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10 Tips to Help You Choose the Right Tablet

A tablet can be a great resource at home and in the classroom. We’ll help you pick the best one for your needs.

Tablets are everywhere these days. They range from about 11” tall to the phablets—the large cellphones that are almost the size of a small tablet. How do you decide what type of tablet is best for classroom use? How do decide what is best for your personal use? What are the pluses and pitfalls of each? Here’s what you need to know before picking your perfect tablet.

1. There are three main operating systems, with the current versions being Google’s Android 4.2 (also known as Jelly Bean), Apple’s iOS 6 and Microsoft’s Windows RT. A few manufacturers of Android-based tablets, most notably Amazon and Barnes & Noble, run a specialized version of Android with some limitations on access to applications.

2. For apps, both Android and iOS (Apple) tablets are good choices for personal use. Applications (commonly called apps) are the real strength of mobile devices. There seems to be an app for everything! I think your best choice for your personal use is an iOS or Android device so you can take advantage of the huge number of apps that are offered.

Many of the most useful apps are available for all operating systems. These include Twitter clients, Evernote, newsreaders, mapping and GPS apps, social networking apps, instant messaging apps, online file storage apps and many more. The Apple and Google Play stores both offer hundreds of thousands of apps. The Windows RT platform is fairly new, however, so its app store is still growing.

3. Stick with the Apple Store for the classroom. I have strong feelings about the platform of choice for the classroom. Apple seems to have higher quality standards for the apps that make it into its apps store. For educators who are searching the thousands of apps looking for one that will work well on their devices, Apple wins the contest in my book.

Does this mean the content of the apps in the Apple app store is more pedagogically sound than those for the other platforms? Absolutely not. You still need to evaluate the apps for their ease of use and good content before having students use them. Check out the links to these two evaluation sheets, which can help you evaluate both content and creation apps to use with students and work for any tablet operating system.

4. Most tablets should last you through the school day. The majority of tablets claim to have an 8- to 10-hour battery life. This makes them perfect for classroom use since they can be used for the entire school day without being recharged.

5. There are two main sizes for tablets. There are the full-size tablets that range from about 10 inches tall x 7 inches wide and weigh approximately 1.5 pounds, to the smaller tablets at about 8 inches tall by 5 inches wide and weigh a bit less than a pound. The resolution (the number of pixels on the screen) varies with the devices, and although the larger resolution is absolutely stunning, the screen on the smaller device is perfectly fine for reading and viewing.

6. Larger is better for younger students. For the classroom setting, I recommend a larger tablet for the younger students (grades PreK-5) and a smaller tablet for the middle-school and high-school students.

The larger screen for younger students is helpful when using the device for writing and drawing projects and the large onscreen keyboard is easier for them to use. In these grades, the devices often are used on a flat surface or in the student’s lap, and the larger form factor supports this.

7. Older students benefit from a smaller tablet. For older students—who might be shooting video in the field, working on projects on lab tables, using their thumbs to type on the tablet’s onscreen keyboard or reading a lengthy novel—I believe that the smaller tablets are a better choice. And, in a one-to-one initiative, the backpacks of middle-school and high-school students benefit from the lighter weight of the smaller tablets.

8. Consider your lifestyle when choosing your own personal tablet. The most important question: How you are going to use your tablet? Is it something that you'll use when you're at home, in a comfortable chair or at your desk? If so, a full-size tablet is for you.

Do you want to carry the tablet around in a jacket pocket or purse? Will you be reading with one hand as you ride public transport? Do you want to use your tablet as a GPS in the car? Then I recommend a smaller one.

I now carry my iPad Mini with me all of the time. It has service on a cellphone provider’s data network in addition to its built-in 802.11x Wi-Fi, so I have access to the Internet wherever I am. It’s more functional for me to get work done, reply to emails, read a book and look up information than on my cellphone.

9. Sharing tablets takes a little extra effort. A tablet is intended to be a single-user device. This makes it difficult to share these devices, whether among family members or students in a classroom. Out of the box, tablets get set up for a single user. The customization of email settings, browser bookmarks, music lists and such, are intended for that one user. Of course, other users can use the Web browser or sign out of apps that permit that and sign in as themselves so they can use the device, too.

For classroom deployments of tablets and purchasing of apps, Apple offers this deployment guide. However, the management of iOS devices, whether they’re shared or one-on-one, often requires the addition of a third-party management program.

The newest version of the Android operating system, Jelly Bean, as well as the Windows RT operating system do allow the easy creation of multiple profiles on the tablet, providing each user with access to their own information. So, for your personal use, if the tablet is to be shared among family members, this provides a way to separate each user’s information.

For schools that are just starting out, I suggest that devices be deployed to one or two classrooms rather than put them on one or two shared carts. The great successes that come from the use of tablets depend on them being available all the time and at point of need, not just on a scheduled basis. Once the successes in those classrooms have been documented over the school year, it makes it so much easier to expand the program to additional classrooms.

10. Use “the cloud” to access your files anywhere. Each of the tablet operating systems provides access to an online file storage location. By saving your files “in the cloud,” you can access them from desktops, phones and other devices. Apple has iCloud, which provides the users with the ability to sync their photos across devices and to have access to Pages, Numbers and Keynote documents.

On the Android side, Google has Google Drive, which provides the user with the ability to store any type of file in that space. (There’s also a Google Drive app for the iOS users.) Microsoft has its own online file storage area called Skydrive. It’s built into the Windows RT operating systems, but there are also Skydrive apps for the iOS and Android platforms.

Many users take advantage of the easy-to-use Dropbox app online file storage system. There is a Dropbox app for both iOS and Android, and one for Windows RT should be available soon.

By saving items in the cloud, it’s easy to get to your files, no matter what device you are using.

The Bottom Line

These are just some of the items to consider when contemplating the purchase of tablets for both personal and classroom use. I didn’t include the processors and the size of the internal storage on the devices in the article. Suffice it to say, the tablets are all speedy, and many come in different “flavors” with additional internal storage available. Also, some versions of the tablets include a special option for using the cellphone provider’s network for Internet access in addition to the internal Wi-Fi ability all tablets have.

If you’re interested in that feature, ask your cellphone provider about it, as the devices that do allow this access often are different from the base model.

Specifications gathered 12/24/12

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