At EAT we love tasty hardware, be it multi-core processors, IPS displays, GPUs with unified shaders or six-axis gyroscopes, it all gets our juices flowing. For the novice however hardware can be the most confusing aspect, what makes that tablets so much better than that almost identical looking tablet? In many cases different tablet models could be running almost identical hardware.
More of a guide to the jargon you might encounter lets take a quick run-down of the major components that go to making a tablet and why you should consider them before making a purchase.
This is part of the Ultimate Tablet Buying Guide series.
It’s a classic, the processor, the engine of the tablet, it dictates how fast the device can work and runs all of the apps and the operating system. The processor is important as it dictates how fast a tablet will run, how “snappy” it feels and partly how long the battery will last. On the technical side the majority are based on a design called ARM but can be manufactured by any company. At their heart ARM processors can have one, two or four processing units, called a cores. Most currently have a dual-core design with quad-core due to arrive en masse early 2012.
The company Intel also produces what we’d currently consider inferior Intel Atom range for tablet devices. While they potentially provide more processing speed battery life suffers.
It’s not only the tablet’s main display, it’s also the tablet’s main interface. A key part to a tablet is that you poke at it with your fingers to get it to work. That works in one of two ways resistive and capacitive. Long story short, capacitive is far better and all good tablets use this. You’ll find cheap tablets and phones use the resistive technology and it’s slower to respond and less responsive.
As for the display itself the number of dots or pixels used to make up the screen is important, the higher the number the better the image. Generally 1024×768 is base for a 10-inch tablet. This should rise through 2012 and beyond. Another technology called IPS describes how the display is made, IPS screens have better viewing angles, richer colour when compared to cheaper technologies such as TN.
Everything you see on that seductive tablet’s screen has to be put there by something. A tablet could use the processor but trust us that’d be slow and it’s better left doing more important tasks, like checking email and posting angry comments on web sites. A GPU or Graphic Processing Unit is specifically designed to paint the screen very rapidly with 2D and 3D images. Better GPUs provide smoother 3D games with higher frames-per-second displays, slower GPUs will provide slow and ‘jerky’ looking 3D displays.
Often tied to the GPU is video playback. Many tablets will claim 1080p video playback, this enables the right files to be played smoothly without skipping video or sound. If the tablet provides a HDTV video output you’ll be able to play videos stored on the tablet to your TV.
Storage and SD cards
Tablets store data in three different ways, not all of which are available to you. The first is its internal memory for running apps, more memory means it can have more apps open at once. The second is its internal storage, aka flash drive that is used to store your data, music, videos, downloaded apps and anything else, currently 16GB is a good entry level amount of internal storage. Finally some tablets provide external flash memory support via standard SD cards, this is an excellent and easy way of taking video, music and documents with you. As the sotrage is separate from the main tablet you won’t compromise your apps, SD cards are available in large capacities up to 64GB currently and they can be easily removed.
Tablets are wire-free devices, so how do you get stuff on and off them or connect to the internet? Most important is wireless networking, at least 802.11g but better is 802.11n sometimes called wireless-N. All tablets will offer this.
Alongside this there will be Bluetooth, which is wireless protocol for wirelessly connecting devices such as speakers, keyboards, microphones and more. It’s handy to have and easy to take for granted.
Taking their cue more from phones than anywhere else, many tablets provide additional sensors that enable them to provide richer services and intelligent feedback depending on your physical actions. The touchscreen is a part of this but beyond that are location and navigation services via GPS. An accelerometer can sense movement of the tablet, a gyroscope senses tilting of the tablets and magnetometer provides compass-like abilities. Additionally light meters and proximity sensors can control the display depending on light levels and if it senses someone about to use it.
3G or Mobile Broadband
A term used to describe a tablet that can accept a standard mobile phone SIM and therefore access the internet without a standard Wi-Fi connection. Many countries offer dual-sim deals (not in the UK) which makes far more sense than buying a tablet with a separate 3G mobile contract. As most phones now provide a tethered or Wi-Fi hotspot mode this is less essential for those on the move.