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No electronics category has changed more in the past year than tablets. Performance is better than ever, especially for the best lower-priced models, and the features and versatility of tablets are expanding fast. The bottom line: There are lots of great models to choose from.
Before you start tablet shopping, consider your priorities.
Is portability a priority? Tablets with 8-inch or smaller displays mostly weigh well less than a pound. Many are very thin. The best in this size range have a battery life of about 13 hours, or more.
Are you on a budget? You can get a great 7- to 8-inch tablet starting at about $200. Even Apple is offering a lower-cost iPad, the iPad Mini, for $300. Tablets with larger display sizes cost more, of course. But very good 10-inch tablets are out there for about $350.
Are you looking for maximum versatility? Then you want a tablet that does it all, and does it well. Consider a larger tablet with at least 10 hours of battery life, and well-equipped app and content stores. Be prepared to spend at least $400. The iPad Air offers a good mix of features and performance, but other tablets have things the iPads don't, like a memory-card slot or remote-control capability.
Are you a bookworm? If you want a tablet mainly for reading--with some e-mailing, Web surfing, and a bit of app-downloading on the side--you can save some money with a tablet from Amazon or Barnes & Noble. A larger screen is better for magazine reading, while a smaller one is more portable, costs less, and is big enough for reading books.
Do you want a tablet that's also a computer? Many Windows-based tablets are either convertibles that use hinges to twist and turn from laptop to tablet, or a detachable, which lets you detach the screen from the keyboard.
Do you have kids? Tablets for tykes have gotten more robust, and parents have more control over what their kids are doing with parental filters. Prices range from $150 to $200, so kids' tablets aren't cheap. Here's how to figure out which is best for your family.
Is there a gamer in the family? Most tablets are good enough for casual games like Angry Birds or 2048. But if you want to play a more-demanding game like Modern Combat 4, you'll need a tablet that can handle it. Here are six great tablets for playing games.
All new models offer Wi-Fi connectivity, and most have a front-facing webcam and GPS capability.
Typical sizes are 7 and 10 inches, though tablets in sizes in between are also available. In landscape mode, most tablets have the short, wide shape of a digital TV. The iPad's display is squarer, similar to a traditional TV's.
All tablets offer Wi-Fi connectivity. Most higher-rated tablets also come in a version that can access cellular data networks, including 4G. Monthly broadband access costs $20 and up (some tablets offer month-to-month access).
The iPad offers the best detail and most accurate colors we've ever seen on a tablet. It has the highest resolution of any tablet at 2048x1536. Color is excellent. The screen is viewable from almost any angle without image degradation. The display on other tablets can be viewed from almost any direction, too, but some lose contrast at off-angles. Images on certain tablets washed out or darkened when viewed in portrait mode, making for a slightly different view even between left and right eyes. Some displays had a bluish or greenish cast.
A tablet version of Windows 8, called Windows RT, joins the list of major operating systems for tablets, along with Android and iOS. Microsoft itself is among the manufacturers offering a tablet with that operating system. The Surface with Windows RT also comes with Office applications, including Word, Excel, and PowerPoint.
A tablet's capabilities are in large part determined by its operating system. As with computers, being able to upgrade the version installed in the factory makes additional capabilities possible and allows the device to use the newest apps. Apple provides upgrades for the iPad's iOS operating system. The latest Android operating system is version 4.4. But many Android models are using version 4.2 or 4.3, or even earlier versions.
Storage in many tablets can be expanded using a memory card, and a few can read USB flash drives. The iPad has no memory-card slot or USB port, but its $29 Camera Connection Kit has some unadvertised capabilities, such as accommodating a USB keyboard and importing photos from an iPod Touch or iPhone.
Seagate's $200 GoFlex Satellite hard drive lets you wirelessly stream video, movies, photos, and documents to a tablet. It has a dedicated app for the iPad but works with any Wi-Fi-enabled tablet. Apple's iOS lets you sync with other iOS devices.
One way you can print wirelessly from the iPad is via an AirPrint-enabled printer. Most printer manufacturers have apps for the iPad and Android tablets that allow Wi-Fi printing.
The Android-based Kindle Fire is a competitively priced 7- and 9-inch tablet. Subscribers to Amazon Prime ($99 per year) have access to extra content such as movies, TV shows, and books. Its app store is curated by Amazon. These tablet have a user interface customized by Amazon.
Now in its fifth generation, the iPad Air uses Apple iOS, noteable for its intuitive interface and excellent app store. A 7.9-inch version, the iPad Mini, closely mimics the larger model. Apple has retained earlier, less expensive versions—the iPad and iPad Mini with Retina display. Models are also available with 4G service.
Archos produces a wide variety of Android tablets in various sizes under the Elements moniker. The company also offers a gaming tablet.
Asus produces Android, Windows, and Windows RT-based tablets in a variety of sizes under the Transformer, VivoTab, and MemoPad lines.
The competitively priced Android-based Nook HD and Nook HD+ tablets are 7 and 9 inches respectively. These tablets have a user interface customized by Barnes & Noble.
Dell offers Android and Windows-based 7- to-10.8-inch tablets in the Venue line. A 4G option is also available.
The Android-based Kobo Arc is available in 7- to-10-inch sizes. The user interface is geared toward e-book and magazine readers.
Lenovo's Android-based IdeaTab and Yoga line are geared toward consumers. Its Windows-based lines include Miix and ThinkPad. Models range in size from 7 to 11.6 inches. Some are offered in 4G versions.
The Microsoft Surface product is a series of 10.6-inch Windows tablets that are also available in a 4G version. They offer a detachable, folding keyboard.
Monster produces just one Android model, the M7 7-inch product, which is exclusive to Walmart.
Samsung has the widest variety of tablets available, with prices ranging from low to high and sizes small to large. Android and Windows models are available, along with 4G versions. The Galaxy Tab is the mainstream line while the Galaxy Note models include a stylus and versitile drawing and writing software. The ATIV line includes Windows and detachable screen models.
Toshiba's Android and Windows lines include the 7-, 8-, and 10-inch Encore and Excite lines.
The Verizon Ellipsis is a single model in Verizon's line. The 7-inch model is Android based with 4G access.
The Wikipad 7-inch tablet is built for gaming and runs in Android. A game-controller dock is optional.
We find the iPad's squarish screen is better suited to most tablet uses than a rectangular one. Several other tablets have similarly shaped screens. Rectangular screens held horizontally offer a wider landscape view that's better for watching movies in something closer to a wide-screen 16.9 aspect ratio, and the shape may make them easier to slip into a purse.
Apple provides upgrades for the iPad's iOS, as does Microsoft for Windows tablets. New Android apps may require a newer versios of Andorid than is available on some tablets with older Android builds.
The breadth and quality of Apple's app market is still a major competitive edge for the iPad. Games for iPad are still more innovative, for example, with popular titles such as Infinity Blade (free), a game of knights and swordplay, and The Room ($5), a puzzle/mystery game. And the quality of apps for iPad continues to overshadow those for Android. Many magazines have tablet versions of their publications fro both Android and Apple devices.
Developers create apps first, and more often exclusively, for the Apple App store. And because of the large user base, apps in the Apple store are more likely to get bugs fixed first. The major app stores from Apple, Google, and Microsoft have specific developer requirements that make their apps more reliable and less likely to be vulnerable to malware. Only Android devices let you opt to install non-vetted apps from the Internet, so be careful about allowing that.
If you choose a tablet with the Android OS, make sure it has access to Google's "genuine" Google Play market and not just a third-party app market such as GetJar. You'll get a wider variety of popular apps there, and gain some security against potentially malicious "rogue" apps.
You get many fewer Android apps on Barnes & Noble and Kindle tablets because those companies select the apps they want provide. But there's still a large number available on both of those tablets as well.
Microsoft's Windows Store is brand new and so far relatively sparse, but we expect the number of available apps to continue to increase.
Many of its apps outdo Android apps in terms of innovation. Don't forget the iPad's excellent 9.7-inch display for reading magazines and watching movies, as well as its long battery life.
A Wi-Fi-only model is the most economical choice. Tablets with cellular service cost more, plus you'll have to pay for the service. Choose a broadband model only if "everywhere access" to the Net is critical. If it is, 4G capability, or at least the ability to upgrade to it, is a plus.