What do you get when you get a more expensive Android tablet?
August 13, 2014 10:07 AM   Subscribe

I need to buy an Android tablet for academic use. I went to BestBuy to check them out and they range in price from $100 to close to $600 with no obvious rhyme or reason to the variation. What do you get when you pay more for a tablet and is it worth it?

The two most obvious differences among tablets are their memory sizes and their screen sizes. I would like to hear some thoughts on how much these matter, but it also seems to be the case that tablets with the same memory sizes and similar screen sizes vary greatly in price. What am I missing in comparing these? Specific recommendations for tablets to get or avoid are also welcome, but I'm mostly asking about how I should be comparing/evaluating tablets and what is worth paying for.

More info:
My main reason for getting an android tablet is to work with an android app I've made. This includes:
- Continuing development and optimizing for tablet.
- Demonstrating the app to potential users at venus/events designed for this purpose. I assume a larger screen size would be better here. I will also bring my phone to demonstrate that the app works well at phone size, also.
In addition, I would probably use the tablet for:
- working with pdfs and maybe word files (if there's a grading app, for example!)
- evernote use
- media consumption: e-magazines from the library and maybe online movie rentals from the library, if I can hook this up to my TV or Blu-Ray player somehow (Samsung smart TV (now older gen and Phillips Wi-FI DVD player). This would be a bonus though and is not my primary interest.

My current technology set includes:
- A windows 8 desktop and windows 8 laptop,
- A Google Nexus phone
- An ipad (yes, but the app is android).
posted by If only I had a penguin... to Computers & Internet (18 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Things that affect the cost:
The speed of the processor & gpu (but this isn't just a simple mhz #)
The resolution & quality of the screen, in addition to the screen size
The physical build quality of the tablet
The brand, of which any future updates to the os are tied fairly tightly to

i'd look at the 2013 nexus 7 (not the 2012 model) to start with, will get you the the unmodified android os from google with better updates than others, and decent speed. Google also doesn't seem to have as much markup on their devices as brand name models do.
posted by TheAdamist at 10:16 AM on August 13, 2014

It sounds like larger screen is probably better for you - so 7 inches would work but might be too small - aim for 8 - 10 inches instead. (If 7" is OK - then Nexus 7 (2013 model) is a good bet.

If you don't really have the use case for it, don't bother with the tablets that come with built-in stylus (Galaxy Note, etc) - it's more money for a "premium" device but basically the same functionality, minus the specialized stylus software.

Price differences, even between similar-spec models, are down to build materials/quality as well as market placement (i.e. is it marketed as a premium/flagship model? If so, they will charge more because they can). Screen quality and resolution are also a big factor here - go for 1080p minimum - anything less isn't worth it.

If you're not doing heavy-duty gaming, decoding 4K video, or anything else super-taxing, you probably don't need the absolute latest specs. Most tablets do have micro-SD card slots, so don't feel the need to pay more for a tablet with extra internal memory.

If you don't need it right now, maybe wait until Google unveils their next line of Nexus devices - there is a refreshed tablet rumored at 8.9" coming.

If you can't wait, then the next best bang for your buck would probably be the new Nvidia Shield tablet. Despite the fact that it goes against many of my recommendations above, it's priced very aggressively and has received consistently glowing reviews. I personally wouldn't even consider spending more than $300 on any other tablet right now.
posted by trivia genius at 10:20 AM on August 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

The best thing, and the worst thing, about the android ecosystem is the fragmentation. There are different aspect ratios, different resolutions, different dpi's, different screen sizes, different chips, different memory volumes, different features...so much.

I work with a lot of devices in a repair capacity, as well as working with devices with people with disabilities. I have two tablets---one is a 2012 Nexus 7, and the other is a very recent Galaxy Tab Pro 8.4. I love that Samsung continues to release devices with specifications that are AMAZING, I dislike that their naming conventions make it difficult to keep track of which one is which. I also have iPads in here, I don't use them and don't know much about them. I read a lot on mine, use for some netflix/other movies. I use the on-screen keyboard and a bluetooth keyboard when I really need to jam in some data.

As a general hint, if you go to google and type in something like "Galaxy Tab 4 vs Galaxy Tab Pro" you can generally get a good side by side comparison.

I personally do NOT like the large form factor tablets--10/12". I feel like they're a little ungainly. I feel like the 8.4 is perfect for me, big enough that it has lots of real-estate, small enough that it's very small. The Gtab Pro also has ridiculous screen resolution, at 1600x2560 with 359ppi. The screen is gorgeous and all media on it looks stupid good. It also has an IR blaster---which is awesome, it comes with a universal remote but there are plenty of others out there that give you functionality exceeding a Harmony.

Asus tabs shouldn't be overlooked either, although I don't have a ton of experience with them. The new nexus should be out soon, and will apparently be made by HTC and is supposed to be a FANTASTIC device. At this time, I pretty much steer everyone towards either the Nexus (2012/2013 or the soon-to-drop 2014) for their cost and performance and general lack of drama. The Gtab Pro is more expensive but is just in a whole different arena, really.

I would tell you to pay attention to screen resolution (you want your app to look GOOD!), battery capacity, and the chip powering it. Google wants everyone to stop shipping with SD card slots, although Samsung has kept them, the Nexus will not have them. It's trivial to use USB, though.
posted by TomMelee at 10:20 AM on August 13, 2014

Oh, also - look at manufacturer history on software updates. Although there was recently a big push across all manufacturers to update to KitKat, historical data tells you a lot.

Samsung, in particular, seems to take the "throw every device configuration possible at the market and see what sells" approach - which is great for consumer choice. The flipside is they don't have the resources to continue supporting every device they sell, so many devices only get software updates for about a year after they first reach the market.

Google obviously continues to update Nexus devices for quite a while, at least 2 years from launch.

Nvidia has a good track record with updating the one or two devices they have launched under their own brand.

Asus has been a little hit or miss but is generally good.

Not sure what other brands you are considering - I don't think HTC, LG, or Motorola have any current-gen devices on sale (or at least not worth purchasing).
posted by trivia genius at 10:28 AM on August 13, 2014

So I can't tell you what the extra buys you, I can tell you that we got a $70 tablet+stylus+keyboard bundle from NoMoreRack.com for Mrs. Straw's developmentally disabled brother. It ran all the simple games we threw at it, seemed like a perfectly reasonable device, eventually he banged it on the table to get it to load up a web page one too many times.

There's probably some battery life differences, I'll bet the digitizer on the higher end tablet is less noisy, and I have bought both the cheap version and then the expensive version of a product far too many times to count, but at those prices it may be worth buying a cheap one just to make sure your app runs on the variety of devices out there.
posted by straw at 10:31 AM on August 13, 2014

I have the newer Nexus 7. It would seem to do everything you want it to do, although it would not really work well for typing Word docs (although Office has a great online suite) since the screen is pretty small.
posted by Nevin at 10:34 AM on August 13, 2014

I just (as in yesterday) got the Galaxy Tab S 8.4. My main reasons for wanting it where the weight, thinness, and the microSD expansion slot. So far so good. It has a little Samsung bloatware, but thats not a deal breaker for me. If I get really tired of it, I can flash cyanogen on to it.

Total cost was $397 from amazon, but it boasts some solid specs for the price.

If you are wanting to save money and just get a solid tablet for that single app and some media use, you best bet might be the Nexus 7. Woot had it posted recently for pretty cheap, 150ish I think.
posted by GreatValhalla at 10:52 AM on August 13, 2014

Since you've got a small screen already, get a big screen for demos. I've got a Nexus5 too, and had a 2013 Nexus7. If you get a Nexus10 you won't have to worry about any of the customizations 3rd party vendors do to the tablet. You'll be able to demo your app on pure Android.
posted by blue_beetle at 10:53 AM on August 13, 2014

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone so far. If I can add some questions/clarifications:

1. Lots of people are pushing the nexus. With a Nexus phone I'm pretty happy to not have all that stupid stuff HTC put on my old phone (if I never again see "Do you want to link these contacts" I will be very happy). So I searched and it said the new Nexus may be released Aug. 19th. If it is, can I likely get one around that time, or will it be one of those things where they're instantly out of stock?

2. There is a lot of variability in display sizes and resolutions. This has been a problem with my app which was rejected from GooglePlay Education because supposedly it doesn't display well on tablets. Several people I know have tried it on tablets without incident, including a Nexus, so I'm not sure what they're seeing. I also installed the app on a Dell (which I assume to be wonky cause who buys a Dell tablet) and it looked fine. I'm tempted to get something where I can actually see it display poorly, but A) I don't know what that would be and B) Since I do need to demo it in the near future, I may not be able to fix it in time. Do any tablets allow you to simulate other size/resolution displays? Other thoughts?

3. Given that my phone is a nexus, is there any advantage to getting a Samsung to have two different systems to test and demo on?
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 11:08 AM on August 13, 2014

1. They'll have a preorder. Get in on it if you can/want to.

2. You can change the DPI on just about any mainstream device that's rooted. It's one of the big selling points of Paranoid Android/AOKP roms, although you can do it on just about any rom. That'll let you set which layout to show and how big to show it. PA will let you set per-app dpi, whereas you can also set total device dpi via apps or simple device edits.

3. Touchwiz is a framework integrated into the ROM. It wouldn't hurt to have a separate system to check on. HOWEVER, Nexus gives you vanilla android, and vanilla android lets you do WHATEVER YOU WANT.
posted by TomMelee at 11:19 AM on August 13, 2014

1. Nobody knows if there will be enough stock to satisfy the crowd of Nexus-hungry purchasers - so I would plan to pre-order the first moment it becomes possible to do so.

2. Is your app optimized for tablets, and not just a blown-up version of the portrait-orientation phone version? Just because it functions and looks decent when blown-up doesn't mean it's meant for a tablet. I'm not an app designer/coder, but I do know that Google wants developers to put the extra screen real estate to good use. See their own apps, as well as the tablet apps with the Editors Choice badge in the Play Store for some examples of what they want to see.

I don't know of any tablets that let you simulate other displays, but doesn't the development environment include emulators that you can tweak for size/resolution?

3. By tying into Google's ecosystem, Samsung and everyone else has implicitly agreed that apps should function the same across vendors. The only minor differences are where apps hook into system resources provided by the vendor instead of Android's native APIs, which probably isn't affecting you. If you eventually want to release your app on a forked version of Android (Amazon Fire) you might want to consider purchasing one of those down the road - but not necessary now.
posted by trivia genius at 11:20 AM on August 13, 2014

Response by poster: Ok, I assume pre-order means no guarantees. And since Aug. 19th is a few days from now and no pre-order is possible, pre-ordering probably doesn't get me a tablet within a few days of that. With a demo event in early September, I assume I'm not getting the new nexus.

Trivia: It's just blown up. Is that what they're on about? Am I supposed to somehow make the displays different and then make separate listings on Google Play? I can't think of anything I would want the app to do on a tablet that I wouldn't also want/couldn't have on a phone and the display already shows everything you need on any given screen. Maybe I'll write to them and explain that. The emulator I have can't simulate the camera, which is an important part of my app.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 11:43 AM on August 13, 2014

No, you don't need separate listings - in fact they discourage this. Read the developer guidelines on responsive design - depending on the screen size and resolution your app should adapt to the screen to take full advantage, or at least re-flow to make it look better. Again, I'm not an expert here.

I'm going to assume they have a pretty high bar set for their curated Education section, rather than the open free-for-all of the general Play Store. If that's the case, you'll really need to dig into the developer resources on their site and take full advantage of their guidelines if you want admission to that walled garden.
posted by trivia genius at 11:50 AM on August 13, 2014

I find the difference between 7" and 8" pretty big. I'd try them out in a store to make sure you have a size that works for you. 7" is closer to a phone than to a 10" tablet these days, and the 10" tablet market is huge, so if a main reason is to make sure your app works well on tablets, I wouldn't go too small. Also, personally I find most 7" tablets are just a tad too small to read PDF's on comfortably, but of course this is a matter of preference.
posted by blub at 11:57 AM on August 13, 2014

Response by poster: Oh, well I have no means to guess what device people are using and have different displays for each. I'm not a programmer, I'm a lowly academic who saw a need and filled it. So I guess Google play education is out.

Doing a compare on the Nexus and Samsung Pro, it seemed like the Samsung pro has a better camera and better display. Unfortunately, it's out of stock everywhere except amazon and amazon won't ship it here. *sad trombone noise*

I'll stop thread-sitting now.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 12:03 PM on August 13, 2014

FYI, Groupon has the Samsung Pro on pretty deep discount: in all three sizes
posted by Oktober at 1:12 PM on August 13, 2014

I have no means to guess what device people are using and have different displays for each.
Webpages can be written to determine what browser you are using. I would not be surprised if people have written something for android apps to determine the display size and released the code for others to use.
posted by soelo at 1:37 PM on August 13, 2014

You can get screen size, which is basically what you want:

Display display = getWindowManager().getDefaultDisplay();
Point size = new Point();
int width = size.x;
int height = size.y;

from stack overflow

now, you may get some goofy results on like, phablets with 1080p screens, but the results should be what you want.

That being said, part of a "tablet" layout is having a true landscape orientation, so you may want to refactor your UI for larger-screened devices.
posted by Oktober at 1:47 PM on August 13, 2014

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