Tablets are at the top of many wish lists this holiday season. But what to get? The choice used to be pretty limited, with the iPad dominating the latecomers. But this year, the field is more even, as tablets from Apple’s competitors have matured. In addition, Google and Microsoft are diving in with their own tablets.
Full-sized tablets, which generally have screens measuring about 10 inches on the diagonal, are better for surfing websites designed for PCs, and far better when it comes to displaying magazines and documents. Overall, they go further toward replacing a laptop. If you’ve settled on a large tablet, here are some top choices:
Apple iPad, fourth generation
Apple usually updates the iPad once a year, so it was a surprise when it dropped a new model in October, with a faster processor and the new “Lightning” connection and charging port, replacing the wide port inherited from the iPod. Like the third-generation iPad launched in March it has an ultra-high-resolution “Retina” screen. The model’s resolution of 2,048 by 1,536 pixels is only surpassed by the Google Nexus 10.
That means the current iPad is two generations ahead of the iPad 2 that was on sale last holiday season. It packs enough improvements to make the upgrade worth it. The iPad 2 is still on sale for $100 less, but it’s not a very good value for the money: if $400 is all you can spend, there are better tablets out there than the iPad 2.
While other tablets are starting to approach it in terms of hardware, the iPad still enjoys the best support by far from third parties, both in terms of quality applications and accessories like cases.
One caveat: the base model of the iPad has only 16 gigabytes of storage, which fills up fast these days. The thoughtful giver goes for at least a 32-gigabyte model, for $100 more.
Other than that, there are few downsides to the iPad: no one will frown when opening this package.
Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1
If the Nook is for the avid reader or movie watcher, the Galaxy Note 10.1 is for the creative type. It’s the only tablet in our roundup that comes with a “pen” that can be used to write and draw on the screen. In our test, this worked well, though the number of apps that take advantage of the pen is still small. (Other tablets, like the iPad, only respond to finger-like objects, so third-party styluses for them are of necessity thick and clumsy.)
The Note 10.1 runs Google’s Android software, giving it access to a wide array of apps originally written for smartphones. The selection is not on par with the iPad’s but better than other alternatives.
The Note’s screen falls into the low-resolution category, sporting 1,280 by 800 pixels. That’s a third of what the iPad musters.
Like the Nook, the Note 10.1’s storage memory can be expanded with cards.
The Note’s appeal is somewhat niche, but it could be just the thing for the budding or established artist.
Microsoft’s first tablet seems at first like a throwback to the first iPad. It’s thick, heavy and rugged. But it’s really doesn’t have much in common with the first iPad or any Apple- or Google-powered tablet. It runs Windows RT, a version of Windows 8 adapted for tablets. It comes with a version of Microsoft’s Office suite and the ability to connect to wireless printers and some other peripherals, like USB drives. The covers for it have functional keyboard printed on the inside.
The screen resolution is 1,366 by 768 pixels, placing it in the low-resolution category.
The Surface screams “work, work, work.” It’s the tablet for those who are wedded to Word and want to take their writing on the go.
One thing to note about the Surface: the basic model starts out with “32 gigabytes” of memory, but of that, only 16 gigabytes are available to the user. It accepts memory cards of up to 64 gigabytes, however, so expanding the memory is cheap.
Note that even though it runs Windows, the Surface doesn’t run standard Windows applications. It will run only programs specifically adapted for Windows RT. The selection is, for now, quite limited.
Asus Vivo Tab RT
Asus has a quality line of Android tablets they call “Transformer” because they dock into a keyboard with an extra battery. The combination folds up just like a small laptop and has excellent battery life. The Vivo Tab RT essentially takes a Transformer and stuffs it with Windows RT instead of Android.
The tablet part is smaller and thinner than the Surface. Together with the keyboard, it makes for a familiar little setup: a tiny laptop running Windows. Like the Surface, it has a memory card slot and a USB port. The screen resolution is the same.
The Vivo Tab is a good tool for those who want to get some work done on the commute or plane, or those who can’t decide if they want a laptop or a tablet.
Google Nexus 10
This is Google’s first full-size tablet and the only tablet from any manufacturer that beats the screen resolution of the iPad. It boasts 2,560 by 1,600 pixels, a third more than the fourth-generation iPad.
It’s also the only tablet in this roundup that has speakers on either side of the screen when it’s held horizontally, making for good stereo reproduction when you’re watching movies. It has a grippy, rubberized back and widely rounded corners. There’s no memory card slot or an option for a cellular modem.
The array of third-party software is wide, just as it is for the Note 10.1. Most people don’t associate Google with online books, music or movies, so it may feel odd that the Nexus steers buyers to Google’s Play store. Of course, given the open nature of Google’s Android operating system, there are apps available for other entertainment stores, including Amazon’s, and for streaming services like Netflix.
The Nexus 10 is a snappy performer, and among the iPad’s competitors, it comes the closest to matching the versatility of Apple products.