What you need to know before buying tablet computers
Assessing your intended use and what the market has to offer will give you the most bang for your tablet buck
By Robert Avsec
How new are tablet computers? Shockingly, the Apple iPad debuted less than five years ago and it hasn't taken long for it and Android tablets — and now Windows-based models — to revolutionize the world of mobile computing.
So how does your department get into the tablet game? The following are some guidelines to help your department's leadership make the best purchasing decision for your organization.
Will the tablet spend its life on fire apparatus responding to calls for service or will it be in the hands of a fire inspector on a daily basis as they conduct fire-prevention duties?
This is a key question as the cost difference between an average rugged tablet (engineered for the rough and tumble world of emergency responses) and an average business-worthy tablet can be $2,000 or more. For the purposes of this discussion, we're going to focus on the latter.
Tablets have come a long way in a short time. It probably won't be too long before their functionality replaces computers and smartphones, but they're not quite there yet. Even with add-ons, such as a Bluetooth connected keyboard, tablets still present an ergonomic challenge when it comes to some tasks like entering large amounts of text or working with graphics.
Convertible tablets, like the various Windows 8 models, are quickly closing the productivity gap between desktop computers and tablets, and quality models are now on the market for under $1,000.
So before you get too far down the purchasing decision tree, put in the time to determine which members will be using the tablet and what jobs you want them to use the tablet for.
Choose an operating system
In many respects, buying a tablet is not much different than buying a desktop or notebook computer, so take a good look at your current computing system.
Apple with its iPads and Android with its many hardware choices from manufacturers such as Acer, Amazon, Asus, Samsung, and others offer many choices. The tablet market is also featuring affordable Windows 8 tablets built around Intel's Atom processor from various manufacturers.
Apple's iOS, the operating system on the iPad Air and iPad mini has two significant advantages: it's very clean and intuitive, and there is a wide selection of iPad apps that work uniformly well with very few exceptions. So if you're department is currently a Mac shop, you'll probably want to take a close look at having your tablets speaking the same language.
Tablets using Google's Android mobile OS offer a wide choice of hardware from several manufacturers and offer maximum configurability, a top-notch notification system, fast and smooth Web browsing, and seamless integration with Google applications like Gmail, Google Maps, and Hangouts for video chat.
The Android OS also includes support for multiple user logins enabling one tablet to be shared by several members. This is something to think about for volunteer or paid-on-call departments where different people may be sharing job responsibilities.
Microsoft's Windows 8 comes the closest to offering a traditional computing experience with full x86 support for all of your department's Windows software; you can run the full version of Microsoft Office when using a Windows 8 tablet. You'll also find that connectivity options and hardware add-ons for Windows models are typically more plentiful than with other tablet types.
What about apps?
Look beyond Candy Crush or Angry Birds. You're looking to your tablets to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of your operations. So look for apps that help with records management, fire inspections management, fire investigations management, etc.
Besides finding apps that are a good fit with the OS you choose, make sure that the apps will display well on the tablet. A good best practice is to have the people who will be using the tablet give the apps a test drive on various sized tablets. Make sure that this testing takes place in the locations and conditions where they'll be used, such as outdoors in bright sunlight, indoors with low lighting, in a vehicle, etc.
Be sure to test apps that are designed for use with tablets. While Android phone apps may look good on a 7-inch tablet, you'll likely be disappointed with the resolution on a 9- or 10-inch tablet.
At this time it may be more difficult to locate those fire service related apps you need that work with Windows 8 tablets simply because the technology is newer. But remember, you can also run all of your standard Windows-compatible programs on a Windows 8 tablet.
Screen size and storage
The size of a tablet is based on a diagonal measurement of the screen, not the overall tablet. Seven-inch tablets are considered small-screen, while 8.9- to 10-inch tablets are considered large screen.
Though tablets weigh less than their notebook and laptop cousins, a large-screen tablet can still weigh about a pound. Tablets are not just overgrown smartphones in that respect. So consider the portability needs of your personnel when selecting tablet size.
Cloud (off-device) storage is an option for many tablets (iCloud for iPads, Amazon Cloud Storage for Kindle Fires, and OneDrive for Windows), but when it comes to on-board storage, more is always better.
Right now storage tops out at 128GB of flash-based memory, and that's only on the iPad Air and iPad mini lines; most Android tablets are available with 16, 32, or 64GB storage options. Android tablets also have microSD memory card slots that let you expand their storage.
Some tablets come in a Wi-Fi-only model or with the option of always-on cellular service from a wireless provider. If you want to use your tablet to get online anywhere, you should opt for a model that offers a cellular version.
This adds to the price, and you will need to pay for cellular service. Generally, though, with a tablet you can purchase data on a month-to-month basis, without signing a contract.