Engadget's tablet buyer's guide: spring 2012 edition

As spring reaches full blossom, it's not just the flowers that are beginning to show -- so are the new slates heavy hitters teased back at CES. So, what does that mean? It means it's high-time that we cast a fresh glance over the tablet landscape, took in a deep breath of slate-infused air and exhaled a hearty Engadget tablet buyer's guide. We've been running the smartphone equivalent for a little while now, so we thought it only fair to give the now-mature tablet category one of its own. We're going to look at the main categories of fondleslabbery and carve out what we think are the finest offerings on the market right now. It doesn't matter if you're looking for something big, small, just good enough or so powerful that it could replace your laptop: we've collected our favorites and shepherded them safely into this one humble guide. Of course, if you want to cast your net a little wider, you can always check out our tablet review hub, but if you struggle with indecision, head on past the break to see what's hot right now in Tablet Land.

10-inch tablets

Asus Transformer Prime

When the Transformer Prime landed on our laps at the tail end of last year, it's fair to say we were smitten. It quickly took its place at the top of the Android tablet pile and months later, it's still a strong contender. Though its main selling point would seem to be the signature keyboard dock, it's actually the generous built-in storage (32GB and up), solid build quality, 8-megapixel camera and 600-nit, IPS display that won us over. Though GPS issues have cast a small shadow over an otherwise great product, ASUS has attempted to make amends in the form of an external dongle. If you're not in a hurry to buy, you might as well wait for the Infinity Pad 700, which ushers in a higher-res 1920 x 1200 display and your choice of a Tegra 3 or Krait chip. Another alternative to the Prime is the new, budget-friendly TF300 ($380 and up), a slightly heavier slightly less longevous model that still manages to do the Transformer name proud.

The new iPad

No surprise to see this fella on the list. While it might not have been the first tablet computer, Apple's iPad certainly breathed life into a category that had previously found success in the business world and certain niche markets. Be warned that the latest version runs a little hot, but that doesn't detract from the fact that it has a mind-melting 2048 x 1536 screen, new and improved A5 chip, quad-core graphics and, of course, superb app and accessory support. If Apple's latest and greatest pushes your budget to the limit, its predecessor is still a decent slab of tech that can now be snapped up for a more reasonable $399.

Acer Iconia A510

If you live and die by the numbers, then maybe Acer's Iconia A510 will push your (virtual) buttons. We only just reviewed this speedy little slate, and found its quad-core, Tegra-3-fueled engine purred along sweetly in our benchmarks. Beyond the solid processing stats, the A510 ticks off lots of key checkboxes on shoppers' lists. Ice Cream Sandwich? Yep. A 10-inch form factor? You got it. Good enough resolution (1280 x 800)? Indeedy. And a reasonable price ($450)? We think so. Acer will be keen to claim some space in the tablet market, and we think this is a solid flag in the ground.

7-inch tablets

Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.7

If you fancy Samsung's industrial design, but prefer something a little easier to hold, you might want to treat your fingers to the Galaxy Tab 7.7 instead. We pretty much declared it the best 7-inch tablet in our review, and our feelings haven't changed. The epic battery life, brilliant S AMOLED Plus screen and lively dual-core, 1.4GHz Exynos engine make this an Android tour de force. This quality does come at a price, however, and it's not a metaphorical one. If you want top spec, be prepared to pay top price, with the global HSPA+ version of the 7.7 pinching roughly 6.6 Benjamins, especially if you import it.

Kindle Fire

If the price of the Galaxy Tab 7.7 makes your eyes water, why not dry them off next to the Kindle Fire? Amazon's success with its e-reader line plumped the pillows nicely for the introduction of a more capable member to the company's hardware family. The specs won't, ahem, start any fires, but the humble 1GHz dual-core chip, 512MB of RAM and 8GB internal storage are made up for by that $199 price tag. Naturally, it's got Amazon's services running through its veins, which means easy access to e-books, music and more. This all assumes you don't mind living in a cordoned-off garden of the Android palace; it's a heavily customized version of the platform, which rules out access to Google's own Play store. That said, if you want a tab mainly for consuming content, and like the rattle of some change in your pocket, the Kindle Fire is one of your best bets.

Nook Tablet

Amazon wasn't the only e-reader maker that thought it could crack the tablet market. Barnes & Noble trotted out the Nook tablet and took its book-loving rivals head-on. A similar size and price tag make it hard not to compare this against Amazon's juiced-up Kindle. In brief, the strong points are that it's a little less restrictive on the software front, letting you step out of the walled garden, and we also found the 1024 x 600 display is better for video watching. Plus, there's a memory card slot for expanding the storage. All that will cost you $199 (down from $250!) -- a small price to pay if a little flexibility is what you're after.

3G / 4G tablets

For those of you who a slate coupled with always-on internet, a 3G or 4G option might be worth the investment. In the US, at least, they typically require a two-year contract, which will hardly be a good fit for everyone. It should go without saying, but read your local carrier's fine print before taking the plunge.

Verizon Galaxy Tab 7.7

This is our second mention of Samsung's 7-inch tablet, and this time it comes bearing Big Red's LTE logo. We still love it for all the same reasons and, incredibly, Verizon's 4G service doesn't put a dent in its impossibly long runtime. The only drawback, as ever, is the price. In addition to $500 for the hardware, Verizon wants two years of your life and a data fee paid on time each month. As we alluded to, there's also a global HSPA+ version for use on other networks, if you don't mind paying an extra 200 smackers or so for the privilege.

iPad 4G

More familiar territory here: Apple, too, is making a second cameo on this list. The iPad has, of course, been available with 3G since it first hustled its way into our lives two ago. Now in its third iteration, you can gulp them bits down over 4G / LTE, rather than sip from the same old 3G mug. Other than that, it's more of the same, but if you love the look of that screen, and can't bear to be offline, then this is the one for you.

T-mobile Springboard

When Huawei's MediaPad turned up on American shores in T-Mobile livery, it did so on the crest of a 7-inch tablet wave (Acer's Iconia Tab A100 and Samsung's Galaxy Tab Plus 7.0 were just hitting the market as well). Despite this, we described it as "speedy, well-built and longevous," with the added bonus of T-Mobile's 14.4Mbps HSPA+ network. With a dual-core 1.2GHz processor, 8GB of built-in storage and 1280 x 800 IPS display, the specs are reasonable, with price – once again – being the only major cloud. T-Mobile is asking for $250 and 24 months on contract, which will exceed most people's cost to need threshold. However, if you don't mind paying $430 for the unsubsidized hardware and buying pay-as-you-go data packages instead, then it could still be a contender for your mobile internet affections.

Budget

Kindle Fire

When Jeff Bezos and the team at Amazon were planning their debut into the tablet world, the final price was undoubtedly of the utmost importance. Landing at $199, the Kindle Fire was pitched just right for those who didn't want to spring for something a little more spec-heavy. But, and perhaps most importantly, this isn't just another cheap tablet. Amazon's robust catalog of books, music and apps make this 7 inches of pocket-friendly joy.

Nook Tablet

Like the Kindle Fire, the Nook Tablet is worthy of mention as a 7-inch tablet, but that $199 price tag means it deserves a place on more budget-conscious shoppers' radar, in particular. If you were worried about the tablet's skimpy internal storage, you needn't be. And besides, if the built-in 8GB of space isn't enough, the expandable memory can solve any latent concerns for just a few more bucks. Also worth noting is the unique design, which (mentioning no names) will appeal to those who don't want their slate confused with any of its competition.

Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 (7.0)

If the Galaxy Tab 7.7 whetted your tablet appetite, but the hefty price tag dampened your spirits, all is not lost. The Galaxy Tab 2 7.0 offers up a great ICS experience, but without the balk-inducing cost. In our review, we found the dual-core 1GHz TI OMAP chip handles the latest version of Android just fine, and the good-enough 1024 x 600 LCD display is the same one used on the more premium Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus. While this might not offer the same tightly integrated ecosystem as a Kindle Fire, this $250 slate is unbeatable if what you really want is a low-cost tablet running the latest version of Android.

Acer Iconia A200

If you want hang out with the big (screen) boys, but still keep on the right side of the $350 fence, then Acer's Iconia Tab A200 is worth more than just a cursory glance. This 10-incher's 1280 x 800 display and dual-core 1GHz Tegra 2 SoC won't have your hairs standing on end, but it will put Android 4.0 into your hands, while keeping the coffers relatively unharmed.

While we've done our best to compare popular tablet choices, we understand you too may have a favorite that's not mentioned here. If so, feel free to represent it in comments below, tell us why you love it, and perhaps you'll see it here next time!