Fall is the season of change, and tablet makers are embracing this concept with gusto -- Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and others have all refreshed their lineups. In many cases, , even, these refreshes are actually giant upgrades. The iPad mini finally has a Retina display, for example, while the Surface Pro 2 has the battery life we've wanted since day one. And prices are coming down quickly: Who'd have thought that we could buy a quad-core ASUS Windows 8 tablet for just $349? That's a lot of change to keep track of, but never fear. Whether you're doing some gift shopping or planning to treat yourself on Black Friday, we have recommendations for tablets in virtually every category.
Apple iPad Air
Apple played it safe with iPad designs in 2012, but it's clearly pulling out all the stops with its 2013 model. The iPad Air is one of the lightest full-size tablets on the market, weighing in at just one pound. It's also one of the fastest: Its dual-core A7 chip frequently outperforms quad-core rivals. Additionally, it ships with a full suite of productivity apps. On the downside, buyers may not like the proprietary Lightning connector or lack of expansion. Still, the new iPad should be ideal for gamers and anyone else who wants a big, fast device without the usual bulk.
The bottom line: A large tablet that doesn't sacrifice performance or portability.
Key specs: Dual-core A7 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, ships November 1st
Google Nexus 10
The Nexus 10 no longer has a display advantage, even among Samsung tablets. However, it arguably remains a better value than many other 10-inch Android tabs, including the Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014 edition). It's still inexpensive almost a year later, and its stock version of Android is more responsive than some of the custom interfaces we've seen lately. The software is also relatively future-proof: This tablet is one of the few running Android 4.3, and it's likely to get even more updates. While Google may refresh the Nexus 10 at any moment, we still wouldn't object to buying one today.
The bottom line: The Nexus 10 is no longer cutting-edge, but it remains a good value for the money.
Key specs: 1.7GHz dual-core Exynos 5 Dual processor, 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
Sony Xperia Tablet Z
The Xperia Tablet Z is expensive relative to the performance you're getting. Its Snapdragon S4 Pro is old hat, and there are higher-resolution tablets available at similar prices. However, it still has one of the more appealing designs on the market. Between its extra-slim body, water resistance and infrared blaster, Sony's design simply has more party tricks than many of its rivals. If your tablet has to double as a TV remote, poolside computer or kitchen assistant, this may be your best choice.
Key specs: 1.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro processor, 2GB of RAM, 16GB or 32GB of storage, 2.2-megapixel front and 8.1-megapixel rear cameras, 10.1-inch (1,920 x 1,200) display.
Price: $499 and up
7- and 8-inch tablets
Google Nexus 7 (2013)
From a pure technology standpoint, no small tablet comes close to the new Nexus 7. It has the same display resolution as high-end 10-inch tablets, one of the fastest processors in its category and luxuries like wireless charging. More importantly, it's the standard-bearer for stock Android. As of this writing, the Nexus 7 is the only small tablet running Android 4.3, and it should get future updates quickly. While it's more expensive than last year's model, it's actually an even better bargain.
The bottom line: Exceptional value for the money, and the definitive Android tablet.
Key specs: 1.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro processor, 2GB of RAM, 16GB or 32GB of storage, 1.2-megapixel front and 5-megapixel rear cameras, 7-inch (1,920 x 1,200) display.
Price: $230 and up
Apple iPad mini
While the original iPad mini trailed some competitors in performance, the iPad mini with Retina display comes out ahead -- sometimes by a significant margin. It has the highest-resolution display of any tablet with a screen measuring eight inches or smaller, and the A7 processor should help it outperform many larger competitors. It even has a 128GB storage option that's still extremely rare for tablets this size. Just be prepared to pay a premium: the new mini is one of the most expensive devices in its class, and it doesn't include extras like a keyboard dock or stylus.
The bottom line: One of the priciest small tablets, but potentially one of the best.
Key specs: Dual-core A7 processor, 1GB of RAM, 16GB to 128GB of storage, 1.2-megapixel front and 5-megapixel rear cameras, 7.9-inch (2,048 x 1,536) display.
Price: $399 and up, ships in November
Amazon Kindle Fire HDX (7-inch)
If you value a tablet's price-to-performance ratio above all else, you can't ignore the 7-inch Kindle Fire HDX. For $229, you're getting a small tablet with performance that humbles the Nexus 7 -- and, for that matter, many larger rivals. Features like Mayday live support and Second Screen media streaming are nice to have, too. The only catch, as is usually the case with the Kindle Fire line, is the heavy emphasis on Amazon's content ecosystem. If you regularly use competing services (even Google Play), you're better off getting a tablet running regular Android.
Key specs: 2.2GHz quad-core Snapdragon 800 processor, 2GB of RAM, 16GB to 64GB of storage, HD front camera, 7-inch (1,920 x 1,200) display.
The bottom line: In terms of sheer value for the money, the best tablet here; just make sure you really like Amazon's media services.
Price: $229 and up
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 they 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 2
If you're looking for a definitive Windows tablet, it doesn't get much better than the Surface Pro 2. The new model addresses most of the gripes we had with the original: battery life is longer, there are additional memory options and the kickstand has been improved so that it's more comfortable to use in the lap. Microsoft's upcoming docking station and Power Cover could make it a more compelling proposition as well. Truly, it's the only tablet in this roundup that can do some heavy lifting, whether it's 6K video editing or large Photoshop projects. The Pro 2 is far from the most portable tablet in this roundup, so consider the Surface 2 if you want a truly mobile equivalent -- just be aware that it doesn't support traditional Windows apps.
The bottom line: The definitive Windows 8.1 tablet, and one of the most powerful, too.
Key specs: 1.6GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor, 4GB or 8GB of RAM, 64GB to 512GB of storage, 720p front and rear cameras, 10.6-inch (1,920 x 1,080) display.
Price: $899 and up
ASUS Transformer Book T100
Right now, the Transformer Book T100 is unquestionably the value champ among Windows tablets. For $349, you're getting a quad-core slate that runs desktop Windows apps, lasts for up to 11 hours on a charge and comes with its own keyboard dock. The T100 doesn't have the performance or storage needed for more demanding apps, but it could still be ideal for anyone who wants a tablet that could double as a basic laptop.
The bottom line: One of the cheapest Windows tablets, with the best bang for your buck to boot.
Key specs: 1.86GHz quad-core Atom processor, 2GB of RAM, 32GB or 64GB of storage, 1.2-megapixel front camera, 10.1-inch (1,366 x 768) display.
Price: $349 and up (at Amazon)
Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2
Lenovo's ThinkPad Tablet 2 is relatively slow compared to new Bay Trail models, and it's certainly not the most affordable tablet here, either. However, it manages to offer remarkable battery life, a truly portable design and exceptional flexibility. Need a pen, 4G data, a Bluetooth keyboard dock or a full docking station? Those are all upgrade options here. As long as you don't need top performance, you'll likely be satisfied with Lenovo's offering.
The bottom line: While a bit long in the tooth, the ThinkPad Tablet 2 remains one the better-designed Windows tablets we've seen.
Key specs: 1.8GHz dual-core Atom processor, 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: $629 and up
Not everyone has the luxury of using their tablet on WiFi; whether you're on a business trip or a vacation, you may need a cellular-equipped slate to stay connected. Thankfully, there's an abundance of new 4G models to choose from. The attached plans are diverse as well, ranging from add-ons for existing services to prepaid plans that should last just long enough for an extended holiday. While there's often some premium to be paid for either data or the hardware, it may be worth the expense to avoid packing a laptop.
Apple iPad Air (WiFi + Cellular)
You already know by now that the iPad Air is much faster and lighter than its ancestors. However, its WiFi + Cellular variant provides a few additional improvements for frequent travelers. The new model supports a whopping 14 LTE frequencies; odds are that you'll get full-speed data wherever you go. The tablet also supports T-Mobile USA for the first time, and the carrier's customers can use up to 200MB of data per month for free. Limited expansion remains a concern, but there are few other big tablets that are so well-suited to life on the road.
The bottom line: Everything you know from the iPad Air, with LTE on top.
Key specs: Dual-core A7 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, unlocked LTE/EV-DO/HSPA+ data.
Price: $629 and up, ships November 1st
Apple iPad mini (WiFi + Cellular)
If you want a small, travel-ready tablet with few sacrifices, the cellular edition of the iPad mini with Retina display is your best bet. It's just as fast as the iPad Air, and it offers the same broad LTE support. The mini is undoubtedly expensive, but you're getting a lot for your money.
The bottom line: One of the most popular LTE tablets, in bite-sized form.
Key specs: Dual-core A7 processor, 1GB of RAM, 16GB to 128GB of storage, 1.2-megapixel front and 5-megapixel rear cameras, 7.9-inch (2,048 x 1,536) display, unlocked LTE/EV-DO/HSPA+ data.
Price: $529 and up, ships in November
Google Nexus 7 (2013, LTE)
We don't need to reiterate how much of a leap the 2013 Nexus 7 represents in terms of performance. However, its cellular variant is truly something special. In the US, the new tablet offers LTE for AT&T, T-Mobile and (theoretically) Verizon through one model; American travelers won't have to sacrifice 4G speeds or carrier support as they have in the past. Combine that with global HSPA+ support, and you have a tablet that will rarely let you down when abroad. The $350 price just makes it that much sweeter.
The bottom line: One of the most flexible cellular tablets on the market, at a price that's hard to match.
Key specs: 1.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro processor, 2GB of RAM, 32GB of storage, 1.2-megapixel front and 5-megapixel rear cameras, 7-inch (1,920 x 1,200) display, unlocked HSPA+ and LTE data.
Galaxy Note 8.0 (LTE)
If you're going to spend a lot on an 8-inch tablet like Samsung's Galaxy Note 8.0, you may as well go whole hog and get a cellular model like the LTE-equipped Note 8.0 at AT&T. On top of getting a quad-core tablet with pen input and TV-remote capabilities, you'll have the freedom to hop online without WiFi. Take care to buy the US edition of the Note 8.0 off-contract, however, as the $100 you save up front at AT&T isn't worth two years of mandatory data.
The bottom line: The Galaxy Note 8.0 is expensive in cellular form, but it's also extremely flexible.
Key specs: 1.6GHz quad-core Exynos 4 Quad processor, 2GB of RAM, 16GB of storage, 1.3-megapixel front and 5-megapixel rear cameras, 8-inch (1,280 x 800) display, LTE and HSPA+ data for AT&T.
Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2 (LTE)
Since the ThinkPad Tablet 2 is already on our short list, choosing its higher-end configuration for our cellular category was sort of a no-brainer. You'll pay $100 more versus the WiFi-only model, but you'll get both AT&T-friendly LTE data and HSPA+ that will work in numerous countries. Buyers can even pick a model with Windows 8 Pro if they need to 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: A solid, flexible tablet for business users.
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.
ASUS MeMO Pad HD 7
The definition of value for money. The ASUS MeMO Pad HD 7 is no threat to the ASUS-made Nexus 7 as far as performance goes, but it costs $80 less while preserving some important features -- namely, a color-accurate IPS LCD, dual cameras and a quad-core processor. There's even a microSD slot, which the Nexus 7 lacks. Never mind the software upgrade challenges that often come with custom Android interfaces; at this price, they're easy to live with.
Key specs: Quad-core 1.2GHz ARM Cortex-A7 processor, 1GB of RAM, 16GB of storage, 1.2-megapixel front and 5-megapixel rear cameras, 7-inch (1,280 x 800) display.
Google Nexus 7 (2013, 16GB)
Google may have drifted out of the sub-$200 price bracket with the new Nexus 7, but the tablet's 16GB variant is still one of our top picks in the budget realm. It's not as fast as the Kindle Fire HDX, but it is more flexible, as it's not locked into Amazon's ecosystem.
The bottom line: The entry-level Nexus 7 is more expensive than its rivals, but you get what you pay for.
Key specs: 1.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro processor, 2GB of RAM, 16GB of storage, 1.2-megapixel front and 5-megapixel rear cameras, 7-inch (1,920 x 1,200) display.
Amazon Kindle Fire HD (2013)
We liked the original Kindle Fire HD last year, so its 2013 refresh is virtually a shoo-in for the budget category. Apart from the exterior, you're not getting anything new. At a lower $139, however, it's quite the steal; you're getting a slate with solid performance, a pleasing display and healthy battery life. The 8GB model will do the job if you want a basic device for Amazon Instant Video streaming or Kindle books, and a $169 16GB variant is available if you have a small personal media collection. Just be aware that there are no cameras, so don't plan on doing any video chats or snapping Facebook photos.
The bottom line: The Kindle Fire HD takes on new life as a budget tablet.
Key specs: 1.5GHz dual-core processor, 1GB of RAM, 8GB or 16GB of storage, 7-inch (1,280 x 800) display.
Price: $139 and up