Choosing the best smartphones, tablets and e-book readers: IT Buyer’s Guide review

Choose the right portable device on Android, iOS, Windows Phone and more
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If you often find yourself needing to access information when you’re out and about, you’ve probably discovered one of the major drawbacks of a laptop: they’re only really usable when you’ve got a nice, flat surface and somewhere to sit. While netbooks make this slightly easier, they’re still not always the best solution for a coffee shop, train, or bus.

The solution is simple: you need a mobile device. Depending on your budget and precise requirements, there are plenty of options available to you. The first step is deciding what the biggest priority is: portability or power?

A highly portable device like a smartphone is great, because it fits in your pocket and you can carry it with you at all times. There are sacrifices to be made, however: the screen is small, control can be awkward, and – with a few exceptions – they’re typically underpowered. In short: if you need constant access to e-mail and relatively simple websites, a smartphone is probably the device for you.

Galaxy S II smartphone Review

New smartphones such as Samsung’s Galaxy S II feature dual-core processors.

For more demanding users, a smartphone isn’t enough. You want a bigger screen, more power, and the ability to handle complex websites – and maybe higher-powered games. For you, a tablet may be the best option – but bear in mind that it’s unlikely to fit in your pocket, and is yet another device to carry around.

In this guide, we’ll take a look at both ends of the spectrum to see exactly what you need to know before parting with your hard-earned cash.

For portability, you can’t beat a smartphone. They’re small, lightweight, and fit easily in your pocket. You can browse the web, check your e-mails, and – in case you were wondering – even make and receive calls and text messages.

Not all smartphones are created equal, however, and there’s a few things you need to be aware of before starting your shopping spree.

The first, and possibly most important, factor to consider is the operating system that you’re after. If you’ve got friends who use smartphones of a particular type – for example, Apple’s popular iPhone, which uses the iOS operating system – you may want the same as them, as many apps allow multiplayer gaming and data sharing between devices of the same platform.

There are far too many things to consider when choosing a smartphone OS for this guide, so if you need help deciding between Android, iOS, BlackBerry OS, Windows Phone, and the others, check out our in-depth smartphone and tablet OS Buyer’s Guide.

Once you’ve decided on a platform, you’re still likely to have a selection of devices to choose from. Prospective iPhone buyers have the easiest time here, as there’s really only one choice: the latest iPhone, which at the time of the writing is the iPhone 4. As third-party manufacturers aren’t allowed to play with iOS, the only choice is to buy Apple’s own creation.

If you’ve decided on other platforms, however, you need to start whittling the choices down. The first thing to look at is the screen. It’s the thing you’ll be spending the majority of your time interacting with, so you’ll want to make sure its a good one.

Larger screens are easier to use, but can drain the battery life – so double-check the specifications before getting a model with a 5in display. The higher the resolution, the crisper the image – and the more information you can fit on the screen when viewing a web page.

The majority of smartphones have interactive touchscreen displays, typically split into two different technologies: resistive and capacitive. Resistive displays are usually found on older and low-end models, and typically respond to only a single touch and require the use of a stylus or firm pressure from a fingertip.

Capacitive touchscreens are more common, and offer a far smoother interface – often with support for ‘multi-touch,’ where multiple contact points can be tracked at once and gestures like pinching used to zoom in and out – but don’t work if you’re wearing gloves.

Processing power
When you’ve decided on the screen size, it’s time to look deeper. The processor is the heart of a modern smartphone, and the faster the chip the better your experience will be. One thing to look for is dual-core processors: originally solely the domain of larger tablets, some smartphones are starting to feature dual-core processors. This makes them extremely efficient at multi-tasking, and while you’re likely to pay a premium for a dual-core phone at the moment, it could well be worth the investment.

The overwhelming majority of smartphones come with a camera, but the quality can differ massively from model to model. While the resolution – measured in ‘megapixels’ – is a good indicator of quality, pay attention to other features too: a five megapixel camera with flash and autofocus will typically give better results than an eight megapixel camera without.

Finally, you should think about yourchosen phone’s storage capacity. If you’re planning on using your smartphone as your primary mobile computing platform, you’re likely to be carrying documents and files with you – plus music and videos for when you get bored.

Most smartphones on the market come with 8GB or 16GB of storage, although larger models are available – and many can be upgraded via microSD cards, which are inserted into a slot. If you do buy an upgradeable model, double-check to see if the quoted capacity is just for the internal storage – in which case you get to use both that and any additional card you buy – or whether the handset simply comes with a bundled microSD card.

Contract or SIM-free?
When you’ve chosen your smartphone, it’s time to buy it. Most phones are available SIM-free (i.e. not tied to a particular contract or network) for an outright cost, but many choose to buy a smartphone on a contract with a mobile network.

Buying on contract reduces the upfront cost, but it does rope you in – usually for 18 to 24 months – and will cost more in the long run. When signing up for a contract, check the amount of ‘mobile data’ on offer. Using apps like Instagram or Twitter can chomp through data, and if you don’t have a generous allowance it could cost you a significant amount of money in data charges.

If a smartphone is a little too small or weedy for your needs, you’ll want to look at tablets. These are scaled-up devices with a display of around 9 inches, in the case of the most famous, the Apple iPad and iPad 2 – although models exist that are as small as 5in and as big as 14in. Most usually feature far more computing power than your average smartphone.Samsung Galaxy Tab
Samsung’s Galaxy Tab bucked the trend towards 9-10in tablet devices.

That power comes at a cost, however: portability. A tablet is definitely something you’re going to want to carry in your bag, rather than your pocket. If you’ve decided it’s worth the trade-off, however, you’ll need to start narrowing things down.

The tablet market is currently growing faster than ever before, thanks largely to Apple’s launch of its original iPad. This device, while far from the first tablet, was the first to strike a chord with consumers – and has triggered a massive flood of devices from a wide range of manufacturers.

Operating system
As with smartphones, your first decision is operating system. If you already own an iPhone or Android-powered phone, that decision is pretty much made for you: if you buy a tablet running the same platform, apps you purchase can be shared between devices – meaning an app can be used on both your phone and your tablet for a single cost.

Until recently, Apple’s iOS-based iPad was the only real choice in the tablet market – but the launch of Google’s Android 3.0 ‘Honeycomb’ has gone some way to level the playing field. The first tablet-specific version of Android, it offers real competition to the iPad for the first time. Beware older Android versions, which are designed for smartphones and often seem out of place on larger-format devices.

Tablets based on Microsoft Windows do exist, but they’re typically bulky and expensive. Some models are convertible between a netbook/laptop mode and a tablet mode, with a touch-sensitive display that swivels and folds back on itself, covering the keyboard. They’re a good option for those who want flexibility, but don’t offer the same experience as a dedicated tablet – and typically weigh significantly more.

Is bigger better?
The next consideration to make is display size. Bigger displays make for more comfortable reading, but mean that the device itself is larger and harder to carry. The market seems to have settled on devices with a diagonal of between 9 and 10 inches as being the standard, although Samsung has enjoyed success with its nearly-pocketsized 7in Galaxy Tab.

As with smartphones, a tablet has a touch-sensitive display. At the cheaper end, you’ll find resistive displays that are awkward to use and make scrolling through websites a real pain. More expensive devices come with capacitive displays, and if you can afford it, go for one – on a larger screen, a resistive display can really ruin a device.

Performance and features
When looking at the performance of a tablet, pay attention to its processor. At the cheaper end, you’ll find devices based around single-core 600MHz chips. This is fine for checking your e-mail, but web browsing performance will suffer – and you can forget about mobile gaming. 1GHz chips are rapidly becoming the norm, and higher-end devices usually feature dual-core 1GHz or 1.2GHz processors – and if you can afford it, it’s a worthwhile investment.

If you’re buying a higher-end tablet, you may find that you can connected it to an HDTV via HDMI – which means you’re going to be putting movies on it to watch on the go, and you’ll need plenty of storage.

The better low-end tablets offer 16GB of storage, while 32GB is common at the high end – and some even go to 64GB, although you can expect to pay heavily for the privilege. While Apple’s device cannot be upgraded after purchase – meaning you’d better make sure you’ve bought the biggest you can afford – most Android tablets can be upgraded via microSD cards, adding up to 32GB of additional storage at a later date.

The down side of most current tablets is, sadly, the cost. While models exist that feature integrated 3G connectivity and which can be used as an over-sized smartphone for making voice calls, they’re often only available as an outright purchase and are not subsidised by the mobile networks.

If the thing you’re most wanting to do with your tablet is read electronic books, however, there’s an alternative: an eReader. These are simplified tablets with sunlight-readable displays that mimic paper, offering a high-contrast greyscale image that is far more comfortable for long periods than a back-lit LCD.

Some models, such as Amazon’s popular Kindle, can even perform basic tablet-like tasks such as checking e-mail and browsing the web – although the performance is nowhere near that of a ‘true’ tablet.

The primary advantage of an eReader, however, is the cost: Amazon’s top-end Kindle 3G can be had for a fraction of the cost of an iPad, and requires no monthly contract or data charges. The sunlight readable display is also a major plus, but does mean that video and colour web-browsing is a no-go.