A little over a year ago there was the iPad… and then far, far behind, there was everything else. Today, the tablet marketplace is all but littered with viable options for every kind of user, and choosing a slab can be dizzying for anyone who doesn't spend their day reading tech blogs. To make gift shopping less of a headache, here's The Week's rundown of your tablet-buying options:
MICROSOFT SURFACE RT
Base price: $500 for the 32GB model
The rundown: The Surface is Microsoft's long-awaited foray into the tablet world. It runs a glitzy version of the software maker's new user-interface, Windows RT, which emphasizes customizable tiles to launch your applications instead of the traditional icons you see on iPhones or Androids. Also big: Its removable keyboard flap, which in theory allows the device to pull double-duty as a laptop-like workstation. Unlike devices powered by iOS or Android, the Surface RT can easily run Office applications like Word or Excel.
What to like: A beautifully innovative user-interface. Full-blown Microsoft Office apps. Great battery life. You can type on a physical keyboard.
What not to like: The much-hyped keyboard cover is an expensive add-on ($100). Thin selection of Windows apps. Software is still buggy.
Consider buying this for: Microsoft Office power users. Anyone who wants a fully realized tablet but not an iPad.
More reviews: The Verge, Wired, TechCrunch
Base price: $500 for the 16GB WiFi-only version
The rundown: Apple quietly gave its flagship tablet, the fourth-generation iPad, some under-the-hood improvements when it announced its holiday product lineup at the end of October. The full-sized iPad's biggest sell is its 9.7-inch Retina display, which packs pixels so tightly they're invisible to the naked eye. The iPad runs a snappy A6X processor that's even better than the chip powering the iPhone 5, ensuring that even the clunkiest applications load relatively quickly. Also new: A front-facing HD camera for less-pixelated FaceTime sessions with loved ones. All things considered, the iPad is still the "gold standard" for tablets, says The Verge.
What to like: Critics call the iOS App Store "best in class." Retina display sets the bar in terms of screen quality.
What not to like: High starting price tag (especially if you want access to the speedy LTE network). The Lightning connector still doesn't have a lot of support from third-party accessory makers. Relatively heavy compared to newer, lighter slabs.
Consider buying this for: Any iPhone fan. TV, movie, or gaming buffs who would appreciate the ultra-sharp screen. Family members on the other side of the country you want to FaceTime with.
More reviews: CNET, Engadget
AMAZON'S KINDLE FIRE HD
Base price: $199 WiFi-only
The rundown: The Kindle Fire HD is a media-consuming machine. It improves on the game-changing original model with a new high-definition display and Dolby stereo speakers. Although it's running on a re-tinkered version of Android, users can tap into Amazon's impressive ecosystem of videos, music, and Kindle books. You may be asking: Why is it so cheap? The company actually loses money on each model sold, but considers the loss a strategic investment by putting a take-anywhere portal to Amazon's diverse product offerings in the hands of users. Each Kindle Fire comes with a free month of Amazon Prime, which lets users access the Kindle Lending Library (180,000 titles, including Harry Potter), Prime Instant Video (think Netflix), and gives users free two-day shipping on physical goods.
What to like: It's really cheap. Great WiFi connectivity. Robust content ecosystem (especially books). A month of Amazon Prime for free.
What not to like: Web browsing isn't the best. No native read-it-later feature. No default camera app. Free Amazon Prime only lasts a month.
Consider buying this for: Anyone not locked into iOS or Android. And Grandma.
More reviews: Laptop Mag, NBC News
BARNES & NOBLE NOOK HD
Base price: $199 for the 8GB version
The rundown: The brick-and-mortar bookseller's 7-incher comes in two colors (gray and white), and boasts "the best screen" of any budget-edition tablet to date, says The Verge. It's a little more reader-friendly than the Kindle Fire HD thanks to its wide bezels, lighter weight, and comfortable curves — complete with a rubber backing. However, more than one critic has pointed out that its software is unpolished compared to competitors.
What to like: Best tiny screen on the market. It's really cheap. Lighter than the Kindle Fire. Book selection rivals Amazon's.
What not to like: Software is still extremely buggy. Video-streaming service is still small compared to Amazon's. No camera.
Consider buying this for: The bookworm in your life who doesn't own a Kindle.
More reviews: The Verge, SlashGear
GOOGLE NEXUS 7
Base price: $200 for the 16GB model
The rundown: "Out of all the cheap 7-inch tablets, Google's Nexus 7 has the largest app store, the best web browser (Chrome), and the smoothest software," says TIME. Unlike the Kindle Fire or the Nook, Google partnered directly with Asus to ensure the pair turned out a premiere device free from the usual bugs that result from Android fragmentation. This is the go-to tablet for any Android user.
What to like: Best app selection for Android owners. Smooth interface. Great screen. Great price. Feels polished.
What not to like: Desktop-optimized websites can get laggy, not a lot of storage for space-gobbling media (like games)
Consider buying this for: Any Android user. Someone who spends a lot of time traveling.
More reviews: CNET, Engadget, TIME
Base price: $329 for 16GB WiFi-only
The rundown: Apple never wanted to release a 7-inch tablet; instead, the famously stubborn company released an 8-inch model. The iPad Mini trades the computing power and screen sharpness of its big brother for a re-imagined compact body that, at only 0.68 pounds, is lightweight enough to hold in one hand for long periods of time. Unlike a full-sized iPad (and even its small-tablet competition), you'll be able to individually pick out pixels. On the upside, you'll have access to Apple's unrivaled selection of apps and content. "If you love the iPad, or want one but just found it too large or heavy, the iPad Mini is the perfect solution," says Walt Mossberg at All Things D. It's basically the iPad 2 made more portable.
What to like: Best content ecosystem on the market. Physical design is the best of all the small tablets.
What not to like: It's a whole $130 more than the Nexus 7 or Kindle Fire HD. Screen isn't the sharpest.
Consider buying this for: Anyone who considers the full-sized iPad too big. The Apple die-hard in your life.
More reviews: All Things D, NBC News, Wired