Thinking of tablets as Christmas presents? Here's a buyer's guide

I love my iPad 2, and I can't wait until my LTE iPad mini arrives. I also have a Nexus 7. In my mind, Apple's tablets are way above the rest. But if you're curious how the iPad stacks up against the other new tablets, here's a guide to the tablets from Apple, Amazon, Google, Barnes & Noble, and Microsoft. 

iPad mini — In the 7-inch range, Apple’s new iPad mini with a 7.9-inch display is already selling millions. It’s priced starting at $329 for 16GB of memory and is the only one of the 7-inch tablets to have a rear-facing camera for taking photos (5MP) and shooting video (1080p HD). The WiFi-only model lacks GPS. The 4G LTE model (for accessing the cellular data network) that starts at $459 does include GPS. The mini’s screen size offers 35% more viewing space than the 7-inch tablets, while at the same being thinner and lighter (.28 inches thick and .68 lbs). And it’s only slightly wider. Like the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HD, it has a front-facing camera for videoconferencing. The screen resolution is 1024 x 768.

(The image below shows that when browsing the web in landscape mode, the iPad mini has 65% more screen space than Google's Nexus 7.)

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Amazon Kindle Fire HD (7-inch) — In October Amazon introduced their Kindle Fire HD, which has a 1280 x 800 HD display — greater resolution than the iPad mini. It has Dolby speakers and speedy WiFi for streaming HD movies. It lacks a rear-facing camera and GPS but does have a front-facing camera for video Skype. It starts at $199 for 16GB of memory. This has so far been the second-bestselling tablet. There’s no option for purchasing a model that connects to the cellular data network. Note that because Amazon sells these at cost, they come with on-screen ads. If you want to dump the ads, it’ll cost you an extra $15.

Google Nexus 7 (7-inch) — The Nexus is the third-bestselling tablet. There’s no camera on the back, but it does have a front videoconferencing camera and GPS. The WiFi-only model starts at $199 for 16GB of memory. A version that connects to the cellular data network (and that’s not yet available) starts at $299. It uses the HSPA+ network offered by AT&T and T-Mobile. The screen resolution is 1280 x 800, like that of the Kindle Fire HD. The processor is quad core, making it the speediest of the 7-inch tablets.

Barnes & Noble Nook HD (7-inch) — This newly released tablet has the best screen resolution at 1440 x 900. The Nook HD starts at $199 with 8GB of memory. The 16GB model is $229. There’s no camera or GPS. At .7 lbs, it’s almost as thin and light as the iPad mini, and is thinner and lighter than the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HD. Unlike the other tablets, it has a slot for a microSD card, letting you expand the memory. There’s no option for purchasing a model that connects to the cellular data network.

Those are the main choices in the 7-inch range. As you can see, the specs vary somewhat, and your choice will depend in part on the sorts of things you’ll be using your tablet for. I’ll talk more about this in a moment, but first let’s look at the tablets in the 9-to-10-inch range. The iPad has dominated this segment, but the competition is certainly heating up.



Barnes & Noble Nook HD+ (9-inch) — At $269, this is the least expensive tablet in the 9-inch range. It’s basically the same tablet as the Nook HD, except with a slightly faster processor and a larger screen that has a resolution of 1920x1280. The screen shape or “aspect ratio” is 3:2, which makes it a good shape for reading a page of a book. In contrast, the 7-inch Nook HD, Nexus 7, and Kindle Fire HD are 16:9, making them ideal for watching a widescreen HD movie without any wasted space (called “letterboxing”) on the top and bottom. The iPad mini is in between at 4:3. Again, no cameras, no GPS, no cellular connectivity.

Amazon Kindle Fire HD (8.9-inch) — Starting at $299 for 16GB of memory, this model has a screen resolution of 1920 x 1200 with a 16:10 aspect ratio. Other features are similar to the 7-inch model: Dolby audio, fast WiFi, and a front-facing camera for videoconferencing. A $499 model comes with 32GB of memory and connectivity to the 4G LTE  cellular data network. (Amazingly, the cost for cellular connectivity will run only $50 per year for 250MB of data per month — a huge savings over the other tablet data plans.) There’s no GPS or rear camera.

Google Nexus 10 (10-inch) — This tablet, made by Samsung, has the highest screen resolution of any tablet: 2560-by-1600 at 300 pixels per inch. That’s an even greater pixel density than the iPad with retina display. Its 16:9 aspect ratio is suited to widescreen HD movies. The Nexus 10 ramps up the features too, with a 1.9-megapixel front camera and a 5-megapixel rear camera capable of shooting 1080p HD movies. It also has micro USB and micro HDMI ports for connecting standard peripherals. It starts at $399 for 16 GB. It includes GPS. Surprisingly, there’s no model available that connects to the cellular data network.

Microsoft Surface RT (10.6-inch) — Microsoft has also jumped into the fray with its Surface RT tablet. It starts at $499 for 32GB of memory (though a big chunk of that is used for the system software). And for $599 you get a model with a detachable keyboard that doubles as a cover for the device — almost like an unbelievably thin laptop. This keyboard feature and the overall hardware are getting rave reviews. The problem, though, is that there’s almost no Windows RT software available. A more expensive version, perhaps in the $1,000 range, is expected next year, and will run the full version of Windows 8. It has a 10.6-inch display with 1,366 x 768 resolution and 16:9 widescreen aspect ratio. The Surface has both front-facing and rear-facing 720p cameras, and two microphones. It has a USB 2.0 port, microSDXC card slot, and HD video out port. There’s no GPS and no model that connects to the cellular data network.

Apple iPad 2 (9.7-inch) — As you know, Apple is still selling this model that first launched in 2011. It starts at $399 for 16GB, and the version that connects to the cellular data network starts at $529. The 9.7-inch screen is 1024 x 768, the same resolution as the iPad mini. Apple’s iPads have been hugely popular, with over 100 million sold. It has a front-facing camera, and 720p rear camera for taking photos and shooting HD video. The quality of the camera for taking photos has been criticized. It comes with GPS.

Apple iPad with retina display (9.7-inch) — The retina iPad made a big splash when it launched in March because of the high-resolution retina display, at 2048 x 1536. The new version released in October has the same screen but a processor that’s twice as fast. The prices start at $499 for the basic WiFi model with 16GB, and $629 for the model with 4G LTE connectivity to the cellular data network. Apple’s full-sized iPads have a 4:3 aspect ratio, which is the same shape as an 8.5 x 11-inch sheet of paper. It has 720p HD front-facing camera, and a 1080p, 5-megapixel HD camera on the back.

What a lot of great choices. I like the iPads the best. There are over 275,000 apps designed specifically for the iPad, whereas other tablets can boast only a fraction of that. It has cameras, GPS on most models, and the most options for connecting to the cellular data network. And the Apple Store is a trove of music, movies, and books.

But I’m impressed with some of the others, especially the low $269 price of the 9-inch Barnes & Noble Nook HD+ tablet, the low price of the cellular data plan for the 8.9-inch Kindle Fire HD, and the power, resolution, and versatility of the Nexus tablets.

However, the most important consideration may not be the specs. Here are important factors:

Apps — If you want to use a tablet as a computer, i.e., a powerful and versatile tool for performing a wide range of functions, in my mind your only choices are the iPad and the Google Nexus tablets. The Nexus runs Android, as do the Kindle and Nook, but with a difference. You get pure Android on the Nexus, not the modified version on the other devices. Not only does the Nexus have the most apps available, since it’s from Google, who develops Android, it will also always be able to run the latest and greatest version of Android. With other devices you have to wait until the latest version is made available — which can take a long time.

Your computing environment — If you’re an Apple user and already have a lot of Apple Store media, or if you use Apple’s email, contacts, and calendar software, your best choice by far is the iPad. While I can use my Nexus just fine to do my Apple email, there’s no way to sync it with my Apple calendar or contacts, a real deal-breaker for me. And it’s difficult to convert my Apple Store media for use on my Nexus. On the other hand, if you’re a heavy user of Google’s computing environment, including Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Contacts, and Google Docs, the Nexus may be worth considering.

Your media usage — If you want a tablet primarily for media consumption, and not for taking photos or using GPS or using lots of apps or syncing with email and contacts, etc., then a good choice may be the less expensive tablets from Amazon and Barnes & Noble. The latter has recently signed deals with the major providers of movies, and Amazon has long had a wealth of content. If you’re an Amazon Prime subscriber and do a lot of shopping on Amazon, the Kindle Fire may be worth considering. It’s a great window onto the Amazon experience.

Your love for Microsoft — I haven’t recommended Microsoft’s tablet. But if you’re wedded to all things Microsoft, and in a corporate environment, it may be a good choice. Otherwise, given the lack of apps and functionality, I can’t imagine it being an option.

Your need for mobility — As much as I like my Nexus 7, I don’t use it nearly as much as my iPad because I can only access the Internet when I’m in the range of a WiFi hotspot. For me, a tablet computer must necessarily be able to connect to the cellular data network so I can access the Internet wherever there’s a cell phone signal. If you’re like me, that limits your choices to the iPad, Nexus 7, or Kindle Fire HD with a 9-inch screen. The cheapest data plan is that of the Kindle Fire HD 8.9, at $50 per year. Other data plans range from $15 to $30 per month. Or you can tack your data plan onto your cell phone plan for about $10 per month.

So that's the roundup. It's great to see the competition — everybody wins.

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Jim Karpen holds a Ph.D. in literature and writing, and has a love of gizmos. His doctoral dissertation focused on the revolutionary consequences of digital technologies and anticipated some of the developments taking place in the industry today. Jim has been writing about the Internet and technology since 1994 and has been using Apple's visionary products for decades.