Last updated: October 2016
Taking IT seriously
Around half of tablet users own an iPad. In fact, twice as many people have an iPad as the nearest rival brand, Samsung’s Galaxy Tab. The next biggest brand is Amazon’s Fire tablet which is aimed at the budget end of the market. A gap in the budget tablet market appeared when Tesco stopped making its Hudl tablet last year.
But tablet sales have generally been falling, the market having been eaten into by larger smartphones and hybrid 2-in-1s.
Laptop, tablet or hybrid - which is for you?
A laptop’s larger screen, full-sized keyboard and large hard drive make many tasks easier, and they’re great for browsing the web.
Laptops are better if you:
- want to work on them, write long emails, organise files, and edit text documents, photos and spreadsheets
- want to store files and photos on the device and access them without an internet connection
- play DVDs.
A tablet is a gadget that’s slim and lightweight, and easy to use.
Tablets are better if you:
- want to play – browse the web, read ebooks, watch videos, shop online, and stay in touch with family and friends.
- want it to be more portable
- only need to type short emails, do internet searches and simple forms for online shopping
- don’t need it as your main storage device and are happy to keep some files online.
A laptop-tablet hybrid offers the best of both worlds. With touch-screens that rotate and flip and keyboards that detach or can be hidden away, they can be as powerful or portable as you want. See ethical guide to Hybrids.
When choosing a brand of tablet you may also want to bear in mind the operating system that runs it. The operating systems are owned by three companies which all feature in this report – Apple, Google and Microsoft.
- Apple iOS – all Apple products
- Google Android – most non-Apple tablets.
- Google Chrome – Chromebook laptops.
- Microsoft Windows – most laptops and hybrids
You can also use an open source operating system such as Linux. Beginner’s guide to open source.
Score table highlights
Not one company is rated best for workers’ rights at supplier companies. Only Apple and Microsoft avoid getting a worst rating in this category.
More tablet companies are rated for Armaments than in any other product in these guides – nine of the 14 companies.
For toxic chemicals polices, only Apple and Sony score best.
It has long been known that the extraction of minerals has become entangled with human conflict in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Known as conflict minerals or 3TGs, tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold mined in the DRC have been linked to the funding of armed groups, and have helped to fuel a war for over twenty years. Worth hundreds of millions of dollars per year, the minerals provide a valuable source of income to rebel groups, militias, and criminal gangs. Some of the minerals are smuggled out of the country, along with the industry’s profits, leaving the DRC’s population of 77 million struggling to survive. The minerals go on to be used in electronic products such as laptops, e-readers and mobile phones.
Six of the 14 tablet companies received a worst rating for conflict minerals with the others scoring best. One of the companies that scored worst was Amazon, the only company in these guides who has to report annually to SEC but scored a worst rating. All the other companies scored best.
Top selling brand, Apple, gets a best rating whilst the second bestselling brand, Samsung, gets a worst rating.
See our conflict minerals feature for more information.
Three chemicals are often used in electronics and have been highlighted by Greenpeace as the most hazardous – brominated flame retardants (BFRs), PVC and phthalates.
BFRs and PVC are both organohalogens. Some well-known (and very hazardous) examples of organohalogens include PCBs, DDT, and CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) – all of which are now globally banned by the United Nation’s Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) treaty.
BFRs are used primarily in the plastic components, like the casings of laptops and mobile phones, but also in circuit boards. Several BFRs have known toxic properties, are highly resistant to degradation in the environment and are able to bioaccumulate (build up in animals and humans). Some are now widespread environmental pollutants, with higher levels generally being found close to urban and industrialised areas (in the atmosphere and rivers).
As well as being released from factories making goods such as electronics, these compounds can be released from such products during use, leading to their presence in household dust and resulting in increased human exposure. And when these products reach the end of their useful lives, some disposal or recycling operations (e.g. incineration, smelting, or the burning practices commonly used in informal recycling in the developing world), can release dioxins.
Dioxins are a class of chemical compounds that are widely recognised as some of the most toxic chemicals ever made by humans and many are toxic even in very low concentrations. The US Environmental Protection Agency’s 1994 Dioxin Assessment concluded that there was no safe level of dioxin exposure for humans.
A couple of widely used BFRs have been restricted by the European Union’s Restriction on Hazardous Substances Directive (RoHS), but not all are restricted by law.
PVC is a chlorinated plastic that is used for insulating wires and cables. PVC is one of the most widely used plastics but its production, use and disposal create toxic pollution. Like BFRs, dioxins are released when PVC is produced or disposed of by incineration (or simply when burnt).
Phthalates are a group of chemicals which are widely used as plasticisers (softeners) in plastics, especially PVC. These chemicals migrate out of the material over time into the surrounding environment. Many phthalates are toxic to wildlife and humans. Some widely used phthalates are known to be capable of causing changes to both male and female reproductive systems in mammals. Four of the most toxic phthalates are restricted by the RoHS Directive.
Toxic chemicals policy ratings
Apple leads the way in the electronics industry having phased out PVC and BFR in its products, including its cables, way back in 2008. Apple products are also free from phthalates. So there is no excuse for other companies not to follow suit.
To get our best rating for a toxic chemicals policy, like Apple, a company must have phased out the use of all three chemicals or have set a date by which it will have done so.
Unfortunately, most companies get our worst rating for having no commitment to totally phasing out all three of these chemicals. Companies who get a worst rating for toxic chemicals could also not get a best rating for Environmental Reporting.
Some companies get our middle rating for toxic chemicals because they have some toxic chemical-free products and have committed to phasing the chemicals out, but have not gone that step further to get our best rating by setting a target date for their phase-out.
Best toxics rating – Apple
Worst toxics rating – Amazon, Bookeen, Kobo
Toxic chemical-free models
We checked all the brands and models that are covered in these guides to see whether any of them were PVC-, BFR- and phthalate-free. Those models that were ‘toxic chemical-free’, represented by a [S] next to the brand name on the score tables, received a positive mark in the Product Sustainability column. Models that were PVC- and BFR- free received a half point, whilst models that were free of all three chemicals received a whole point.
PVC, BFR and phthalate free - All Apple iPads and LG G Pads
PVC and BFR free - Sony Xperia Z and Dell Venue
Lenova is the only ‘TCO Certified’ brand available in this guide. This is an international sustainability certification for IT products which looks into social responsibility, ergonomic design, compliance for energy consumption and zero or low use of certain hazardous substances.
On the score table we have given TCO Certified models a Product Sustainability plus point, highlighted by a [T] next to the brand name.
Although Microsoft’s biggest source of revenue is still the Windows operating system and Office programs, it now also makes tablets (Surface), game consoles (Xbox), and smartphones (Lumia). Microsoft bought LinkedIn, the social network for business, for US$26 billion in 2016. Similar to Google, multiple platforms will help Microsoft to gather data. Microsoft also owns the Internet Explorer browser, Hotmail and Outlook email providers, and Skype.
After Reuters accused Microsoft in 2015 of keeping quiet when the Chinese government hacked the Hotmail accounts of Tibetan and Uighur minorities in 2011, the company stated it would now inform users if state hacking was suspected.
Microsoft is also reported to avoid over £100 million in UK Corporation Tax every year by routing profits through Ireland. 
Want to know more?
If you want to find out detailed information about a company and more about its ethical rating, then click on a brand name in the Score table.
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5 The Independent, 19th June 2016 – Microsoft avoids paying £100m a year in UK corporation tax
This product guide is part of a wider report into the Electronics Industry. See what else is in the report.