First lets find a definitive description as to what each vest is. A tactical vest is a vest which has in-place magazine pouches and other miscellaneous pouches with a zipper in the middle to zip up the vest. Most times there is room in the back of a tactical vest to place either an armor plate, or camelbak as well as 2 smaller plates in the front lower torso. Most vests include several rifle magazine pouches, pistol pouches and a pistol holster if you have a cross-draw variant. Plate carriers come with no pouches, no zipper, no holster and instead of a zipper they are buckled on from the sides. Carriers have 2 large pouches on front and back for 2 full sized plates to be put in. Plate carriers also have MOLLE all over the front and back so you can customize it.
Many preppers are split between the two options as both have their advantages and disadvantages. For the most part when you buy a tactical vest, you get comfort, a ready-to-go system, shoulder padding for recoil, and many miscellaneous pouches for what ever you see fit. Where the problem lays in regards to tactical vests is that you cannot have a kydex holster on the vest it self, you must deal with what you get, which is usually a universal buckle holster that cannot deploy a pistol very quickly. With the addition of this, you cannot customize your vest except for some cases in the back of the vest where there is MOLLE webbing. Overall, you’re stuck with what you got. Tactical vests are usually more comfortable, work well, and end up being cheaper since you do not have to buy accessories to complete the vest itself.
Carriers are plain when you buy them. It is your sole responsibility to set up your vest when you get it. Since it has MOLLE webbing you have to buy every piece of gear you want on the vest. You have to buy rifle magazine pouches, pistol magazine pouches, a MOLLE compatible pistol holster and what ever else you see fit for your vest. However, carriers offer unlimited options and with 2 full sized plates you have a lot more protection than a standard vest with plates. Some carriers even offer real estate for small plates on the side of your torso. Carriers fit tighter to the body, which is more comfortable for some, and offers more potential for armor.
On a vest, there is no area where you can insert a front body plate. This means if you are shot in the torso from the front above the abdomen, you are completely unarmored. Since there is a zipper on a vest, you cannot put a plate in front because it would prevent the vest from being opened. You must add a smaller plate to each side of the vest so when it is zipper the plates come together. Note that these plates are smaller and will only cover from about the bottom of your ribs to the end of the vest. Going with the vest will be cheaper, have more aesthetic features as well as useful ones such as a shoulder padding for recoil, as well as a carry handle on the back so another person can drag you by your vest in times of urgency.
Going with the carrier, you will spend upwards of $100 to have a complete set up. In the end however, you will have a much superior set up. You will have everything you want where you need it, and the biggest factor is the increased protection. Going with the carrier option, you will have an increase of potential protection of about 50-100%. On a carrier you have protection from a .308 round from the front torso, the back torso, and the bottom half of both of your sides. Which plates you choose will also determine what weight you will be dealing with as well as the protection level.
Some more cool features of these two options are plentiful. On both options you can put patches on the front or back, and since most of vests have MOLLE, both options can have a blade attached to your back for a over-the-shoulder draw. Both can have hydration systems such as camelbaks with a line to the mouth piece attached to the vest leading to the front so you can access it.