Best tablets for seniors
“What tablet do you recommend I buy for my mother?”
That question, or a variation of it, is probably the one we get asked here at Tapestry more than any other. And while tastes and needs vary widely from person to person, we feel we’re probably as well placed as anyone on the planet to be able to provide an informed answer.
That’s simply because we’ve been fortunate enough to work with hundreds of older users on a massive variety of tablets in dozens of real world situations … which gives us a great perspective on what these tablets are actually like to use. This means we’re very different from technology reviewers writing about products based on tech specs alone. As with any other technology device, there is often a huge difference between how a tablet gets rated in a review versus what it’s like to use long-term in the real world.
The fact that Tapestry now runs on any platform also means we’re able to provide a totally impartial perspective on which tablets are best, and why.
So after many requests, here it is: our guide to helping you choose a tablet for an older adult (or anyone else, for that matter)…
Step 1: Understanding the choice
A quick search for “tablets” on Amazon reveals a staggering 9,097 tablet devices available on the market today. With such an amazing selection available it’s little wonder that many people find the decision of what to buy overwhelming.
A quick search for “tablets” on Amazon reveals a staggering 9,097 tablet devices available on the market today
The first step to making sense of this crazy amount of choice is to understand that all these tablets can generally be categorized along a few simple dimensions, which lets you place all the thousands of tablets available into a handful of much easier-to-understand buckets. The four most important characteristics which help you understand the tablets available to you are:
- Operating system
The “Operating System” that a tablet uses is the software that defines how the tablet works when you turn it on, what it is like to use, and how the tablet behaves. Most mainstream tablets available today run one of the three major operating systems:
- Apple’s iOS, the operating system for the iPad
- Google’s Android
- Microsoft’s Windows
I say “three” major operating systems, but in reality the market is split between iOS and Android, with Windows accounting for a tiny percentage of the market. Microsoft continues to promote its new Windows based tablets, and in the long run may even achieve some kind of success with their products, but right now the only truly valid choice is between iOS and Android.
While there is a wide range of sizes available for tablets, they tend to fall into two major categories:
- Larger tablets designed for an easier viewing experience, usually around the 10 inch mark
- Smaller tablets designed for lightness and portability while sacrificing usability, usually 7 inches or less
The vast majority of the seniors we work with find the larger tablets, such as Apple’s 9.7-inch iPad, far easier to use than their smaller counterparts. There is an argument that the smaller tablets are easier to handle because they are lighter, but on-screen buttons are significantly smaller in size and harder to press, on-screen keyboards are similarly more difficult to use, and text is harder to see. Unless the person you are choosing the tablet for has good eyesight and finger dexterity, we would strongly recommend choosing a larger tablet every single time.
This one is quite simple. Tablets come in two flavors: those which incorporate the ability to connect to the Internet directly no matter where they are using a cellular connection (often labelled as either “3G” or “4G”), or those which need to connect to a Wi-Fi access point in order to connect to the Internet.
3G/4G capable tablets are typically slightly more expensive than their Wi-Fi-only counterparts, but unless you’ve already got an Internet connection in your home or facility you’re going to need to purchase a device to help you get connected to the Internet, so you’re looking at an additional cost here in any case.
At Tapestry we’ve dealt with a number of users who bought a Wi-Fi only tablet and used it in conjunction with a 3G Wi-Fi broadband modem to get connected to the Internet, and their experiences haven’t always been the best. Android tablets in particular have a habit of losing their Wi-Fi connection on occasion, which can be confusing for non-tech-savvy users … and most of the broadband modems we have used have had reliability issues of their own.
Our recommendation: use a 3G/4G enabled tablet unless you’ve already got access to a decent and reliable Wi-Fi connection, in which case a Wi-Fi only tablet is fine.
More than anything, this is the issue that confuses most people, particularly when it comes to Android tablets. (With iPads the world is much simpler: Apple makes the iPads, and Apple makes the iOS operating system the iPad runs, so you’ve really only got one choice.)
For Android, tablets can be grouped into three broad categories:
- Google Nexus devices (devices created for Google by manufacturers like Asus, Samsung and LG, which use a “pure” or “stock” Google-approved version of Android)
- Name-brand devices from large well-known manufacturers such as Samsung, Asus, Acer and Motorola
- Cheap “no-name” devices from manufacturers that most of us have never heard of
In our experience it’s really only the Google Nexus devices that we feel we can comfortably recommend.
The cheap Chinese-manufactured devices often run custom implementations of Android which add their own strange behaviors to the user interface, and you will often find that some parts of the system are in Chinese. Even worse, our experiences with the reliability of these tablets has been very poor, and customer support is generally non-existent. While not all manufacturers are the same, of the dozen or so cheap tablet versions we’ve tested over the last 18 months, not a single one of them has been without significant problems of some kind. The price tag may look attractive, but if in the end it’s going to cause you no end of support & reliability headaches it’s just not worth it.
The name-brand tablets, however, are another matter. Surely (I hear you ask) they’re much better?
Well yes, to an extent. But the problem with most non-Nexus tablets is that they often run a non-standard version of Android, which means that when Google releases an update to the operating system — including critical bug fixes — you won’t get it. Even worse, many of them alter the user experience in order to differentiate themselves from other manufacturers … with the end result that the overall user experience suffers. The “additions” are usually tweaks and widgets which are great for power users, but only cause confusion for users who are looking for simplicity.
We are now seeing a trend towards more vendors releasing tablets using “stock” versions of Android, which is great. If the tablet you’re thinking of purchasing isn’t stock Android, however, we would caution against it for an older user. And the most reliable way of making sure you’re getting the most pure version of Android is to choose a Google Nexus device.
Step 2: Matching Your Needs
OK, so now you have a better understanding of the choice available, but that doesn’t necessarily give you enough information to make a definitive choice of what the right tablet is for you. That’s because you still need to consider what your own individual needs are. Every person’s tastes, preferences and needs are different, but in general we find the four most important factors to consider when choosing the right tablet are:
- Ease of Use
- Quality, Reliability & Support
Let’s look at each of these in turn.
Ease of Use
As you will have gathered from the previous section, our recommendations really come down to a choice between the iPad and tablets running “stock” versions of Android such as the Nexus 10. Based on observing many seniors try their hand at both types of tablet, we would have to say that in spite of all the improvements made to Android over the past 2 years (or perhaps because of them), the iPad still comes out on top.
There is no single reason which makes this the case, just a range of minor differences which when taken together result in an overall better experience, particularly for non-tech-savvy users. These include:
- Apple’s physical “Home” button is much easier to find and press than the tiny Home icon on Android tablets
- Apple’s notifications can be configured to be more noticeable than the subtle notifications used on Android
- Apple’s keyboard is simpler and easier to understand
- Android’s auto-correct feature on its keyboard is more difficult to use
- Android’s status area is easy to accidentally trigger when using the tablet
In its defence, Android does offer greater configuration flexibility, which means it’s easier to configure the Android home screen to only contain those applications you want to use most often, but overall this isn’t enough to put it in front of the iPad when it comes to ease of use and suitability for seniors.
Quality, Reliability & Support
In case you missed it in our discussion of tablet manufacturers earlier, the quality, reliability and support you can expect from a cheap tablet is quite poor. So poor, in fact, that you should only contemplate purchasing one of these tablets if you’re the kind of person who gets active pleasure out of dealing with technical issues. If you’re looking for a tablet for a senior user, that probably isn’t you.
This leaves us with the question of which tablet, out of the Apple iPad and Google Nexus, is going to give you the best experience in terms of quality, reliability and support?
After dealing with multiple versions of both tablets for extended periods, we can comfortably say that the answer on this one is: both are good, but Apple has a distinct edge when it comes to in-store support and assistance. It’s market dominance also means that more people are familiar with the iPad, so you’re more likely to be able to call for help from others if you need help. But it’s only a slight victory, and certainly not enough to recommend against purchasing a high-quality Android device.
As we touched on earlier, the connectivity option you choose for your tablet depends wholly on what access to the Internet you already have. If you already have a decent Wi-Fi connection and don’t want to use the tablet to connect to the Internet when you’re out and about, then a Wi-Fi only tablet will be fine. If, however, you need to get a new Internet connection, we highly recommend choosing a 3G- or 4G-enabled tablet and signing up with a cheap mobile broadband provider to get yourself connected.
Price, for obvious reasons, is a major factor when choosing your tablet. And it’s in this area that Android tablets typically have the edge on the iPad. A 16GB iPad Air has a recommended retail price of US$499, while the equivalent Nexus 10 costs US$399.
This price differential is less pronounced, however, now that Apple offers the older-model iPad 2 for US$399.
The iPad 2 doesn’t come in larger storage sizes, but for many older users (many of whom don’t tend to store large amounts of content on their devices), 16GB is sufficient.
Step 3: Making Your Choice
Did I warn you this was going to be a long blog article? That’s because there is such a wide choice available so there is a lot to explain to the uninitiated. But never fear, we’re almost there!
If you’ve stuck with me this far you are (hopefully) feeling closer to being able to make a decision than you were before. The reality is that your choice will depend a lot on how much you are willing to pay, what your needs are when it comes to connectivity, and whether you’ve got a leaning one way or another towards Apple or Google.
If, however, you are:
- Looking for a tablet for an older user who is relatively new to technology
- Willing to pay for a quality product but don’t want to pay for more than is necessary
- Looking for the right balance of ease of use and reliability suitable to a non-tech-savvy user
then our recommended tablets are, in order of descending priority:
1. Apple iPad 2
(3G+Wi-Fi or Wi-Fi only)
Yes, the iPad 2 is an older model and is limited to 16GB storage, but we find that this is sufficient for 90% of the senior users we deal with, and the reduced cost is always attractive to anyone on a budget. For most users the iPad 2 will perform admirably and while it’s not as cheap as some tablets on the market, it is a real winner when you factor in its quality, reliability and ease of use as a total package.
2. Apple iPad Air
(Cellular+Wi-Fi or Wi-Fi only)
If you can stretch to a slightly higher budget, or think you’re going to need more storage, then the newer iPad Air is a fantastic tablet and one we can heartily recommend.
3. Google Nexus 10
If you don’t have a strong preference for the iPad and are happy with a Wi-Fi only tablet, then the Nexus 10 will do an admirable job, particularly if you can find a good deal on it that makes it significantly cheaper than the iPad 2.
4. Apple iPad Mini
(3G+Wi-Fi or Wi-Fi only)
For anyone who isn’t troubled by the Mini’s small size, it offers all the other benefits of the iPad in a smaller and cheaper package.
Finally, if none of the above options appeal, then our next best recommendation is to look for a 10-inch Android tablet from a name brand manufacturer that is running “stock” Android. There aren’t many of these and the list of tablets is changing all the time so we don’t yet have any particular models to nominate, but if you’ve got experiences with any of these devices please let us know in the comments so we can share with the rest of the Tapestry community!
So there you have it, our full list of recommended tablets. What do you think? Are you surprised by these choices? Agree wholeheartedly or disagree violently? Let us know in the comments!