Beyond the IPad: Rivals Offer Attractive Alternatives
(Updates with information on new products, including the iPad mini, Surface and Nexus 10.)
For the first time, the phrase "tablet worth buying" isn't automatically synonymous with "iPad."
Unlike years past, when anything without the Apple label might have been met with a fallen face, this holiday season presents the gift-buyer with a real choice of sizes, prices and capabilities.
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Not that the iPad itself is any less desirable. The latest edition of the iconic 9.7-inch tablet ($499-$829) features Apple's gorgeous Retina Display and the new smaller Lightning connector introduced on the iPhone 5. In addition, the models equipped with cellular connections run over the new, ultrafast 4G LTE networks.
Plus, of course, there's the new, 7.9-inch iPad mini. The screen isn't as nice as big brother's, but it's crazy thin (barely a quarter of an inch) and crazy light (11 ounces). And, at prices ranging from $329 for a Wi-Fi-only model with 16 gigabytes of storage to $659 with LTE and 64 gigabytes, it's also the most affordable iPad.
After two years of struggling to establish Android tablets as direct competition for the big iPad, Google this year tried a different, and more successful, tack. Working with Asus, it launched the Nexus 7, a more compact, Google-branded device.
Starting at $199, the Wi-Fi-only Nexus 7 features a bright and beautiful seven-inch display and swift performance. Newly upgraded to 16 gigabytes of storage, its big drawback is the limited selection of content in some of the Google Play online stores.
Kindle Fire HD
Lack of content isn't anything that afflicts Amazon.com's seven-inch Kindle Fire HD, which also starts at $199. Indeed, it functions best as a front end to Amazon's enormous stockpiles of e-books, videos and music.
At the same time, it's heavier and slower than the Nexus 7, and although it runs a version of Android, it doesn't have access to the vast universe of Android apps. But if you've got a confirmed Amazon-lover on your list -- especially one who already belongs to Amazon Prime and can take advantage of features like the Kindle Lending Library -- this may be the tablet that warms her heart.
An alternative is Barnes & Noble's new Nook HD. It lacks some of the Kindle's extras, like a front-facing camera. But it's got a better screen and -- hooray! -- no ads.
Amazon and B&N have also launched bigger, 9-inch models -- $269 for the Nook, $299 for the Kindle ($499 with a first-year-discounted LTE plan from AT&T). While they're positioning themselves mostly against the iPad, they also face competition from a legion of less proprietary devices running off-the-shelf versions of Android.
Flush from its Nexus 7 success, Google has launched the Nexus 10, a Samsung-manufactured 10.1-inch tablet with a truly iPad-worthy screen and a starting price, $399, that's $100 cheaper than the comparable Apple product.
The big problem is the paucity of apps designed specifically to take advantage of the Nexus 10's size and capabilities. Blown-up smartphone apps are annoying enough on the Nexus 7; here, they're downright aggravating.
Xperia Tablet S
Sony's Android-based Xperia Tablet S ($400-$500) tries to get around that problem by building in a host of proprietary apps, some really good -- like the one that turns it into a super-duper universal TV remote -- and others not so much.
Last year's version of the Xperia had an eccentric teardrop shape, cheap construction, poorly placed controls and connectors, and sluggish performance. This year, the design has been toned down without losing its distinctiveness, controls are more user-friendly and a new processor from Nvidia helps move things along. It's one of the nicer Android tabs out there.
You could probably start an argument about whether the Microsoft Surface ($499-$699) even belongs in a roundup about tablets. Yes, it weighs about the same as an iPad, has a touch screen and runs apps under a colorful new operating system called Windows RT.
But underneath all that beats the heart of a Windows personal computer, especially when you add its optional, $130 Type Cover keyboard and use its built-in versions of Microsoft Word, Excel and Powerpoint. Maybe it's best thought of as a sleekly stripped-down PC with extra tablet features thrown in.
While multifunction color tablets get all the attention these days, there's still a role for the humble monochrome e-reader among, you know, readers. The class of the field here is Amazon's new Kindle Paperwhite ($119-$199), which uses a built-in light, improved contrast and higher resolution to create a more book-like experience, even in a dark room.
The Kindle Paperwhite gives you access to the best selection of e-books, extras like the Lending Library for Prime members and eight weeks of battery life between charges. Splurge for the $179 ($199 without ads) model, with its free lifetime 3G service, and your recipients will silently thank you every time they're stuck on an airport tarmac with nothing to read.