DNP Engadget's tablet buyer's guide spring 2013 edition

Much like bears, tablet designers are coming out of hibernation: there have been a handful of noteworthy models reaching the wild after a few months of silence. Most of these are the Windows 8- and RT-based tablets that didn't quite make the cut for the holidays, and we're launching our 2013 spring tablet buyer's guide with a dedicated Windows section to accommodate a distinct and rapidly filling category. Just be careful before you commit to a purchase, wherever your allegiances lie: Mobile World Congress brought us tablets that haven't quite shipped yet, like the FonePad and Galaxy Note 8.0. (We've included a heads-up in those situations where waiting a few weeks, or months, may be wisest.) As chaotic as spring can be, our guide might just provide some kind of stability if you're shopping for your next slate.

10-inch tablets

Apple iPad (late 2012)

Engadget's tablet buyer's guide spring 2013 edition

The fourth-generation iPad may be a refresh with a faster processor, a better front camera and a Lightning connector, but that doesn't change the fact that it's a frequent de facto pick among 10-inch tablets. That A6X chip still puts it at or near the front of the pack for overall performance. Battery life is better than the previous generation, and there's a deep well of tablet-native apps to draw from. As long as you can accept having to buy proprietary Lightning-based accessories, the iPad is the simple choice.

The bottom line: A mild refresh, but one that ticks many of the right boxes.

Key specs: 1.4GHz dual-core A6X processor, 1GB of RAM, 16GB to 128GB of storage, 1.2-megapixel front and 5-megapixel rear cameras, 9.7-inch (2,048 x 1,536) display.

Price: $499 and up

Google Nexus 10

Engadget's tablet buyer's guide spring 2013 edition

The Nexus 10 isn't quite the wunderkind some suspected it might be, but it's still the definition of bang for the buck. The Samsung-made design still has the highest resolution of any shipping tablet and a speedy (if imperfect) Exynos 5 Dual processor, all while costing the same $399 as noticeably less-sophisticated alternatives. It's also the ultimate expression of Google's tablet vision in running Android 4.2, with the promise of timely updates for a long while.

The bottom line: Arguably the most technically advanced Android tablet, at a killer price.

Key specs: 1.7GHz dual-core Exynos 5 Dual, 2GB of RAM, 16GB or 32GB of storage, 1.9-megapixel front and 5-megapixel rear cameras, 10.1-inch (2,560 x 1,600) display.

Price: $399 and up

ASUS Transformer Pad Infinity TF700

Engadget's tablet buyer's guide spring 2013 edition

There's no doubting that the Transformer Pad Infinity is near the end of its lifecycle. Still, it remains one of the better deals between its 32GB of storage, better-than-HD display and that optional keyboard dock for blazing through long email messages. Just as importantly, ASUS has a largely solid track record in delivering OS updates that keep its devices relatively current.

The bottom line: ASUS' best non-Nexus tablet, and one of the best dockable tablets.

Key specs: 1.6GHz quad-core Tegra 3, 1GB of RAM, 32GB or 64GB of storage, 2-megapixel front and 8-megapixel rear cameras, 10.1-inch (1,920 x 1,200) display.

Price: $499 and up

7- and 8-inch tablets

Google Nexus 7 (32GB)

Engadget's tablet buyer's guide spring 2013 edition

The Nexus 7 remains the best pound-for-pound deal among small tablets, if not the entire tablet category. The $249 model here carries 32GB inside where more expensive competition starts with 16GB. There are tablets that cost twice as much which don't offer as much value. If you don't mind the slightly creaky 1.2GHz Tegra 3 and the lack of a rear camera, you'll get a slate that can keep up with the latest apps while keeping your bank account above water. Just be aware that Google I/O 2013 arrives in May, and might bring a spring surprise.

The bottom line: Exceptional value for the money, full stop.

Key specs: 1.2GHz quad-core Tegra 3, 1GB of RAM, 32GB of storage, 1.2-megapixel front camera, 7-inch (1,280 x 800) display.

Price: $249

Apple iPad mini

Engadget's tablet buyer's guide spring 2013 edition

The iPad mini isn't the performance champion on a spec sheet. The 2011-era (but tweaked) A5 chip, 1,024 x 768 display and $329 base price create an uphill battle against the cheaper, sharper and theoretically faster Nexus 7. But if you don't mind ceding ground on the value front, the iPad mini is a fine choice with its bigger 7.9-inch screen, good real-world performance, solid rear camera and the widest selection of tablet-native apps. It's also one of the few tablets in the category with an option for 64GB of built-in storage, which may tip the balance for music and movie aficionados.

The bottom line: Nearly everything you like about the iPad in a smaller, cheaper form.

Key specs: 1GHz dual-core A5, 512MB of RAM, 16GB to 64GB of storage, 1.2-megapixel front and 5-megapixel rear cameras, 7.9-inch (1,024 x 768) display.

Price: $329 and up

Amazon Kindle Fire HD (7-inch)

Engadget's tablet buyer's guide spring 2013 edition

Although the 7-inch Kindle Fire HD no longer claims the title of absolute best bargain among modern tablets when the late-2012 Nexus 7 matches or slightly edges it in most respects, and the Nook HD trumps it in resolution, it's still worthy of being on the short list. Anyone who's heavily invested in Amazon's e-book and video shops will be well-served with comparable hardware. There are also extras like HDMI output or Kindle FreeTime that aren't available on Google's official device. Just be prepared to live within Amazon's narrowly prescribed software boundaries.

The bottom line: The quintessential tablet for fans of Amazon's media universe.

Key specs: 1.2GHz dual-core TI OMAP 4460, 1GB of RAM, 16GB or 32GB of storage, "HD" front camera, 7-inch (1,280 x 800) display.

Price: $199 and up

Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0

Engadget's tablet buyer's guide spring 2013 edition

Last year's Galaxy Note 10.1 wasn't so much a digital notepad as it was a canvas -- and like a real canvas, the size and price weren't to the tastes of every budding artist. The Galaxy Note 8.0 strikes a somewhat better balance between its larger cousin and the Galaxy Note II while throwing in tricks that neither has, such as TV remote control and personal organization through Awesome Note. It's even a phone, if you buy the right variant in the right country. The pricing is the only major turnoff: $399 US is a lot to pay for a small tablet. Still, it's a rare blend of pen input, solid performance and a small size.

Key specs: 1.6GHz quad-core Exynos 4 Quad, 2GB of RAM, 16GB of storage, 1.3-megapixel front and 5-megapixel rear cameras, 8-inch (1,280 x 800) display.

The bottom line: One of the most expensive small tablets, but also uniquely well-suited to those who want a sketchbook for the 21st century.

Price: $399

Windows tablets

Microsoft wants us to think of Windows tablets as full PCs that just happen to lack built-in keyboards. That's partly marketing bluster, but there's no denying that Windows 8 and Windows RT slates often differ sharply from the rest of the crowd: bigger screens, laptop-grade processors and docking stations are more common. Many of them could be your only portable computer and have the prices to match, so we're putting Windows tablets in their own category to acknowledge that there isn't a complete overlap with the rest of the pack.

Microsoft Surface Pro

Engadget's tablet buyer's guide spring 2013 edition

The Surface Pro is the definitive Windows tablet in the literal sense of the word -- it's the highest-end system designed by Microsoft itself. And that's really why we're including it here. While it occupies a sometimes uncomfortable middle ground between smaller, longer-running mobile tablets and more expandable Ultrabooks, it's also the ultimate expression of Microsoft's vision with its clean design, fast Core i5 processor, 1080p screen and pen input. Just be sure to consider the 128GB model, as the 64GB version leaves little breathing room without buying a microSD card.

The bottom line: The official Windows 8 tablet, and one of the most powerful.

Key specs: 1.7GHz dual-core Core i5, 4GB of RAM, 64GB or 128GB of storage, 720p front and rear cameras, 10.6-inch (1,920 x 1,080) display.

Price: $899 and up

Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2

Engadget's tablet buyer's guide spring 2013 edition

If there's a sweet spot among Windows tablets, Lenovo may have found it with the ThinkPad Tablet 2. It's not the fastest, nor is it the cheapest. However, it manages to offer exceptional battery life and truly portable design while maintaining full compatibility with legacy Windows apps, which is almost everything you'd ask from a Windows 8 slate in the first place. The second-generation design can also adapt to your exact needs with options for pen support, 4G data, a Bluetooth keyboard dock and a full docking station. As long as you don't need raw performance or a high-resolution screen, your search for an ideal middle ground may well stop here.

The bottom line: Possibly the best-balanced Windows tablet.

Key specs: 1.8GHz dual-core Atom, 2GB of RAM, 32GB or 64GB of storage, 2-megapixel front and 8-megapixel rear cameras, 10.1-inch (1,366 x 768) display.

Price: $579 and up

ASUS VivoTab Smart

Engadget's tablet buyer's guide spring 2013 edition

We enjoyed the lightweight, comfortable design and solid camera quality of the VivoTab RT, but we weren't as keen on leaving all our conventional Windows apps behind; even ASUS' distinctive keyboard dock left us a bit cold. The VivoTab Smart tackles most of those problems in one fell swoop while preserving much of what we enjoyed from its Windows RT cousin. Switching to an Atom CPU brings legacy compatibility without too much of a hit to battery life, and its keyboard add-on is ultimately more practical in our minds. While you can find both the VivoTab Smart and VivoTab RT going for similar prices these days, we'd pick the Smart without question -- you lose a little in the move from an ARM to an Atom processor, but mostly gain a lot.

The bottom line: Like ASUS' Windows RT tablet, but with some key weaknesses ironed out.

Key specs: 1.8GHz dual-core Atom, 2GB of RAM, 64GB of storage, 2-megapixel front and 8-megapixel rear cameras, 10.1-inch (1,366 x 768) display.

Price: $499

3G / 4G tablets

It's hard to resist the call of the outdoors on a beautiful spring day, but that usually means giving up a big screen and a constant internet connection. What to do? The solution may be a cellular tablet, and there's thankfully one from virtually every major device maker and platform. Plans are diverse as well, ranging from add-ons for existing service to prepaid plans that should last just long enough for an extended trip to Maui. While there's often some premium to be paid for either the device or its data roaming (on locked models), it may be worth the cost to skip packing a big, heavy laptop for that upcoming vacation.

Apple iPad (WiFi + Cellular, late 2012)

Engadget's tablet buyer's guide spring 2013 edition

Apple got us in the habit of expecting cellular tablets that come without commitments, and the fourth-generation iPad helps justify that route. If you can accept paying $129 beyond the norm to get that extra dash of wireless, the iPad supplies LTE-based 4G on key networks, and EV-DO or HSPA+ 3G elsewhere, without tying the hardware to a contract or even a carrier. GPS comes along with the upgrade. Some credit is due to Apple for offering a full model selection as well -- every capacity and color of WiFi model has a cellular equivalent, so you can swing a 128GB 4G model if you need weeks' worth of music and videos. Choose carefully when you buy in the US, however, as getting the AT&T or Sprint / Verizon models will dictate just where 4G kicks in while abroad.

The bottom line: Everything you know from the iPad, with LTE on top.

Key specs: 1.4GHz dual-core A6X, 16GB to 128GB of storage, 1.2-megapixel front and 5-megapixel rear cameras, 9.7-inch (2,048 x 1,536) display, unlocked LTE / EV-DO / HSPA+ data.

Price: $629 and up

Apple iPad mini (WiFi + Cellular)

Engadget's tablet buyer's guide spring 2013 edition

Second verse, same as the first... only smaller. The cellular version of the iPad mini is noteworthy precisely because it maintains all the color options, LTE access and GPS of its bigger counterpart; the only limitation is the absence of a 128GB model, but that capacity isn't as valuable in this category. The strategy leaves the iPad mini as one of the few tablets in the class that can hop on the 4G networks of AT&T, Sprint and Verizon in the US without having to sign an agreement. The iPad mini's $459 minimum price will no doubt be a hurdle for some, but it's the most affordable way to globetrot with an Apple tablet.

The bottom line: One of the most popular LTE tablets, in bite-sized form.

Key specs: 1GHz dual-core A5, 512MB of RAM, 16GB to 64GB of storage, 1.2-megapixel front and 5-megapixel rear cameras, 7.9-inch (1,024 x 768) display, unlocked LTE / EV-DO / HSPA+ data.

Price: $459 and up

Google Nexus 7 (HSPA+)

Engadget's tablet buyer's guide spring 2013 edition

The HSPA+ Nexus 7 follows a strategy similar to that of its WiFi counterpart: cut a small amount of the feature set to cut a lot from the price. At $299, it won't have LTE 4G, EV-DO 3G or a rear camera. What it will do, though, is put a cellular tablet within reach of customers who previously would have had to settle for short-range wireless. We'd equally note that it's a simple pick for T-Mobile customers who want unlocked 3G at home and around the world. Just remember that Google I/O may bring a refresh.

The bottom line: One of the most accessible 3G tablets -- and it happens to be very good, too.

Key specs: 1.2GHz quad-core Tegra 3, 1GB of RAM, 32GB of storage, 1.2-megapixel front camera, 7-inch (1,280 x 800) display, unlocked HSPA+ data.

Price: $299

Amazon Kindle Fire HD 8.9 LTE

Engadget's tablet buyer's guide spring 2013 edition

Kindle Fire fans no longer have to be tethered to keep up with their Instant Video streaming. Buy a Kindle Fire HD 8.9 LTE and there's much more freedom in store with contract-free 3G and 4G. Its true appeal may be the cellular plan structure -- there's conventional data service, sure, but owners just have to drop $50 per year to get 250MB of data a month for when all they need is to check mail and browse the occasional website. Starting at $399, it's a relative steal for larger cellular tablets, and it's the only Kindle Fire with a 64GB capacity as an option.

The bottom line: Amazon's ultimate tablet, and cheap if you need basic data.

Key specs: 1.5GHz dual-core TI OMAP 4470, 1GB of RAM, 32GB or 64GB of storage, "HD" front camera, 8.9-inch (1,920 x 1,200) display, LTE and HSPA+ data for AT&T.

Price: $399 and up

Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2 (LTE)

Engadget's tablet buyer's guide spring 2013 edition

Since the ThinkPad Tablet 2 is already on our short list, it's easy to choose its higher-end configuration as our pick for a cellular-ready Windows 8 tablet. You'll pay $270 more versus the WiFi-only 64GB model, but you'll get both AT&T-friendly LTE data and HSPA+ that will work across numerous countries. Lenovo throws in an upgrade to Windows 8 Pro, to boot -- this is one of the few tablets on the list that can easily join a corporate network domain. While it's unfortunate that the 4G ThinkPad loses NFC support, it's still the tablet we'd choose with an IT manager looking over our shoulders.

The bottom line: Possibly the most flexible Windows tablet on the market.

Key specs: 1.8GHz dual-core Atom, 2GB of RAM, 64GB of storage, 2-megapixel front and 8-megapixel rear cameras, 10.1-inch (1,366 x 768) display.

Price: $949

You might want to wait for...

ASUS FonePad

Engadget's tablet buyer's guide spring 2013 edition

No, not PadFone. FonePad. ASUS may not have simple naming schemes, but its imminent FonePad tablet is a standout both through its Intel Atom chip and its namesake role as a phone: you can whittle your portable device collection down to one, if that's your inclination. It even fixes a few quirks of the Nexus 7, improving the build quality and adding a microSD slot. The pricing tentatively makes the FonePad a great deal. We just wish ASUS would say for certain whether or not it's coming to the US.

Price: $249

Budget

Google Nexus 7 (16GB)

Engadget's tablet buyer's guide spring 2013 edition

Was there any surprise that the Nexus 7 would show up in the budget category? Dropping to $199 for 16GB of storage helps Google's reference tablet cross a psychological price barrier while giving up very little. It's still enough for virtually all our apps and books, as well as the occasional Google Play movie -- and it has the performance to keep up. The Nexus 7 isn't the lowest-cost tablet in its field these days, but it's arguably the most well-rounded. We just wonder what Google I/O might bring.

The bottom line: The best balance between a truly low price and future-ready hardware.

Key specs: 1.2GHz quad-core Tegra 3, 1GB of RAM, 16GB of storage, 1.2-megapixel front camera, 7-inch (1,280 x 800) display.

Price: $199

Amazon Kindle Fire (2012)

Engadget's tablet buyer's guide spring 2013 edition

There's still just one tablet on the market today that we'd choose if cost overrode nearly every other factor. Yes, Amazon's basic Kindle Fire is a warmed-up version of the original with a faster processor, twice the RAM and a bigger battery. However, we're willing to let the similarity slide when we don't need the latest in technology (or more than 8GB of storage) to stream Instant Video and read Kindle books. The savings coming from that $159 price can be rolled into the all-important Prime subscription.

The bottom line: One of the lowest-cost name-brand tablets, and Amazon's cheapest point of entry into its tablet lineup.

Key specs: 1.2GHz dual-core TI OMAP 4430, 1GB of RAM, 8GB of storage, 7-inch (1,024 x 600) display.

Price: $159

Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7.0

Engadget's tablet buyer's guide spring 2013 edition

While Samsung's Galaxy Tab 2 7.0 is certainly near the end of its time on shelves, it's seen enough price cuts that it's still worth consideration. It's neither the cheapest nor the most advanced, but it touts both front and rear cameras -- and how many other tablets can you buy in red? Those who like Samsung's TouchWiz interface on their phone might also appreciate having the same experience on a bigger screen without the price and wait involved with the Galaxy Note 8.0.

The bottom line: The budget tablet that goes with your Galaxy phone.

Key specs: 1GHz dual-core TI OMAP 4430, 1GB of RAM, 8GB to 32GB of storage, 0.3-megapixel front and 3-megapixel rear cameras, 7-inch (1,024 x 600) display.

Price: $179 and up

You might want to wait for...

HP Slate 7

Engadget's tablet buyer's guide spring 2013 edition

What's this? An HP tablet? No, you haven't entered a time warp back to spring 2011. As of April, the company is back on the mobile tablet scene with the budget-conscious Slate 7, and the dirty secret is that HP's first dedicated Android tablet is surprisingly accomplished. While it's slower and has a lower-resolution screen than the Nexus 7, it has better overall build quality, a rear camera and a microSD slot for $30 less. Just watch out for that five-hour battery life -- this may be a great fit for the coffee shop or a second screen in the living room, but it won't be with you the entire day.

Price: $169