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Comparing Tablets: A Holiday Shopping Guide

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It’s that time of year again, and tablets are sure to be hot items on everybody’s holiday wish list. There are a lot more options available this year than last, however – which means it’s a lot more challenging to pick the right tablet to give, or to use yourself. In this holiday shopping guide, author Michael Miller explores all the latest tablets, from the iPad Mini to the Microsoft Surface to the Amazon Kindle Fire HD, and makes some recommendations for which you should put on your gift lists.

Maybe you have a friend or family member who added a tablet to his holiday wish list. Maybe you have a tablet on your wish list, as well. In any case, you have a lot of models to choose from. Should you buy an Apple iPad, a Samsung Galaxy, an Amazon Fire, or one of those newfangled Microsoft Surfaces? How are they different – and which is right for your particular gift list?

There are a lot of viable (and a few not-so-viable) options available this holiday season. Read on to learn more about the state of the tablet market today.

Introducing the Major Players

Last year, if you wanted to buy a tablet, you really only had two viable options: Apple’s full-featured iPad and Amazon’s low-priced (and not-so-full-featured) Kindle Fire. Yeah, there were other tablets available from other manufacturers (Samsung and Blackberry among them), but only the iPad and the Kindle Fire had the features, apps, and sales to be worth considering.

That’s changed. Today, there are at least a half-dozen tablets worthy of your consideration, either for yourself or as a gift. The tablet market is starting to mature, and as such you can choose a specific model that best fits your particular needs; you no longer have to settle for a one-size-fits-all solution.

Let’s start by talking about the manufacturers. Apple, of course, continues to dominate the tablet space with two models of its iconic iPad – the the larger iPad 4 and the new, smaller iPad Mini. They’re not the cheapest tablets around (far from it) but they are the most versatile and the most popular.

The current number-two in the tablet game isn’t a traditional hardware manufacturer, but rather retailer Amazon.com. Amazon offers several different models of its Kindle Fire tablet – the original (now marked down below $200), the newer and higher-resolution Kindle Fire HD, and a larger model dubbed the Kindle Fire HD 8.9”. (Really.) The Kindle Fires to me still feel like blatant gateways to Amazon’s retailing ecosystem, but they’re certainly affordable and not so bad for certain tasks.

If you want a clear alternative to Amazon in the tablet market, retail competitor Barnes & Noble has their own Nook HD tablet. B&N offers the 7” Nook ND and the 8.9” Nook HD+,  both with two storage options. Like the Kindle Fire, the Nook HD is a somewhat obvious front end to the Barnes & Noble store – which isn’t bad if you like buying there.

ASUS also makes some nice tablets, although most are expensive and aimed at the business market. Many of their newer models are more like hybrid tablet/PCs, but they also offer a nifty little 7” Android tablet, the Nexus 7, which has earned acclaim as a first-rate gaming tablet. If games are your thing, this is definitely a tablet to consider.

Then there’s Samsung. Samsung’s Galaxy tablets, like the Kindle Fire and Nook HD, utilize Google’s Android operating system. (Although all three manufacturers put their own distinctive stamp on the Android user interface.) Samsung has its share of supporters; most like the openness of the Android platform and marketplace, compared to Apple’s fairly closed environment. You also get a little more bang for your buck with the Samsung tabs, and certainly a lot of options. Samsung offers both 7” and 9” tablets with a variety of storage options. Pricing is a little lower than for competing iPads, but a tad higher than the Amazon and B&N models; note, however, that Samsung doesn’t tie you into any particular retailing ecosystem.

Last, but certainly not least, we have a newcomer, a little company that goes by the name of Microsoft. The Microsoft Surface tablet runs a special version of Windows 8, dubbed Windows RT, and comes with an optional cover that doubles as a touchtype keyboard. With the keyboard cover (and the included tablet version of Microsoft Office), the Surface is more like a notebook PC than it is a traditional tablet. In any instance, Windows RT is a very interest touchscreen operating system, and the Surface is sure to appeal to those heavily invested in Microsoft’s Windows ecosystem.

(Now, I know there are lots of other tablets from lots of other manufacturers, but the companies I mention here – Apple, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, ASUS, Samsung, and Microsoft – generate the lion’s share of sales in the tablet category. Yes, you can find other Android and Windows tablets, but as of yet they haven’t made a dent in the market. That’s why we’re focusing our attention on the most popular models – they’re obviously what people want today.)

Size Matters

One can also look today’s tablet market by size. Unlike last year, where it definitely was a one-size-fits-all market, now you get the choice of tablets in two distinct screen sizes – regular (9”-10” diagonal) and mini (7” diagonal). Which size you choose determines which specific tablets you should be investigating.

Large tablets, such as the original Apple iPad, are great for doing just about anything you might want to do on a tablet. The large tablet’s large screen can easily display full book pages, full magazine pages, and full web pages, as well as just about any game or app you can imagine. It’s also pretty good for watching movies.

The only downside to a large tablet is the physical size. Some people find a large tablet difficult to hold in one hand, at least for extended periods of time. And, while still small, it’s not quite as convenient to pack in a purse or briefcase. Still, 10” tablets are still the dominant part of the marketplace, and for many users the only size to go with.

In the largish tablet market, the Apple iPad still dominates. New competitors include Amazon’s Kindle Fire HD 8.9” (actually an 8.9” tablet – just a tad smaller than the iPad’s 9.7” display), B&N’s similar Nook HD+ (8.9” screen), the Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 (10.1” diagonal screen), the ASUS Transformer Pad Infinity TF700T (10.1” with a powerful quad-core processor), and the Microsoft Surface (a whopping 10.6” display).

Mini tablets have are significantly smaller than the full size models, with screens in the 7”-8” diagonal range. This reduces the width/height of the tablet from the larger 7” x 10” form factor to a more compact 5” x 8” or so – much easier to tuck into a pocket or purse.

The smaller size of a mini tablet also makes it lighter and easier to hold in one hand. That makes a mini tablet ideal for reading books and watching videos, even if the smaller screen makes web browsing, playing games, and using some apps more problematic.

There is lots of competition in the mini tablet market. Starting on the high end, we have the new Apple iPad Mini, which has most of the benefits of the larger iPad, but in a smaller, less expensive package. Microsoft has no mini version of its Surface tablet (at least, not yet), but there are lots of Android mini tabs, including the Kindle Fire HD, Nook HD, ASUS Nexus 7, and Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7.0.

Of course, when you’re comparing size you ultimately end up comparing price. Not surprisingly, larger tablets are more expensive than smaller ones. In the Apple camp, for example, the regular-sized iPad starts at $499 (and goes up from there), where the smaller iPad Mini starts at just $329. And several of the mini tablets – from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Samsung – are priced closer to $200. So if price is an issue, consider a mini tab over a full-sized one – especially if you’re more into consuming media than creating it.

Comparing Full-Size Tablets

Let’s start our full-fledged comparison with those full-sized tablets, as exemplified by the Apple iPad. In fact, when you’re looking at this end of the market, it really breaks down into Apple and everybody else – with the “everybody else,” added together, still selling fewer units that does the iPad.

There are five main competitors in this market segment:

  • Apple iPad 4. Apple’s iPad, now in its fourth iteration, defined and continues to be the standard bearer for the entire tablet market. It’s the most full-featured true tablet out there, with the largest number of quality apps. The new iPad 4 is also a stunner with its retina display, which delivers an impressive 264 ppi resolution. Pretty much anything you want or need to do, you can do on the iPad. Which iPad model you want, though, can take some time to decide; it comes in three different sizes of storage (16GB, 32GB, and 64GB), each with or without cellular data functionality. They’re all a bit on the pricy side ($499 for the base model, up to $820 for the fully loaded one), but it’s hard not to recommend an iPad when you realize that everyone and their brothers (and mothers) are already using them.

Figure 1 Apple's iPad 4 – the undisputed tablet leader.

  • Microsoft Surface. Microsoft finally gets into the tablet game with the new Surface tablet and its related new Windows RT operating system. Windows RT is the tablet-only version of Windows 8, which derives its live-tile interface from Windows Phone. (Yes, Microsoft is trying to put the same interface on multiple types of devices – including the Xbox videogame console.) The Surface is a nice piece of hardware, with the largest (10.6”) screen in the category. Resolution is only 148 ppi but looks much sharper than that, thanks to Microsoft’s ClearType HD technology. Most important, the Surface is the only tablet that can also be used as a notebook PC for work; just attach one of the optional keyboard covers (the flat-surface Touch Cover runs $119; the Chiclet-key Type Cover runs $129), prop the tablet on its back-mounted kickstand, and you can do real productivity stuff. Even better, the Surface comes with a tablet version of Microsoft Office installed for free, so this it becomes quite attractive to office workers who are in the market for a tablet. The base model (32GB) runs $499; the 64GB model, with Touch Cover thrown in, runs $699.

Figure 2 The Microsoft Surface with optional Touch Cover keyboard/cover, running Windows RT.

  • ASUS Transformer Pad Infinity TF700T. This full-size (10.1”) tablet is kind of sort of an Android competitor to the Microsoft Surface. It comes with an optional “mobile dock,” which combines a Chiclet keyboard with additional battery for up to 14 hours of cord-free operation. While that positions this tablet as a productivity machine for business users, the ultra-fast 1.6GHZ quad-core processor makes it a screaming gaming machine. Gamers will also like the 224 ppi 16:10 aspect ratio display, and everyone will appreciate the best-in-clasee 8 megapixel rear-facing camera. At $499 (plus $149 if you want the docking keyboard), it’s iPad-priced, but well worth it for hard-core gamers.

Figure 3 The ASUS Transformer Pad Infinity, with optional mobile dock/keyboard—built for office work, even better for gaming.

  • Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 10.1. Samsung has carved out a small but steady slice of the tablet market with its Android-based Galaxy Tab models. Their most recent 10.1” model is the Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 (apparently their marketing people don’t know the meaning of the word “concise”), which sells for $399 – a considerable savings over either the iPad or Surface. While the Galaxy goes for a 16:10 aspect ratio display (better for watching widescreen movies than the iPad’s 4:3 display), resolution is a measly 149 ppi, and it shows. While the Android Apps Store has lots of variety, so you can find lots of useful apps and games, this tablet feels old and slow compared to the other competition.

Figure 4 Samsung's Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 Android tablet.

  • Amazon Kindle Fire HD 8.9. Knock an inch or so off the other large tablet screens and you get the 8.9” Kindle Fire HD 8.9 from Amazon. While this is technically an Android tablet, it’s more accurately described as a nifty little front end to all the products and services that Amazon offers. Amazon makes it easy to buy and read books the Fire HD, as well as listen to music and watch movies and TV shows from the appropriate Amazon online stores. That’s one reason why the Fire HD costs so much less than the competition ($299 for the 16GB version); Amazon is subsidizing the price so that you’ll spend more money with them later. (For this price, you get the model with “special offers” – ads, that is – displayed onscreen; you can spend an extra $15 to get an ad-free model.) That said, this unit has a stunning 254 ppi display, on a par with the iPad’s Retina display, and does most of what you want a table to do, very well.

Figure 5 Amazon's Kindle Fire HD 8.9 tablet; it runs the Android OS, but with a custom interface.

  • Barnes & Noble Nook HD+. Not to be outdone, Amazon competitor Barnes & Noble has released a competing 9” tablet, the Nook HD+. Like the Fire HD, the Nook HD+ is a front end to Barnes and Noble’s various online stores, so if you prefer B&N to Amazon, this is the tablet to go with. The price is even better -- $269 for a 16GB model, and $299 for 32GB of onboard storage. I actually prefer the Nook HD+ to the Fire HD; I think the screen (with a similar 256 ppi resolution) looks a little brighter and sharper, at least to my tired old eyes. Note, however, that the Nook HD+ doesn’t have a built-in camera (which all other tabs do), if that matters to you; it’s also just a tad heavier than the Amazon tablet.

Figure 6 Barnes & Noble's Nook HD+ tablet.

The following table details these models:

 

Apple iPad 4

Microsoft Surface

ASUS Transformer Pad Infinity TF700T

Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 10.1

Amazon Kindle Fire HD 8.9

B&N Nook HD+

Price

$499 (16GB Wi-Fi)

$599(32GB Wi-Fi)

$699 (64GB Wi-Fi)

$629 (16GB Wi-Fi + cellular)

$729 (32GB Wi-Fi + cellular)

$829 (64GB Wi-Fi + cellular)

$499 (32GB)

$599 (32GB w/Touch Cover)

$699 (64GB w/ Touch Cover)

$499

$399

$299 (16GB)

$369 (32GB)

($15 more without “special offers”)

$269 (16GB)

$299 (32GB)

Operating system

iOS

Windows RT

Android

Android

Android

Android

Screen size (diagonal)

9.7”

10.6”

10.1”

10.1”

8.9”

9”

Screen aspect ratio

4:3

16:9

16:10

16:10

16:10

3:2

Screen resolution (pixels)

2048 x 1536

1366 x 768

1900 x 1200

1280 x 800

1920 x 1200

1920 x 1280

Pixel density (pixels per inch)

264 ppi

148 ppi

224 ppi

149 ppi

254 ppi

256 ppi

Storage capacity

16GB, 32GB, 64GB

32GB, 64GB

32GB

16GB

16GB, 32GB

16GB, 32GB

CPU

Dual-core A6X w/quad-core graphics

1.3 GHz NVIDIA Tegra 3 quad-core processor

1.6GHz NVIDIA Tegra 3 quad-core processor

1.0GHz TI dual-core processor

1.5GHz TI dual-core processor

1.5GHz TI dual-core

Wi-Fi

802.11
a/b/g/n

802.11
a/b/g/n

802.11
b/g/n

802.11
b/g/n

802.11
a/b/g/n

802.11
b/g/n

3G/4G data

Selected models

No

No

No

No

No

Battery life

10 hours

8-10 hours

9.5 hours

8-9 hours

8 hours

9-10 hours

Camera(s)

Rear: 5 MP

Front: 1.2 MP

Rear: 720p

Front: 720p

Rear: 8 MP

Front: 2 MP

Rear: 3 MP

Front: VGA

Rear: none

Front: HD

None

Ports

Lightning connector, stereo headphone

USB, microSDXC, HD video, stereo headphone

USB, microSD, Micro-HDMI, stereo headphone

USB, microSD, HD video, stereo headphone

USB, Micro-HDMI, stereo headphone

USB, microSD, stereo headphone

Dimensions (w x h x d)

7.31” x 9.5” x 0.37”

6.77” x 10.81” x 0.37”

7.12” x 10.35” x 0.33”

6.9” x 10.1” x 0.38”

6.4” x 9.4” x 0.35”

6.41” x 9.46” x 0.45”

Weight

1.44 lbs.

1.5 lbs.

1.32 lbs.

1.28 lbs.

1.25 lbs.

1.14 lbs.

Comparing Mini Tablets

The latest trend in the tablet world are so-called mini tablets. Instead of the 9”-10” screens of the traditional iPad world, these minis all have 7” diagonal screens. That makes them smaller and easier to hold in one hand; they’re also a tad lighter and significantly lower priced than their larger brethren.

The smaller screens also make mini tabs a little less suited for browsing the web, running some apps, and viewing larger-format publications, such as magazines. What they do excel at is reading ebooks, as well as watching videos and playing most games.

There are a half-dozen main competitors in the mini tab market:

  • Apple iPad Mini. This is Apple’s newest little device, and it’s a winner. The iPad Mini is essentially a shrunken iPad, or maybe an overgrown iPod Touch. However you view it, the iPad Mini has a 7.9” diagonal screen, the largest in the mini category. Resolution, however, is not up to iPad 4 standards, and not even as good as some of the same-sized competitors; at 163 ppi, it looks like the original iPad display, not those models with the newer Retina display. Still and all, this is an iPad, so you know there are tons of apps out there; you also get fairly zippy operation, decent cameras (front and rear), and pretty good battery life. You can choose from three different storage capacities, each with or without cellular data connectivity. The lowest-priced model (16GB storage, Wi-Fi only) runs $329.

Figure 7 Apple's new iPad Mini – just like the original iPad, but smaller.

  • Google ASUS Nexus 7. This is a pretty straight-ahead Android mini tablet with a powerful quad-core processor. The display is nice, the performance is blazing, and the price is right ($199 for the 8GB model). All that – in particular, the quad-core processor – makes the Nexus 7 especially appealing to mobile gamers, who need the power and the display to do their thing.

Figure 8 The Google ASUS Nexus 7 – a compact Android game machine.

  • Barnes & Noble Nook HD. Next up is B&N’s Nook HD. This is a nice unit that combines a high-resolution screen (243 ppi) with an affordable price ($199 for the 8GB unit; $229 for 16GB). Yes, you’re tied into the B&N retail ecosystem, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing – especially as this unit serves as a ebook reader on steroids.

Figure 9 B&N's Nook HD tablet.

  • Amazon Kindle Fire HD. Amazon’s 7” tablet competitor is the Kindle Fire HD. It does everything the Nook HD does, except while connecting to the Amazon online store. Screen resolution isn’t quite as good (216 ppi vs. the Nook HD’s 243 ppi), and the processor isn’t quite as peppy. You do, however, get a front-facing camera, which the Nook HD lacks. Pricing is good; the 16GB model sells for $199, while a 32GB version goes for $249. (Both these prices are for units with onscreen “special offers;” if you want add-free models, add $15 to the price.)

Figure 10 Amazon's Kindle Fire HD fits nicely in your hand.

  • Amazon Kindle Fire (original). Surprisingly, Amazon is still selling its original Kindle Fire (non-HD) model, at a reduced price. Now a year old, this is definitely note the best tablet on the market; in fact, it kind of sucks at web browsing. But for reading ebooks, watching Netflix videos, and playing kid games, you can’t beat the $159 price.

Figure 11 The original Amazon Kindle Fire—one of the first mini tablets, still a good value.

  • Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7.0. Finally, we come to the Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7.0. (Somebody needs to take an axe to that name…) At $199, this model is comparable to other non-Apple 7” tablets. But screen resolution is sub-par (just 170 ppi) and the processor is the pokiest of all this bunch. It’s tough to recommend this unit, especially with other better-performing units available in the same price range.

Figure 12 Samsung's Galaxy Tab 2 7.0.

The following table compares these models.

 

Apple iPad Mini

Google ASUS Nexus 7

Barnes & Noble Nook HD

Amazon Kindle Fire HD

Amazon Kindle Fire (original)

Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7.0

Price

$329 (16GB Wi-Fi)

$429 (32GB Wi-Fi)

$529 (64GB Wi-Fi)

$459 (16GB Wi-Fi + cellular)

$559 (32GB Wi-Fi + cellular)

$659 (64GB Wi-Fi + cellular)

$199 (8GB)

$249 (16GB)

$199 (8GB)

$229 (16GB)

$199 (16GB)

$249 (32GB)

($15 more without “special offers”)

$159

($15 more without “special offers”)

$199

Operating system

iOS

Android

Android

Android

Android

Android

Screen size (diagonal)

7.9”

7”

7”

7”

7”

7”

Screen aspect ratio

4:3

16:10

16:10

16:10

16:10

16:10

Screen resolution (pixels)

1024 x 768

1280 x 800

1440 x 900

1280 x 800

1024 x 600

1024 x 600

Pixel density (pixels per inch)

163 ppi

216 ppi

243 ppi

216 ppi

169 ppi

170 ppi

Storage capacity

16GB, 32GB, 64GB

8GB, 16GB

8GB, 16GB

16GB, 32GB

8GB

8GB

CPU

Dual-core A5

1.2GHz NVIDIA Tegra  quad-core processor

1.3GHz TI dual-core processor

1.2GHz dual-core processor

1.2GHZ

1.0GHz TI dual-core processor

Wi-Fi

802.11
a/b/g/n

802.11
b/g/n

802.11
b/g/n

802.11
a/b/g/n

802.11
a/b/g/n

802.11
b/g/n

3G/4G data

Selected models

No

No

No

No

No

Battery life

9-10 hours

9.5 hours

9-10 hours

11 hours

9 hours

7-8 hours

Camera(s)

Rear: 5 MP

Front: 1.2 MP

Rear: None

Front: 1.2 MP

None

Rear: None

Front: HD

None

Rear: 3 MP

Front: 0.3 MP

Ports

Lightning connector, stereo headphone

USB, stereo headphone

USB, microSD, HD video, stereo headphone

USB, Micro-HDMI, stereo headphone

USB, stereo headphone

USB, microSD, stereo headphone

Dimensions (w x h x d)

5.3” x 7.87” x 0.28”

4.72” x 7.8” x 0.41”

5.0” x 7.65” x 0.43”

5.4” x 7.6” x 0.4”

4.72” x 7.44” x 0.45”

4.8” x 7.6” x 0.41”

Weight

0.68 lb.

0.75 lb.

0.69 lb.

0.87 lb.

.88 lb.

0.76 lb.

Recommendations: Which Tablet Should You Buy?

With all these options available, choosing the right tablet for you or your loved ones is a challenge. Rest assured, though, I’m here to make your choices easier.

Here’s what I recommend, based on how the tablet is going to be used:

  • You want your tablet to do everything. My recommendation: Apple’s iPad 4. There simply is no better all-around tablet than the iPad. The 10” Retina display screen is perfect for everything from reading books to watching movies to playing games to using your favorite apps. And you won’t find a better selection of apps than in the Apple App Store. Yes, the iPad is a little pricy, but you get what you pay for. (Runner-up, for the cost conscious: Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 10.1. At just $399, and a decent selection of apps in the Android App Store, you may be able to put up with its deficiencies.)
  • You want to do office work on your tablet. Recommendation: Microsoft Surface. The Surface is a newbie to the tablet game, but there’s no denying the combination of optional touch keyboard and included Microsoft Office makes the this tablet a power player with the office set. Heck, it even runs Microsoft Windows, so you don’t have to learn much new! The Surface may look pricey compared to some competing large tablets, but isn’t that bad if you compare it to an ultrabook notebook PC. (Runners-up, for Microsoft haters: Apple iPad 4. Okay, so there’s no Office for the iPad  -- yet, anyway – but you can probably find an app to do whatever you need to do. Or, if you want a good keyboard for real productivity, go with the ASUS Transformer Pad Infinity TF700T; you can buy both the tablet and the matching keyboard/battery for $650.)
  • You want to watch movies. Recommendation: B&N Nook HD+. I happen to like the larger tablets for watching movies and TV shows, and it’s hard to beat the Nook HD+’s display or price. You can download movies from the Barnes & Noble store, or watch streaming video from Netflix or Hulu Plus. And if the 9” tablet screen isn’t big enough for you, just connect the Nook HD+ via HDMI to your living room TV. (Runner-up, for small-handed users: B&N Nook HD. Same features and benefits, smaller size – and lower price, of course.)
  • You want to play games. Recommendation: Google ASUS Nexus 7. Mobile gamers need the speed, and this is the only mini tablet in our lineup with a quad-core processor. That means fast gameplay that, thanks to the Nexus 7’s 216 ppi display, also looks great. At just $199 for the base model, the Nexus 7 is hard to beat. (Runner-up, if you need a larger screen: ASUS Transformer Pad Infinity TF700T. Some gamers prefer a bigger screen, which this 10.1” model delivers; all gamers will appreciate this unit’s even-faster 1.6GHz quad-core processor.)
  • You want to read ebooks. Recommendation (tie): Amazon Kindle Fire HD or B&N Nook HD. The 7” mini tablet is the right side for reading; it’s pretty much the same size as a standard book page, plus it’s easy to hold in one hand. Both the Fire HD and Nook HD have high-resolution displays and tons of available content; which you choose depends more on whether you’re a current customer Amazon or Barnes & Noble. I kind of prefer the Nook HD (it’s a little zippier, and the display is a little brighter), but you can’t go wrong with either one. (Runner-up, for Apple junkies: Apple iPad Mini. Just make sure you install the Kindle and Nook apps, so you can read books you purchase from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.)

And that’s that for our annual holiday guide to tablets. The models offered this year are much improved over last year’s crop, in both quantity and quality; you won’t have to make a lot of compromises to get the features you want.

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