How Tablets Work

What Makes Tablets Tick

The Motorola Xoom is one of several Android tablets on the market.
The Motorola Xoom is one of several Android tablets on the market.
Motorola Mobility, Inc.

If you were to crack open a tablet computer to take a look inside, you'd notice three things pretty quickly. First, you've just voided your warranty. Second, the manufacturer has packed all the tablet's components together to create a snug, efficient fit. And third, most of the components you'll see are similar to what you'd find in a standard computer.

The brain of a tablet is its microprocessor. Typically, tablets use smaller processors than full-fledged computers. This helps save on space and cuts down on heat generation. Heat is bad for computers -- it tends to cause mechanical failures.

Tablet computers typically draw power from a rechargeable battery. Battery life for tablets varies between models, with eight to 10 hours being the average. Some tablets will have replaceable batteries. But others, like Apple's iPad and iPad 2, don't allow you to switch out a battery without taking it to a store or voiding your warranty.

Depending on the manufacturer, a tablet computer may be underpowered on purpose. Computer CPUs execute commands in clock cycles. The more clock cycles a CPU runs per second, the more instructions it can process. Some tablets have underclocked processors, meaning the CPU is set to run fewer instructions per second than it's capable of executing. The reason for making a CPU underperform on purpose is to reduce heat production and conserve battery life.

While you might be irritated to learn your new tablet isn't performing at full speed, the truth is most tablets don't need the extra processing power. Programs for tablets tend to be less complex and robust than computer programs. The common term for these programs is applications or apps.

Besides the CPU and battery, other components you'll likely find in a typical tablet include:

  • accelerometers
  • gyroscopes
  • graphics processors
  • flash-based memory
  • WiFi and/or cellular chips and antennas
  • USB dock and power supply
  • speakers
  • a touch-screen controller chip
  • camera sensors, chips and lenses

Accelerometers and gyroscopes help the tablet determine its orientation so that it displays graphics in either portrait or landscape mode. The graphics processor or GPU takes the load off of the CPU when it comes to generating graphics. The WiFi or cellular components let you connect your tablet to a computer network. The tablet may also have a Bluetooth receiver, allowing it to interface with other Bluetooth devices. One thing you won't find in most tablets is a fan -- there's just not enough space.