narrow down your tablet options right off the bat is to set a budget and identify a clear use case. If you cannot determine a use case – in other words, if you're not sure exactly how you and your employees will use the tablets you're buying – hold off on the purchase entirely.

These are some common use cases for tablets:

One of the most common use cases for a tablet, even for business users, is as a media-consumption device. If you primarily want a tablet to catch up on news, read e-books, watch movies, listen to music and occasionally shoot off an email or two, you're in the media-consumption camp. Users in this category can skip flashy, expensive 2-in-1 machines in favor of low-end or midrange tablets with high-quality displays and good speakers.  

If you're buying tablets for customer-facing use, like inputting orders and processing payments, your focus will probably have more to do with credit card processing software and the available accessories than anything else. Durable waterproof cases and space-saving mounts are essential for tablets that are being used as replacements for old-school cash registers and desktops.  

For some entrepreneurs, working on the go is easier to accomplish on a tablet than a laptop. If you want the portability of a tablet with the functionality of a laptop, complete with keyboard and stylus capabilities, then a 2-in-1 or hybrid machine is the way to go. These workhorse tablets tend to be pricier than their lighter counterparts, but they also come a lot closer to replacing your laptop altogether, while maintaining the flexibility of a tablet.     

Tablets are essential for field workers like police officers, loggers, farmers, factory workers and construction workers. If your tablet needs fall into the field work category, your best bet is to skip consumer tablets entirely and go straight for rugged tablets that are built to take a beating. Rugged tablets come with plenty of vehicle mounts and cases, can be used in heavy rain, and are built to withstand dust and drops. Many have extended battery life or even come with external battery docks. The easiest way to maintain your fleet of rugged tablets is to purchase them all from one manufacturer, so choose carefully.

Your use cases should help determine your budget. Tablets intended as primary devices for employees, especially if they are rugged tablets, will naturally cost much more than supplementary devices intended primarily for checking emails on the go. This should help you calculate a rough estimate.

There are lots of affordable tablets on the market that are perfectly usable for supplementary purposes. If you're purchasing tablets for employees who already have reliable laptops or desktops, you can get away with spending around $150 to $300 per device. Keep in mind, though, that devices in this price range are most suitable for web browsing and accessing apps. Don't expect these cheap tablets to have SD card slots, extended battery life or high-resolution screens, but do expect them to provide a highly portable online experience for business users on the go.

If you're buying a tablet with the intention of using it as a primary device that can replace or stand in for your laptop, expect to pay low to midrange laptop prices. The price range for this category is broad, because it's highly dependent on how much storage you need (more storage equals higher cost) and the quality of other specs, such as the display. For a general estimate, expect to spend anywhere from $400 on the low end to $1,200 on the high end. If you intend to purchase removable keyboards or covers, be sure to factor that into your estimation.

Rugged technology is almost always more expensive than its standard-issue business or consumer equivalent, and rugged tablets are no exception. You should expect rugged tablets to run you at least $800 per device, possibly much more. This cost estimate does not include external power packs for extending battery life, vehicle mounts, apps or software. The best way to get a good price for rugged devices is to work directly with a brand or reseller that specializes in rugged tech. You can often get lower per-device rates in exchange for ordering in bulk from one OEM or reseller. Consult with a sales rep to get a realistic idea of how much you'll be spending all in.  

Your operating system choice should be driven by app usage, cost, and familiarity or preference. If you have an IT department or outside tech consultant, you may want to get their opinion before you shop. If you're on your own in the tech department, this operating system guide should provide some clarity.

Your Android experience will vary widely depending on which tablet manufacturer you choose, because Android is an open platform, which means hardware manufacturers are free to put their own spin on it when they release their Android devices. Tablet makers such as Samsung release tablets with a slightly modified version of Android that includes extra features; Amazon's tablets run on Fire OS, a heavily modified version of the Android operating system with an easy-to-use interface and features like Mayday, which gives you 24/7 live video tech support right on your tablet's screen. If you're apprehensive about the flavor of Android you'll be getting on your new tablet, make an in-store visit to test-drive it yourself.

The new kid on the operating system block, Chrome OS is built on Linux and was only used for Chromebooks until very recently. In May 2018, Acer changed the game when it released the first Chromebook tablet, and now there are several on the market, including the high-end Google Pixel Slate. We don't recommend a Chrome tablet for most SMBs, only because the variety of devices currently available is very slim. Unless you're a small shop or one-person operation, it's better to opt for an operating system that's accessible on a wide variety of devices at a wide range of price points.  

If you're an Apple devotee, you're already well acquainted with its proprietary operating system, iOS, which is beloved for its clean design and ease of use. Perhaps its biggest advantage is its huge selection of tablet applications. The iOS platform is also known for its great security. Much of that advantage comes from the locked-down nature of the platform; you can't install applications from outside sources, and apps inside the App Store are rigorously screened. Apple tablets are also very popular for business users in client-facing roles, especially creative or image-related jobs.

If your business has high compliance or security needs, Windows is likely the best choice for the job, thanks to its best-in-class security features and MDM. The other big advantage to choosing a Windows tablet is that you probably already use a Windows computer at your business, which means that all the desktop applications you use at work will also run on your mobile device. Although you can probably find good alternatives to most of your favorite programs on Android and iOS, Microsoft's platform might be your only real option if you depend on a specific piece of Windows software. If you are unsure of which operating system to choose, we recommend Windows.

Many business buyers find technical specs to be the most overwhelming aspect of shopping for tablets, but the good news is you don't have to know what every single spec means. Once you get to this step, you've likely narrowed your choice of tablet down to a few devices, so focus on the specs you know you care about to make your final decision. These are the specs that are most likely to impact regular, daily business use.

Accessories can add flexibility and utility to your tablet. One way to narrow down your choices is to look at the available add-ons for the devices you're considering. Make sure you consider options like a charging dock, case, stylus and detachable keyboard. Keep in mind that your keyboard can hugely impact the user experience – a small and flimsy keyboard, though compact, is unlikely to get much use.

Battery life needs should be evaluated on an individual basis. If you're a frequent traveler and anticipate heavy tablet usage, then battery life may be a very high priority, but if you usually work closer to home, it may be a nonissue. Keep in mind that the battery life listed on spec sheets is typically optimistic and provided by the manufacturer, so use it as a general guideline and not a hard and fast truth. For field workers using rugged tablets, vehicle docks with rechargeable batteries are a good investment; some can even extend the battery life of a tablet to days rather than hours.

The processor is the brains of any device, and an inadequate processor can render an otherwise acceptable tablet unusable. If you're only going to use your tablet for basic browsing and watching movies, a basic processor will do. If you want your tablet to be a true work machine, you should opt for something more powerful, like a quad-core Nvidia Tegra X1, a MediaTek MT8176, or a Snapdragon 820 or higher.

Android and Windows tablets come in a huge variety of sizes. If you're buying tablets for a team, not just for yourself, it may be wise to give your employees a choice between a large tablet and a smaller one. When you read a spec sheet, keep in mind that screen size is measured diagonally. If you can't gauge the size of a tablet by looking at the measurements, it may be worthwhile to handle them in-store.

The amount of storage available on a tablet is reflected in the amount of RAM. About 4GB is standard for a quality tablet. However, many tablets offer additional RAM if you're willing to pay extra. The more you intend on storing on your tablet (as opposed to in the cloud or accessible via app), the more storage space you will need. If you're unsure of what you need and you already have a work laptop as your primary device, it is highly likely that 4GB RAM will be enough.

When you work through the steps in our tablet buying guide, your decision should be clear before you even set foot in a store or enter your payment info online, and that's the goal. When you shop based on your needs, utility and budget, you avoid overpaying for bells and whistles you don't need, as well as underpaying for an inferior device. 

Mona Bushnell

Mona Bushnell is a New York City-based staff writer for Business.com and Business News Daily. She has a Bachelor of Arts in writing, literature, and publishing from Emerson College and previously worked as an IT technician, copywriter, software administrator, scheduling manager, and editorial writer. Mona began freelance writing full time in 2014 and joined Business News Daily in 2017. She covers business technology and reviews CRM systems.

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