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Comparing Tablet PCs: A 2013 Holiday Shopping Guide

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  1. Introducing the Major Players
  2. Comparing Tablets
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Are you craving the latest iPad, Nexus, or Windows tablet? Think one would make a good present for someone on your gift list? Even though you might be able to stuff a tablet PC in your Christmas stocking, there are a lot of different models to choose from. In this holiday shopping guide, author Michael Miller explores all the latest tablets — from the new iPad Air to the appealing Nexus 7 to Microsoft's latest Surface 2 to the Kindle Fire HDX with "Mayday" button support — and makes some recommendations for which you should put on your Christmas lists.
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Maybe you want a new tablet PC for Christmas. Maybe you have a friend or family member who wants one. It wouldn't be surprising; everybody knows that tablets make great gifts.

Whether you're shopping for yourself or someone you love, you have a lot of different models to choose from. Should you buy an Apple iPad, a Google Nexus, an Amazon Fire, or a Microsoft Surface? And what about size – should you get a smaller tablet or a larger one?

There are a lot of options available for tablet shoppers this holiday season. Read on to learn more about the state of the tablet market today.

Introducing the Major Players

You can find tablet PCs from dozens of different manufacturers, including a few you've never heard of. (And rightly so.) Sorting the wheat from the chaff can be challenging.

Let's focus, then, on the major players in the tablet market. It's hard to go wrong with tablets from any of these big five manufacturers:

  • Apple, the company that pretty much created the modern tablet, in the form of the venerable iPad. While competing brands are making significant inroads in the tablet market, Apple continues to dominate with 32% market share.
  • Google, which sells the popular Nexus 7 tablet that competes head-to-head with Apple's iPad Mini.
  • ASUS, which offers a number of affordable tablets for the budget-conscious.
  • Amazon, which sells the low-priced Kindle Fire tablet.
  • Microsoft, which sells the Windows-compatible Surface tablet.

Yes, there are other players, some of them big names, but these five manufacturers are responsible for the bulk of all tablet sales. (Samsung, for example, offers a number of different tablets — all of which disappoint, especially considering how strong the company is in the related smartphone market.) We'll focus our attention, then, on the most popular models from these manufacturers.

It's All About the OS

Every tablet, like very personal computer, is controlled by an operating system (OS). With personal computers, the most popular operating systems are Windows and the Mac OS. With tablets, you have three primary operating systems to choose from – Apple's iOS, Google's Android, and Microsoft's Windows.

Apple's iOS is used on both iPad tablets and iPhone smartphones. It's a popular and easy-to-use operating system, very intuitive. But you won't find iOS on tablets from any other manufacturer; it's an Apple exclusive. Apps for iOS can be found in Apple's App Store – and there are lots of them. (In fact, that's one of the primary reason to go with an iOS iPad – which we'll discuss shortly.)

Google's Android is a more open operating system, in that lots of manufacturers (including ASUS and Amazon) use it. It's very customizable; in fact, many manufacturers create their own custom interfaces over the basic Android interface. Android apps can be found in the Google Play store, and often in individual manufacturers' apps stores. (For example, Amazon has its own app store for its' Kindle Fire tablets – which, even though they all run the Android OS, can't download apps from the Google Play app store.)

Finally, we have Microsoft Windows, which is available on some higher-end tablets, such as Microsoft's own line of Surface tablets. There are actually two versions of Windows for tablets: Windows RT, which is a tablet-only OS with limited use of the traditional desktop, and plain old Windows (now in the 8.1 version) which ably runs both full-screen tablet apps and traditional desktop programs. While Windows hasn't really caught on as a tablet OS, it is the route to go when you're interested in productivity and the Microsoft Office suite of applications.

Apps, Apps, and More Apps

A tablet is just a paperweight if it doesn't have any apps to run. To that end, you need to take a look at what apps are available for your particular tablet, and whether they're the apps you want.

Without a doubt, the most and best apps are available for Apple's iPad in the iPad's App Store. Because the iPad so dominates the tablet market, most app developers target iOS first when they're creating new apps. This means that the latest apps are almost always available first in Apple's App Store, and then later (if at all) for Android and Windows tablets. If having the latest apps is important, the iPad is the way to go.

That's not to say anything bad about apps for Android tablets. Many developers are targeting Android hand-in-hand with iOS, or at least shortly after. It's possible, then, that you'll find everything you want in the Google Play apps store. (And if not, that's as good a reason as any to stick with an iPad.)

That's not to say that all Android tablets have access to the same number of apps. The Kindle Fire is an obvious dissenter here, in that it even though it runs the Android OS, it can't download apps from the Google Play app store; you have to use the Amazon App Store, instead, and not all Android apps are available for the Kindle. In fact, in my experience, I've found the app selection for the Kindle to be sorely lacking, especially with popular games and kids apps. Check the store first before you commit.

Then we have apps for Windows tablets, which are available in Microsoft's relatively new Windows Store. I have to be honest here; the selection of Windows tablet apps is poor, verging on the pitiful. It's getting better, especially since the release of Windows 8.1, but you're going to find a ton more apps in either the Android or iOS app stores. That's just the way it is; developers go for iOS first, Android second, and then – if they have any free time left over – they target Windows tablets.

Size Matters

One can also look today’s tablet market by size. There are two distinct sizes of tablets out there – regular (9”-10” diagonal screens) and mini (7"-8” diagonal screens). Which size you choose determines which specific tablets you should be investigating.

Large tablets, such as the 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 dominates. The new iPad Air is much thinner and lighter than its predecessor, while still offering a high-resolution 9.7" Retina display screen. Competitors include Amazon’s Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 (it has an 8.9” screen), the ASUS MeMO Pad FHD 10 (10.1” display), and the Microsoft Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2 (with big 10.6” screens).

In terms of price, larger tablets cost more than smaller ones. Apple's iPad Air costs $499, a full hundred dollars more than the smaller iPad Mini with Retina display — and a lot more than competing mini tablets. Other larger tablets are just as or more expensive. You pay for the larger screen.

Obviously, then, you can save a bit by going with a smaller tablet. Mini tablets are noticeably 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. That makes a mini tablet ideal for reading books and watching videos, even if the smaller screen makes web browsing and using some apps more problematic.

The size/weight difference has made mini tablets the most popular segment of the tablet market. Not surprisingly, this is also where we see the most competition. The biggest-selling mini tablet is Apple's iPad Mini, which is available in two versions, the new one with high-resolution Retina display and the lower-priced last-year's model with a lower-resolution screen. Other competition – and considerably lower price points – comes from Google's Nexus 7 and Amazon's Kindle Fire HDX, both considerably lower-priced than either of Apple's two models.

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