The Next Generation of Tablets & E-Book Readers

Apple once dominated the tablet-computer market, and it still has the most mobile applications that are optimized for tablets. However, tablets that run Google’s Android or Microsoft’s Windows 8 operating system now perform as well as Apple tablets do if you want to browse the Web, send email or watch video.

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Talk about a dramatic shift. In 2011, Apple accounted for 82 percent of the tablet-computer market in the United States, according to Nielsen, and Google just released a tablet-specific version of its Android operating system.

Today, International Data Corp., which is a consumer-electronics research company, tells us that 51 percent of the tablets that were sold in the United States in 2012 included an Android operating system, compared with the 46 percent that included Apple’s iOS. New to the scene is Microsoft’s Windows 8, which is the touch-screen-based operating system that the company launched in October 2012 for tablets, as well as for desktop and notebook computers.

We’ve used tablets that use one of all three operating systems, and we found that each performs fine if you want to use your tablet just to browse the Web, listen to audio, send email or watch video. However, we found that Android and iOS are far ahead of Windows 8 in terms of the usability and versatility of the interface. For instance, the latest Android models, which now use either Android 4.2 or Android 4.3, are the only tablets that allow for multiuser profiles, which means that more than one person can use the same tablet and have his/her own password, profile and shortcuts. Android also is the only operating system that allows you to drag and drop content to a tablet from a desktop or notebook computer or to a smartphone via a USB connection rather than using the slower cloud. This means that you can add a lot of images, music or videos to an Android tablet quickly.

Apple’s main advantage, aside from its tried-and-true closed system, remains that it has far more high-quality mobile applications (more on this later) than does either Android or Windows 8. However, iOS 7, which was released in September 2013, adds more shooting modes to the iPad’s built-in camera and makes adjustments to Siri, which is Apple’s mobile voice-recognition system for controlling apps and the system interface.

The main benefit that we found for using Windows 8 is that it’s the only operating system that allows you to have full access to Microsoft Office 2013 (starting at $140). That’s important if you use a lot of Word documents or create complex spreadsheets in Excel. We evaluated a preview version of Windows 8.1, which, as of press time, was expected to come out in October 2013, and the updated operating system will add a streamlined desktop interface and Web browser to tablets.

If you use the same operating system in your smartphone and tablet, many of the apps that you buy will work on both your smartphone and tablet. Unfortunately, if your apps aren’t optimized properly, then they’ll look a lot different on your two devices.

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APP UPDATE. Apple and Google each has roughly 900,000 apps available in its respective markets—Apple’s App Store and Google’s Google Play. However, Apple has at least 375,000 apps that are tablet-optimized, or designed to be displayed on a tablet screen as opposed to a smartphone screen. Apple had 100,000 such apps in 2011. (Apps that are optimized for tablets typically cost no more than do apps that are designed for smartphones. The App Store indicates whether an app is tablet-optimized. Google Play doesn’t.)
Canalys, which is a market-research company, estimates that roughly 10,000 Android apps, compared with 200 in 2011, are tablet-optimized. In an August 2013 study, Canalys found that of the top 50 tablet apps in terms of downloads that are in Apple’s App Store, only 52 percent have versions that are tablet-optimized for Android.

Roughly 99 percent of the apps that are in Google Play are designed for a smartphone; the Android operating system automatically rescales these apps to fit on a tablet’s larger screen. More often than not, however, we found that when we tried to use an Android smartphone app on a tablet, all of the interface elements were crammed into a corner of the larger screen, or the graphics didn’t line up correctly on the larger screen.

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