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How to Select the Right Tablet

How to Select the Right Tablet

There are a few critical features that every China tablet buyer should be mindful of. If you are considering buying a generic Chinese brand tablet PC, your budget or getting the best value for your money is likely one of your top concerns. Here are a few tips on which specifications that you should pay attention to that can save you some money.

Know Your Needs

While everyone would like a top-of-the-range model with all the bell and whistles, you can save a lot a money by knowing which features are important to you and which you can live without. List out the main tasks that you will be using the tablet for.

Is it mainly for web browsing? Do you plan to stream or play movies on it? Do you like listening to music? Is gaming important to you? What kind of games do you like? Casual games or hardcore 3D intensive games? Will you be using it for video chats? Do you plan to use it on the go or will it mainly be used at home?

Dual-Core or Quad-Core Processor

Rockchip RK3188 used in China TabletThe latest models coming out today are mostly powered by quad-core processors like the Rockchip RK3188 or the Allwinner A31. A multi-core processor can run multiple tasks at the same time and thus speeding up and increasing the processing power. However, the OS and to a certain extend, the apps themselves need to be programmed to take advantage of the extra processing power of the multiple cores. While Android OS is designed to support multi-thread, there are opposing views on whether the latest quad-core processors bring significant improvement to performance or if it is more of a marketing tool.

Benchmark and actual tests have shown that the quad-core processors do not boost performance as much as expected. However, the newer quad-core processors do bring other hardware advancements besides just doubling the number of cores. The apps that would most likely take advantage of the extra processing power are processor intensive apps like 3D games and high bit rate video (large video files) decoding and playback.

High resolution screens require extra processing power to push all those pixels on the display. Therefore models with high resolution screens should have quad-core processors. Otherwise, all those extra pixels will go to waste if there isn’t enough processing power.

If you have no need for processor intensive apps or a high resolution screen, you can probably save $50 to $100 by going for an older dual-core model.

Single-core models are not worth considering and this is one area where you shouldn’t try to save money on.

Display and Panel Type

China Tablets use a wide range of display panelsDisplay size is mainly a matter of personal preference. The smaller displays (7″) are best for portability. They fit easily into large pockets or in a lady’s handbag. They also don’t weigh too much. However, they are also only slightly larger than large screen smart phones. The battery life is also not as good as the bigger display models.

The larger displays (>10″) do provide much more screen estate and thus provide a better experience but at the expense of portability and weight.

The mid-size tablets are a compromise between the two.

Besides the size of the display itself, the other matter to consider is the screen resolution. The absolute minimum screen resolution is 1280 x 800. Anything lower should be avoided unless it is a small 7″ screen. Higher resolutions are preferred of course but there is a diminishing return as the resolution goes higher and might not be worth the money.

The high-end tablets today have Retina Displays, a term coined by Apple to refer to displays with high pixel density that the human eye is unable to notice any pixelation at a typical viewing distance. In reality, the screen quality and brightness plays a much bigger role than we are led to believe. As usual we all get misled that the bigger the number, the better it is. Not everyone needs a retina screen and most people cannot tell the difference between a good quality medium resolution screen and a retina screen as proven by this experiment by TNW. Therefore when deciding on the display resolution, look out for screen quality instead of just the numbers.

Higher resolution screens require more processing power. If the processor is not up to it, this causes lag or jerky animation especially when running graphically intensive apps like 3D games. The extra processing power required also causes higher battery drain. A high resolution screen needs to be paired with a suitable processor and an adequately sized battery.

The other thing that you should take note of is the display panel type. Select either an IPS (In-Plane Switching) or PLS (Plane to Line Switching) panel. Although not all IPS or PLS panels are created equal, they are generally sharper, brighter and provide better contrast images with a wider viewing angle compared to other technologies. AMOLED screens are also a good choice but I have yet to see them used on China tablets. Any other display type will only lead to frustration.

Front and Rear Camera

Camera ModuleThere are 2 types of cameras on a tablet, a front camera and a back camera. Some tablets have either a front or a back camera while others have both. Some have no cameras at all but this is very rare.

The front camera is usually a low resolution camera (2 megapixel or lower) and is mainly used for video chat. The rear camera is for taking photos and videos and usually has higher resolution (2 MP or higher). Some tablets do include an LED flash for low light photos but they don’t actually improve picture quality so it is a feature that doesn’t really matter.

A high megapixel camera is meaningless if the camera image sensor is small or of poor quality. The image sensor size determines how much light is captured in creating an image. More light equals better images.

The other info you might be interested in is the video capture specification. If video capture is important to you, make sure the camera supports at least 720p 30 fps.

Like the display, the camera quality cannot be determined by numbers alone. Higher pixels do not mean better quality cameras. Unfortunately, if you require a tablet with a great camera, you may have to look elsewhere. The cameras on the typical China tablet are above average at best.

WiFi, Bluetooth and 3G

WiFi Bluetooth 3GThere are 3 main types of wireless connectivity on a tablet, WiFi, Bluetooth and 3G. WiFi 802.11 b/g/n is standard for all tablets. Some higher end models may offer dual band (2.4 and 5 GHz) WiFi. Dual-band WiFi provides better and more importantly more stable connection.

Single-band WiFi runs on the 2.4 GHz frequency that is getting more congested as it is shared by more and more wireless devices in a typical household. Try and tally up the number of all the 2.4 GHz devices in your home – laptop, tablet, smart phones, smart TV, media players, cordless phones, wireless headphones, wireless RF keyboard/mouse, wireless game controllers and even your microwave. All of these devices can cause interference with WiFi connection.

Dual-band WiFi allows the device to switch between both bands to provide a better connection. However, you do need a dual-band WiFi router to take advantage of it.

The presence of Bluetooth is usually taken for granted on a smart phone. However, Bluetooth is sometimes available as an option on the China tablets. Manufacturers provides gives the option to the retailer to have it or not. Therefore, the presence of Bluetooth cannot be taken for granted even though it is mentioned in the table above. If you are unsure, it is best to check with the retailer to confirm. The price difference with and without Bluetooth is minimal.

Bluetooth is a nice to have feature but it may be an essential feature if you are a music lover. It allows you to connect wirelessly to Bluetooth speakers and headphones. The other thing you should watch out for about Bluetooth is support for the latest version, Bluetooth v4.0 Low Energy (BLE). Bluetooth v4.0 dramatically reduces power consumption. If you are planning to use Bluetooth for long periods of time, you should get a tablet with Bluetooth v4.0 support.

3G like Bluetooth is an option on the tablets although models with and without 3G are sold as different models. Also, unlike Bluetooth, the addition of 3G support increases the price of the tablet significantly. If you plan to use your tablet outside your home a lot, it might be worthwhile to spring for the 3G option.

However, if you have a smartphone with a data connection, it is possible to use tethering to share your phone’s data connection with your tablet via WiFi. This saves adding the 3G option as well as an additional data plan for your tablet.

Other Considerations

Depending on your needs, other things that you may want to consider include:

  • GPS – This is not a very common feature on China tablets but you can find it on the newer models. Please note that most GPS applications require an internet connection to work properly. Unless you are getting a 3G capable tablet or you are able to tether to your phone, GPS might not be all that useful.
  • Battery – Battery longevity is another specification that is difficult to judge from a specification list. There are many factors that influence battery life including processor, screen and data connection. Some manufacturers include the hours of expected usage from a single full charge but this is more often than not a bloated figure. The benchmark here is at about 8 hours on light use. However, small-sized 7 inch tablets usually come with smaller batteries and they seldom last longer than 6 hours. Bear in mind that rechargeable batteries do deteriorate over time so you do not want to be permanently tethered to a power socket 12-18 months down the road.
  • Android OS version – Surprisingly, China tablets are often very uptodate when it comes to using the latest Android OS versions on their latest hardware. This is mainly because they just use the stock Android OS firmware with minimal or no customization at all. We consider this as a plus point as bloated customized firmware just slow things down and waste valuable storage space.  Preferably the tablet should come with at least Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean). However, if you are comfortable with rooting and updating firmware, the installed firmware is not an issue. You just have to make sure if an updated official or custom ROM is available for the tablet.
  • System memory (RAM) – The minimum RAM that you should have is 1GB. If you can afford the newer 2GB models, go for it. The extra RAM goes a long way in making everything on the tablet a little more responsive.
  • Internal (ROM) and External (SD) storage – Built-in storage typically ranges between 8GB to 32GB. This should be adequate for most purposes. If you plan to use the tablet to view your video collection, a bigger storage is preferred. A cheap way to add more storage is with SD memory cards. If you need a lot of storage space, make sure that the tablet has an external memory card slot. The great thing about China tablets is that most if not all do come with a micro SD expansion slot.