zeepadEverybody’s coming out with tablet gift buyers’ guides this time of year (including us in not too long). I thought it might be a good idea to come out with more of a thinking guide, something to suggest ideas for you to consider while you read those guides—a “buyers’ guide guide” if you will. These are the primary considerations I think a tablet buyer should be keeping in mind.

1) Walled garden or the open road?

Many of the most popular tablets this year are locked up in someone’s walled garden. The iPad and iPad Mini are no-brainers in this regard, of course, but there are also the Kindle Fire and the Nook Tablet. Though these devices are Android at the core, they use their respective backers’ customized interfaces and hardware, and as a result are largely limited to walled-garden stores. In some cases you can jump through hoops to add external apps that may not even work right to begin with, but you’re mostly limited to what they want to give you and that’s that.

On the other hand, devices like the Google Nexus, Kobo Arc, Galaxy Tab, Insignia Flex, Zeepad, or the Visual Land 7” tablet Best Buy is offering for $80 as an online-only Black Friday deal use plain-vanilla Android (though the Arc, at least, does have its own custom interface that sits on top of it). Android isn’t as polished as iOS yet, but the biggest advantage it does have is the ability to sideload apps from all sources without any jailbreaking required. Do you want to throw that away to restrict yourself to what only one store can offer?

Well, depending on how invested you are in a particular walled garden already, perhaps you do. Fortunately, the major e-book stores largely aren’t a consideration for this, at least where tablets are concerned. If you were foolish enough to go heavily into Apple’s iBookstore, you’re basically locked into iOS, but all the rest have e-reading apps suitable for most portable platforms, including either iOS or Android—though sometimes Amazon or B&N may make it tricky to load direct competitors’ apps on board their own tablets. (But if you’re looking at dedicated e-readers rather than just tablets…yeah, you’re basically out of luck unless you crack the DRM as a matter of course.) Likewise, music largely isn’t an issue anymore either, since most of the big e-music stores don’t DRM their music at all.

But if you’re looking at streaming media, sometimes it’s more of an open question. Netflix has players for most major platforms—but Amazon Prime’s own streaming media system has a Kindle Fire and an iOS app but no generic Android app yet. And special services like the Kindle Owner’s Lending Library are only available to people who own Amazon hardware.

Of course, if you’re mainly looking for a tablet as a way to surf the web and check your email and social networks, perhaps none of this matters. They can all do that pretty much equally well.

2) Capabilities vs. Budget

There’s no denying that tablet prices have fallen to an amazing extent in the last few years, to the point where tablets with decent speed and storage can be had starting at $200—or less. Of course, the iPads cost more, in some cases a lot more, and some of the tablets such as those from Barnes & Noble have arbitrary limits on how much onboard space you can use for your own content vs. how much can be used for theirs—but on the other hand many Android tablets have the ability to add additional storage to the chips inside them via inserting a SD or micro-SD card—even the cheap-as-dirt 4GB Zeepad. The iPad can’t do that.

Even the cheapest of the cheap low-end tablets, like the sometimes-annoyingly-slow Zeepad, are still tablets, with all the mobile Internet access that tablets have to offer. (And even the cheapest, like the $90 Zeepad, can s     eem to afford capacitive touchscreens these days.) If you can’t afford anything better, you can get by with that. On the other hand, if you can afford better, you might just want to shell out a little bit more.

3) 7” vs 10”

So where do you stand on the usefulness of the 7” form factor? Steve Jobs famously complained it was neither small enough to hold in one hand like an iPhone or iPod Touch, nor large enough to show a useful amount on the screen and allow for easy touch typing. It was just…awkward. But that hasn’t stopped Apple from coming out with its own 7” tablet now that others have pioneered the form factor, of course.

I’ve had a 10” first-generation iPad for some time now, and a 7” Zeepad for a few days, and I’ll admit they have different uses. The Zeepad is small enough to hold in one hand for extended periods without my hand getting tired, for one thing—a big consideration in deciding on a tablet for my one-handed mother. And it’s small enough to fit in a hip or even back pocket (though I don’t recommend the latter if you’re going to be sitting down) at need. (I was able to carry it with me for use at a wine tasting where there would not have been room for my iPad plus keyboard on the table.) For the iPad, you need at least a shoulder bag. But on the other hand, you get a much better picture and a bigger view with a bigger tablet—especially one of the Retina Display iPads.  It depends on what you want to use it for.

And who knows, you might not even necessarily need even a 7”. I saw someone on the bus today with a 5” Galaxy Note, and it was a really impressive little thing. Even a 4” iPod Touch could be all the e-reader or tablet you need in many situations.

4) WiFi vs. 3G/4G

All tablets these days come with built-in WiFi, but some have built-in 3G or 4G—and in some cases the cellular Internet plans will even permit you to tether other devices to them. Sometimes the fees are fairly reasonable, with month-to-month pay-as-you-go schemes and no contracts. And if you’re only ever planning to use that tablet, or to carry it everywhere, that might be best for you.

For myself, I have always felt that built-in cellular Internet in a tablet was not useful, at least inasmuch as it raises the price of the tablet itself over the WiFi-only version. In all cases I know of, these devices can only be used with one particular service provider, and if you don’t want to use it with them, tough, you’ve already paid the extra money. And if you’re tethering other devices to it, do you really want to have to carry something the size of a tablet around with you to be able to use them?

By comparison, a pay-as-you-go MiFi can sit in your pocket and net-connect any device you want, from an iPod Touch up to a laptop computer, meaning you can leave the tablet at home if you need to and still take something smaller with you for getting online—or take something larger with you if you’re going to be getting seriously busy.

5) Other Features

There will be things I haven’t mentioned that will be important to you, of course. Does it come with a stylus? Does it have Bluetooth? A camera? Two cameras? And of course you should think about those. But generally speaking, anything that passes muster in the criteria listed above will probably be good enough in the rest.

Are there any important criteria I’ve left out? Let me know in comments.