If a new tablet is on your list of gifts to buy this year, here are a few models to consider:
Apple iPad Air
Apple’s newest full-size tablet is thinner than a pencil and quicker than its predecessors, making it Apple’s fastest and lightest full-size iPad to date. That may not sound like much, but it makes a difference when you actually pick up the iPad Air. Now light enough to hold for extended periods with one hand, the iPad is much more portable and capable as a magazine or newspaper stand-in. Taken with a crisp screen and long battery life, the iPad Air is much easier to carry and use on the go than its predecessors.
There are some spots for improvement. The iPad’s camera, in particular, could use an upgrade from 5 MP to at least bring it in line with the iPhone’s 8 MP. Some were expecting the tablet to incorporate the touch-based security features that are in the new flagship version of the iPhone, the 5S. That wasn’t a necessity, but would have been a nice feature as the average person puts more information on a tablet.
The iPad Air isn’t a “must upgrade now” addition to the Apple tablet lineup, but should make those who’ve been mulling an upgrade – or looking to get into the tablet market – more than happy.
Get it: If you want a super-portable, full-size tablet
Skip it: If you’re on the fence about a tablet upgrade
Price: $499 and up
Apple iPad mini with retina display
For those who are interested in the smaller end of the tablet scale, Apple’s newest iPad mini gives you a lot of per-pound power, figuratively speaking. Technically speaking, the tablet is just under three-quarters of a pound and comes with a very portable 7.9-inch screen that will tuck easily into a smaller purse or briefcase pocket.
The main news in this update is that Apple has finally added the “retina” display, which is the company’s way of saying that its screen’s individual pixels can’t be seen with the naked eye. Translated out of tech speak, that means that the iPad mini – like the newest iPhones, iPads, iPods and some Macs – has a super-sharp screen that’s good for reading and watching movies. Its small screen cuts down on the ability to do work, so keep in mind that this is probably a tablet meant more for play than work.
The iPad mini isn’t the best value tablet of its size – competitors offer similar features for less money – but it does stand out because of its high-quality construction and because of its access to Apple’s extensive app market.
Get it: If a fuzzy screen is all that’s been keeping you from this tablet
Skip it: If a low price tag is a high priority
Price: $399 and up
Amazon Kindle Fire HDX
Amazon’s been upping the quality of its hardware with each new generation of its Kindle Fire tablets. With its newest HDX models, the company puts forward its best efforts to date. While the tablets don’t have the same premium feel of Apple’s iPads, both the 8.9-inch and seven-inch versions are lighter than their respective counterparts from Cupertino, thanks to smaller screen sizes and plastic – rather than glass and aluminum – construction.
The HDX addresses many of the most common gripes about previous models, including a smarter placement of its few buttons and much faster processing and Web surfing. The tablets also carry a smart feature for first-time tablet owners – built-in 24/7 video tech support, through a customer service feature it calls “Mayday.” Tap on the Mayday life-preserver icon, and you’ll see a real, live person ready to help you with your tablet problems – and no worries, the help desk can’t see you.
Still while the Kindle Fire HDX is Amazon’s strongest tablet yet, it most benefits people who are deeply hooked into the Amazon ecosystem and want to shop at the online marketplace. And it’s still not a great tablet for working; there’s some lag in typing, so email can be a frustrating experience. In other words, these tablets are great for reading books and watching movies but not for writing your own novels or screenplays.
Get it: If you’re an Amazon loyalist or a first-time tablet buyer
Skip it: If you want a tablet to do a lot of work
Price: $299 and up
Google Nexus 7
Google has held the crown in the tiny tablet space with its Nexus products, thanks to its relatively low cost and high performance. The firm has kept that up with the latest iteration of the Nexus 7, its 7-inch tablet, which is better than its predecessor in all the important ways: faster, lighter and thinner.
As is true of many Google products – or, really, any products running Google’s Android operating system – the experience on the Nexus 7 is best if you’re a true Google convert. Those who use Google for mail, maps, browsing and more will find that the Google experience is baked deeply into the tablet. The tablet, which now has front- and rear-facing cameras, is now also a good option for video-conferencing, which improves its utility with college students, parents and anyone who’s far-removed from loved ones.
The screen also has been improved on this generation of the Nexus 7, which makes it great for personal viewing, though crowding around the tablet’s 7-inch screen is a less-than-ideal experience. Still, Google has turned out another strong, solid product with the Nexus 7, and it’s a great choice for anyone looking to pick a new tablet.
Get it: If you want a smaller tablet at a good price
Skip it: If you’re not that into Google’s Web services
Microsoft Surface 2
Microsoft’s first experiment to breaking into the tablet world hit some bumps – in brief: poor sales, lukewarm reviews and general ridicule. But the firm has soldiered on and created a new generation of its Surface tablets to bridge the gap between tablet and laptop. All Surface models have an optional keyboard cover, which makes the tablets a credible – though not total – laptop replacement, especially since they run Microsoft Office programs. With the Surface 2, a successor to the much-knocked Surface RT, Microsoft has moved the product forward by leaps and bounds.
They’ve done this in a few significant ways, including extending the tablet’s battery life and bumping up its internal specs so it runs faster and cooler. Putting the tablet into sleep mode, the company says, keeps it from drawing any additional power, so you can reasonably expect to use it on a single charge over many days. Microsoft also has added a second angle to the tablet’s built-in kickstand so that the Surface 2 is more stable on an actual lap when in laptop mode.
That said, it does still have limits. Surface 2 does a fine job of showing off what Microsoft has to offer with its touch-based Windows 8 operating system, but navigating has a learning curve. And while Surface 2 has plenty of productivity apps, it lags behind Apple and Google on the breadth of other apps on offer, which means that you may not be able to pick up exactly the program you want. That’s something that will improve – and if you can wait another cycle, it might be worth seeing what other improvements Microsoft has up its sleeve.
Get it: If getting work done is your primary aim for a tablet
Skip it: If you want a really wide selection of apps
Price: $449 and up; keyboard covers start at $79.99