As we begin 2013, we're stuck in a kind of tablet limbo. Most companies rushed to get devices out for the fall, while the models we saw at CES 2013 aren't yet shipping. As such, it's a mostly familiar deck, with Apple, Google and Microsoft once again striving for the top spot. That said, there are new entries from Amazon and ASUS, and many of us who didn't score some sweet loot this holiday season have a slate-sized pile of cash to spend. If you're in that situation, continue on for our first tablet guide of 2013.
Note: If you're looking for tablets with an Atom or Core i5 CPU, you'll find those in our forthcoming laptop buyer's guide, since they have the same guts as notebooks (or netbooks, in some cases). For the purposes of this tablet guide, we define tablets as slate-type devices with low-power ARM processors.
iPad (late 2012)
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 that it will still be the de facto pick for many 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 a round of new Lightning-based accessories, the iPad is the easy choice.
The bottom line: A mild refresh, but one that ticks all the right boxes.
Key specs: 1.4GHz dual-core A6X processor, 1GB of RAM, 16GB to 128GB of storage, 1.2-megapixel front front and 5-megapixel rear cameras, 9.7-inch 2,048 x 1,536 display.
Price: $499 and up
Surface for Windows RT
The Surface with Windows 8 Pro is at last arriving, but the Surface with Windows RT could still be considered the definitive tablet for those who lean Microsoft's way. The 10.6-inch slate's kickstand, full-size expansion and Touch Cover make it useful as an impromptu laptop without having to carry a raft of accessories. Having Office matters, too, for those that want a time-honored way to get work done. We're sure some will be inclined to get the Pro for its added power, stylus and legacy app support, but the lower $499 price, lighter weight and longer battery life make a convincing case for the RT version.
The bottom line: Still the gold standard among Windows RT tablets.
Key specs: 1.3GHz quad-core Tegra 3, 2GB of RAM, 32GB or 64GB of storage, 720p front and rear cameras, 10.6-inch 1,366 x 768 display.
Price: $499 and up
Now that it's been here for awhile, 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 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
Comparatively speaking, the Transformer Pad Infinity is an old hand in this crowd. That doesn't make it any less charming: 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
Nexus 7 (32GB)
The Nexus 7 continues to be the best pound-for-pound deal among 7-inch 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 now slightly creaky 1.2GHz Tegra 3 and the lack of a rear camera, you'll get a slab that can keep up with the latest apps while keeping your bank account above water.
The bottom line: Exceptional value for 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.
The iPad mini isn't the performance champion on a spec sheet. The 2011-era (if tweaked) A5 chip, 1,024 x 768 display and $329 base price give it 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, a solid rear camera and the widest selection of tablet-native apps. It's also one of the few tablets in the category with the option of 64GB built-in, which may tip the balance for music and movie aficionados.
The bottom line: Nearly everything you like in an 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
Kindle Fire HD (7-inch)
Although the 7-inch Kindle Fire HD no longer claims the 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, and there's 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
3G / 4G tablets
Many of us want to pack light for a winter vacation without giving up creature comforts like bigger screens and always-on internet access. Those aren't irreconcilable differences, these days: cellular-equipped tablets are on sale from virtually every major device maker and platform. We also have choices of plans that range from add-ons to existing plans for frequent travelers to prepaid plans that should last just long enough for an extended Maui vacation. There's often some premium to be paid for the device or data roaming (on locked models), but the independence from laptops could be worthwhile.
iPad (WiFi + Cellular, late 2012)
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 there's no hemming and hawing over getting just the right device. 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
iPad mini (WiFi + Cellular)
Second verse, same as the first... only smaller. The cellular version of the iPad mini is noteworthy precisely because it maintains all the color, LTE access, GPS and storage options of its bigger counterpart. That puts it on the 4G networks of AT&T, Sprint and Verizon in the US without having to sign an agreement, and offers more choice than some equally small rivals. 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
Nexus 7 (HSPA+)
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.
The bottom line: One of the most accessible ways to get a 3G tablet -- 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.
Amazon Kindle Fire HD 8.9 LTE
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 browsing the occasional website. Starting at $499, it's a relative deal for larger cellular tablets, and it's the only Kindle Fire in existence with a 64GB 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: $499 and up
ASUS VivoTab RT
At least in North America, options for cellular-equipped Windows 8 and Windows RT tablets are scarce. Of a narrow field, though, ASUS' VivoTab RT is our choice. It's small, light and has the option of a keyboard dock that also metes out additional battery life. The AT&T version is a relative steal as of this writing, at $600 with the dock included; that's not bad for a device that could replace a laptop for some buyers.
The bottom line: Having the most mobile Windows RT tablet helps ASUS lead a small pack.
Key specs: 1.3GHz quad-core Tegra 3, 2GB of RAM, 32GB of storage, 2-megapixel rear and 8-megapixel front cameras, optional keyboard dock, 10.1-inch 1,366 x 768 display, LTE and HSPA+ data (depending on carrier).
Price: $599 (AT&T)
Nexus 7 (16GB)
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.
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.
Kindle Fire (2012)
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.
Galaxy Tab 2 7.0
Thanks to a lowered price and a Jelly Bean upgrade, Samsung's Galaxy Tab 2 7.0 is still worth serious consideration as a budget tablet. It's neither the cheapest nor the most advanced, but it touts both front and rear cameras that often go missing in this class. Those who like Samsung's TouchWiz interface on their phone might also appreciate having the same experience on a bigger screen.
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: $199 and up
Price: $260 and up
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!