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How to buy a tablet in five easy steps

Shopping for a tablet this holiday season? You're not alone. According to research firm IDC, worldwide buyers will have snapped up some 122 million tablets by the end of 2012, and will buy upward of 172 million more in 2013. That's a lot of tablets. Of course, if you've tried to decide which model to buy for yourself, you may have come away scratching your head. There are lots of choices out there, and it's not easy to know what to pick. iPad or Kindle? 7-inch screen or 10-inch? Does 3G really matter? And what's all this about pixel density? Actually, choosing a tablet doesn't have to be that complicated. Follow these five steps and you'll end up with a model that's perfect for your needs.

1. Pick a size

Perhaps the toughest question to answer is what size tablet to get. Models like the Amazon Kindle Fire HD, Barnes & Noble Nook HD, and Google Nexus 7 have 7-inch screens, while the iPad Mini stands a little larger at 7.9 inches (diagonal measurements, all). The Kindle Fire HD 8.9 and Nook HD+ measure 8.9 and 9 inches, respectively, while Apple's flagship iPads have 9.7-inch displays. Microsoft's new Surface RT leads the pack with its 10.6-inch screen. (For purposes of this story, I'm not covering business-oriented tablets that also double as laptops.) Obviously bigger is better when it comes to things like browsing the Web, watching movies, and playing games. But a bigger tablet is also heavier and harder to hold single-handed, and I find it too unwieldy for things like reading in bed. That's why I tend to look at 7-inch tablets as more practical. I like the portability (I can tuck one into an inside coat pocket), the lighter design, and especially the price: most 7-inch models start at around $199.

2. Know your wireless options All tablets offer Wi-Fi, meaning they can connect to the Internet when there's a nearby hotspot (like at home, the office, a coffee shop, etc.). But what if there's no Wi-Fi and you want to, say, browse the Web or listen to Pandora? For that you'll need a tablet with 3G/4G capabilities, which limits your options somewhat. Indeed, as of this writing, only the Google Nexus 7, iPad, iPad Mini, and Kindle Fire 8.9 4G LTE Wireless are available with a cellular data option. Going that route not only bumps up the price of the hardware, but also saddles you with another monthly bill for service. (Prices vary depending on carrier and plan.)

3. Pick a platform

When choosing a tablet, sometimes it's best to factor in the smartphone you already own. Do you have an Android phone? It might make sense to opt for an Android-powered tablet like the Google Nexus 7 or Nexus 10. Likewise, iPhone owners may be happiest with an iPad, while the three or four Windows Phone users out there should probably look hard at a Microsoft Surface tablet. The idea here is to stick with your existing "ecosystem," as you've probably already invested in various apps, games, movies, songs, e-books, and the like. If you switch platforms, a lot of that stuff won't transfer (i.e. the movie you bought from iTunes won't play on a Nexus, and the copy of Angry Birds you bought for your Kindle Fire isn't compatible with the iPad). Ecosystem allegiance is not only the convenient choice, but also the thrifty one.

4. Choose your features

Tablet makers love to crow about their HD displays and super-high pixel density, but the reality is that all tablet screens look pretty great. I'd argue that size is a more important consideration than resolution. If you want the option of snapping photos and/or making video phone calls, make sure to choose a tablet with at least one built-in camera--a feature you won't find in models like the Kindle Fire or Nook HD. One potentially important consideration is expansion: some tablets have a slot for inserting inexpensive microSD cards, which can expand your available storage space for things like music and movies. Unfortunately, iPads don't, and neither do Amazon's Kindle Fires. Also, if you're interested in using your tablet for navigation, look for built-in GPS capabilities--keeping in mind that some models require the aforementioned 3G/4G option, which assists the GPS in determining your location.

5. Know your accessories

You can tell a lot about a tablet by what accessories are available for it. For example, you'll find countless cases, keyboards, screen protectors, and the like for Apple's iPads and Amazon's Kindles, which have the benefit of being the market's biggest sellers. But these kinds of extras are fewer and farther between for the likes of the B&N Nook, Acer Iconia, and Lenovo IdeaTab, meaning you won't find as many options. In other words, before you choose your tablet, make sure any accessories you might also want are readily available, just so you don't face any unfortunate surprises later. And if your tablet doesn't have Bluetooth capabilities, it won't work with most third-party tablet keyboards, to say nothing of Bluetooth speakers (which are always a great add-on).

One final piece of tablet-buying advice: steer clear of dirt-cheap, no-brand tablets. They may have tempting prices, but often they're incompatible with a lot of the most popular apps--and there's no way to know which ones until you try to install them from the included app store. Where tablets are concerned, apps are everything.

Veteran technology writer Rick Broida is the author of numerous books, blogs, and features. He lends his money-saving expertise to CNET and Savings.com, and also writes for PC World and Wired.

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  • Hours after funding lapsed for the federal government at midnight, lawmakers in both parties returned for an unusual Saturday session of the House and Senate, as both parties quickly launched themselves into finger pointing over who is to blame for the first government shutdown since 2013, with few signs that a deal was near on the major spending and immigration issues that brought about the standoff. “Get it together,” House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi bluntly said to Republicans in a morning speech on the House floor, as she led a chorus from her party in blaming the President for the budgetary impasse. “The Trump travesty continues, as it has for the last twelve months,” said Pelosi’s top lieutenant, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD). But Republicans were having none of that. “We’re about nine hours into the Schumer shutdown,” said Rep. Greg LaMalfa (R-CA) as the House convened, “which is basically Senate Democrats holding the United States, 320 million people, hostage.” Greetings from the Capitol this Saturday morning, where we have evidence of the shutdown: Capitol tours are suspended. pic.twitter.com/rfPAlLLlIQ — Cristina Marcos (@cimarcos) January 20, 2018 “There is no excuse for this,” said Rep. Keith Rothfus (R-PA). “Democrats shut down the govt to protect illegals this week,” said Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA). Behind the scenes, lawmakers in both parties were still hoping to cut a deal that would have the government fully open by Monday – but there was little evidence of a possible breakthrough on the broader budget and immigration issues which led to this stalemate. Negotiations have centered on reaching a two year agreement on spending levels for the budget – as President Trump wants a sizable increase in the military’s budget – and on DACA, where Democrats were still hoping to get an agreement that would protect some 700,000 illegal immigrant “Dreamers” from being deported. As the clock ticked toward midnight on Friday night, there were a flurry of talks on the Senate floor between Senators of both parties – not really about the specifics of the budget or DACA – but mainly about the length of any temporary funding plan for the government, and plans to vote on that hot button immigration topic. “Since there were discussions here in earnest, in a bipartisan way, we ought to give those discussions a chance to bear fruit,” said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL). “We should stay and work,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH). “Senator McConnell chose to shut the government down,” referring to the GOP leader in the Senate. But the underlying issues remain fraught with political problems, especially on immigration, where many Republicans see no direct link between funding the government and a deal on DACA and illegal immigrant “Dreamers.” “This Schumer Shutdown is absolutely ridiculous,” said Sen. David Perdue (R-GA). “It is totally irresponsible for the Democrats to use government funding as a bargaining chip.” At the White House, there was no sign that the President was going to cave on Democratic demands on immigration, as officials accused Democrats of doing all they could to slow political momentum from a big GOP tax cut plan that was signed into law in December. One year into the Trump presidency, Democrats can't shut down the booming Trump economy so they shut down the government instead. This is the behavior of obstructionist losers, not legislators. Do your job Democrats: fund our military and reopen our government #SchumerShutdown — Sarah Sanders (@PressSec) January 20, 2018 Democrats said they thought they were close to a deal with the President on Friday over DACA and other immigration issues, but that Mr. Trump backed off, again emphasizing the uncertainty that surrounds talks with the White House on major legislative issues. Even if the Senate were to approve a bill which combined provisions on DACA and the Dreamers, along with other items on border security, most Republicans say that would have little chance in the House, where GOP lawmakers favor a much tougher approach. One obvious difference between this shutdown and the one in 2013, is seen right here in Washington, D.C., where outdoor memorials and the Smithsonian museums were still open. Those were shut down by the Obama Administration last time, in what Republicans said was an effort to punish the GOP for a shutdown battle. FYI for anyone visiting DC this weekend: The @smithsonian museums WILL be open Saturday and Sunday. I was told they are not sure if they'll have to close Monday, though. They were waiting for guidance. — Daniella Diaz (@DaniellaMicaela) January 20, 2018
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  • If you have outdoor plans for today, take the kite with you and leave the heavy coat at home. National Weather Service Meteorologist Mark Plate says the Tulsa area will see a major warm-up, but wind will be a factor. “Cloudy in the morning and then becoming mostly cloudy,” Plate said.  “The high temperature will be in the lower 60’s.  The south winds will be quite breezy, gusting up to 25 mph at times.”  The low Saturday night will only drop to near 51 degrees. On Sunday, NWS is reporting a high near 70 degrees.  However, there is a chance of showers during the daytime.  
  • In a high stakes game of legislative chicken, the U.S. Senate on Friday night blocked a House-passed bill to fund operations of the federal government for the next four weeks, as most Democrats joined with a handful of Republicans to filibuster the spending measure, demanding faster action on immigration matters, driving the Congress toward the first federal government shutdown since 2013. The vote was 50 to 49 – 60 votes were needed. Earlier in the day, President Donald Trump had met with Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer at the White House – but while they seemed to make some progress, there was no final deal. And Mr. Trump made clear who was to blame. Not looking good for our great Military or Safety & Security on the very dangerous Southern Border. Dems want a Shutdown in order to help diminish the great success of the Tax Cuts, and what they are doing for our booming economy. — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 20, 2018 A handful of members from both parties broke with their leaders on the Senate vote, which would have shut off debate on the four week spending measure approved on Thursday by the House. Mainly because of the impasse over DACA and immigration, several Republicans refused to join with the President, as they voted against the plan. “I believe no one wants the government to shut down,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC). “I also believe that we are inside the ten yard line on finding solutions on all issues.” Other Republican “no” votes included Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY). Democrats voting to end debate included five from states which were won by President Trump: Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL), Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), Sen. Clare McCaskill (D-MO), and Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-IN). For many Democrats, the biggest thing missing from a temporary budget plan was something concrete on the DACA program, to deal with close to 700,000 illegal immigrant “Dreamers” now in the United States. In the various Congressional office buildings, immigration activists and many Dreamers joined in demonstrations for their cause. Dreamers protesting right below reporters covering potential shutdown. Chanting #DreamActNow pic.twitter.com/Ad3CxCzo0P — Rebecca Bainer (@rebbainer) January 19, 2018 But Republicans argued that backers of DACA relief were not interested in doing enough to stop people from coming illegally in the future. “We want to be able to resolve this, but it has to be resolved with border security attached to it,” said Sen. James Lankford (R-OK). “There’s a deal here that could be struck very quickly,” argued Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC). But signs of a late agreement did not seem to be there for Senators as the clock ticked toward midnight, a reminder that many hours had been spent in recent months on the issue, so far – to no avail. It wasn’t immediately clear how Congressional leaders would try to broker a deal. President Trump stayed at the White House Friday night instead of flying as scheduled to his Mar-a-Lago retreat in Florida. It’s not clear if he will go there on Saturday for a party to mark his first year in office.  
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