Three months is a long time in tablet-land, it seems. Since we last brought you a buyer's guide, a few things have changed. In fact, this is probably the biggest shake-up yet, with not only the long-rumored iPad mini making an appearance, but also new offerings from two other big guns -- Microsoft and Google. Oh, and that means there's a whole new species of device altogether. With Windows RT finally shipping, there's new hardware to go with it, and we expect to see more popping up on the list in the months to come. This is all good news for you prospective tablet owners, as more competition can only mean more choice. With more options, though, comes more confusion. That's where we come in, armed with a few notable picks. Read on to find out what made the cut this season.
No, it's not the new iPad. It's the newest iPad. Or, to avoid any confusion, the fourth-generation iPad. Whatever you want to call it, it was a pleasant -- and wholly unexpected -- surprise to see the still relatively young Retina tablet get a refresh. What's new? Well, mainly that A6X processor, which blew our socks off when we tested it, but there's also an improved front-facing camera, and that tiny little Lightning port. Battery life is longer than before, to boot. Fortunately, this fourth-gen iPad costs the same as the previous iteration. That's great news -- unless you just bought the old "new iPad," that is.
When Microsoft announced the Surface for Windows RT tablet, Windows fans took a collective gasp of excitement. In addition to this version of Windows, tailored for ARM-powered devices, prospective buyers will enjoy a minimum of 32GB of storage, an optically bonded, 10.6-inch, 1,366 x 768 display and some solid in / out options (full USB, SD card reader, HD video out). The apps available might not reach the same levels of the competition just yet, but with most of Microsoft's big hitters (Word, Excel, SkyDrive, Internet Explorer) pre-installed, and with more and more big titles coming to the platform every week, this won't be an issue for long. In fact, if you're already on board with Surface for Windows RT, the biggest problem is likely what color Touch Cover keyboard you might want to treat yourself to.
The third big name to launch a new slate in almost as many weeks? That'd be our friends at Mountain View. If there is a tablet-making rulebook, please don't ever send one to Google. What does the new Nexus 10 have to say for itself? New OS? Check, 1.7GHz processor? Yup. Mind-melting 2,560 x 1,600 resolution -- oh lordy. It's real, and it's here. Well, almost. You'll have to wait just a few more days until the official November 13th release, but once that date rolls around, you can get yourself a whole lotta tablet for a not-unreasonable amount of money.
ASUS clearly created a winning formula with its Transformer Pad series of dockable tablets, with at least one making an appearance in every tablet buyer's guide we've published. The TF700 stands on the shoulders of its predecessor, jacking up all the key specs. The quad-core Tegra 3 chip now purrs along at 1.6GHz (and up to 1.7GHz with single-core performance); the resolution jumps from 1,280 x 800 to 1,920 x 1,200; and a little design tweaking promises to sidestep any antenna issues. So, good news all-round? Definitely. So much so that it remains one of the top Android slates out there.
When Google rolls into tablet town, you know the rest of the market takes a collective inward-breath. The Nexus 7 made a splashy debut at the company's opening I/O keynote, setting nerds' hearts aflutter the world over. The Nexus 7 has been a huge success, and the family continues to grow. With the 8GB version banished, you can snap up this 32GB varient for the same price as the original 16GB edition. With a 1.2GHz quad-core Tegra 3 chip, 1GB of RAM and that 32GB of storage, this isn't all that different from some of its larger and more expensive competitors. Add in the latest version of Jelly Bean with all its buttery-smooth performance and Google Now goodness, and you've got one formidable package.
Apple was a long time coming to the 7-inch(ish) party, that's for sure. However, when it finally showed up, naturally it did so in its own inimitable style. That means an extra 0.9 inches on the screen size of its peers, front and rear cameras (a relative rarity on tablets this price) and 16- 3- and 64GB storage options. That 7.9-inch display has a 1,024 x 768 resolution and, while the chipset isn't quad-core as on the Nexus 7, that dual-core A5 SoC still delivers smooth performance. A new size also means a new price point and, as you might expect, it's not the cheapest in its class. But if you fancy iOS, or just don't need any additional screen real estate, you can get in on the game from $329.
Barnes & Noble lost its place in the 7-inch tablet section when certain other big players entered the market, but new hardware means another bite of the cherry. The Nook HD is definitely new, and in almost every regard. Taking a quick tour of its feature list, you'll find a new design, a 1,440 x 900 display, a faster processor (1.3GHz, dual-core TI OMAP) and a fresher operating system, based on Android 4.0. Even better, it has a new, lower price: $199 for 8GB, and $229 for the 16GB model. If you're looking for a tablet with UI design language that stands out from the much of the Android / iOS crowd the Nook HD offers individuality in spades.
The OG Kindle Fire had been a mainstay in our tablet buyer's guide, greedily hogging not one, but two spots in total. And while that unbroken spell comes to an end this time around, it's only due to being replaced by newer members of Amazon's tablet lineup. The 7-inch Kindle Fire HD sports an improved display (now 1,280 x 800), thinner form factor, HDMI output and 16GB of storage all for a Nexus 7-bothering $200. As before, one of the main selling points here is access to media, but the tradeoff means committing to Amazon's interpretation of Android. If the walled app garden doesn't put you off, then this is a close contender for king of the hill among its contemporaries.
3G / 4G tablets
For those of you who want a slate coupled with always-on internet, a 3G or 4G option might be worth the investment. Though tablets used to be sold subsidized on two-year contracts, just like phones, we're increasingly seeing them offered without contracts. For instance, many are available on month-to-month, no-strings-attached terms. In some cases, it's also possible to add a tablet to your current smartphone plan for a small fee per month, with the option of sharing data between the two devices. It should go without saying, but be sure to read your carrier's fine print before taking the plunge.
One charge that can never be levied against Apple is that it takes its sweet time to bring its cellular models up to date. As soon as there's a refresh, it's available in all colors and memory configurations. This means that with the announcement of the fourth-generation iPad, those with 4G data requirements got a new tablet to consider. Fortunately for you, there's not all that much to think about: same great Retina display, a swanky new processor, a better front-facing camera and a new, smaller connection port. It seems the only thing to consider is which network to go with -- Sprint, AT&T and Verizon will all happily take your monthly subscription fees.
Now that Apple's portfolio of tablets has been augmented, you lucky folk get another WiFi + cellular tablet option. Needless to say, if you've eyed-up the fourth generation iPad as a possible option, this might be on your radar too, especially with support for the same networks (Sprint, Verizon, AT&T). While it might not pack the same processing punch as its bigger brother, you're still getting a whole lot of (little) tablet, all in Apple's now familiar range of options. Want to ride the airwaves on the good ship Cupertino, but not a fan of the larger form factor? This guy's got your back.
Apple's intention to take a bite out of Google's (and everyone else's) 7-inch pie was well-known in advance. What was kept a little more under wraps, though, was Mountain View's debut into the WiFi and cellular tablet world. The Nexus 7 gets an HSPA+ refresh, and 32GB of memory along with it. It's more of the same Nexus magic that we've come to know and love, but now with data-anywhere smarts. If you're into the idea, but not ready to commit to a cellular plan just yet, this is ideal, as Google will sell you one without having to sign on any dotted lines. How much for a table at the BYOS (Bring Your Own SIM) diner? That'll be $299.
While Samsung's smaller tablets might be playing catch up with the competition, the Galaxy Tab 7.7 is still worth a look if you fancy some of Big Red's LTE on the go. While the specification isn't horribly dated, the price is still a little high, even having recently dropped by $150. That said, we're still amazed that Verizon's 4G service doesn't put a dent in its impossibly long runtime. Previously, Verizon wanted two years of your life and a data fee paid on time each month, now, however you get a monthly plan, but no subsidy on the hardware. 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.
It's really no surprise that the WiFi-only Nexus 7 has found its way into two categories of our tablet buyer's guide. While the only difference between the two versions is the choice between 16GB and (the recently launched) 32GB of storage, that sub-$200 price makes the smaller capacity model a veritable bargain. The Nexus rolls the Kindle Fire 2012 over in some key areas -- just look at those specs we've laid out above. Amazon's trump card has always been content, but with Google also gaining momentum in this exact area, Jelly Beans never tasted so good.
When the Kindle Fire first bounded into our lives, it was a simpler time. Just one model meant fewer options, but we loved it all the same. In the fall of 2012, however, it's a totally different story. There are different sizes, specifications and not to mention a totally revamped base model, which is what we're looking at here. The processor bumps from 1GHz to 1.2GHz. There's double the RAM along with boasts of better battery life and slicker performance to boot. Best of all, it'll only run you $159, which, we imagine, will have even the most cautious of pockets smiling, especially those with a keen appreciation of content.
If the 4G Galaxy Tab 7.7 whetted your Korean-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 groan-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 1,024 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, or the simplistic appeal of the Nexus 7, the $250 slate is still great if what you really want is a low-cost tablet running Ice Cream Sandwich.
What's got a 9-inch screen, has a 1,920 x 1,280 resolution, runs a 1.5 GHz OMAP dual-core processor and only wants 270 of your hard-earned dollars? The Nook HD+, that's what. Keen to make sure
bitter rivals fellow book seller Amazon didn't hog all the new cheap-and-media-friendly glory, Barnes & Noble is back with this bigger, bolder stab at the tablet market, but is still very much hoping to keep fans of reading on its side. The 6,000mAh battery claims to offer 10 hours of continuous reading, while microSD and HDMI connectivity mean your storage and viewing options aren't limited. As with the Kindle Fire, you're buying into an ecosystem here, but if you're less concerned with the how (OS), and more into the what (content), then this is a lot of slate for not a lot of dollars.
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 call it out it in the comments below. Tell us why you love it and perhaps you'll see it here next time!