Tablets are at the top of many wish lists but which one to buy? The choice used to be pretty limited, with the iPad dominating the latecomers. But this year, the field is more even, as tablets from Apple's competitors have matured. In addition, Google and Microsoft are diving in with their own tablets, providing more choice.
The first step in the buying process is to decide on the size of the tablet. They fall into two rough categories: the full-sized tablet, pioneered by the iPad, and the half-size tablet, epitomized by the Kindle Fire.
Full-sized tablets, which generally have screens measuring about 10 inches on the diagonal, are better for surfing websites designed for PCs, and far better when it comes to displaying magazines and documents. Overall, they go further toward replacing a laptop. They cost $400 and up.
Half-sized tablets, which have screens measuring roughly 7 inches on the diagonal, are cheaper and lighter, but just as good as full-sized tablets for e-book reading. It's an excellent first computing device for a kid, or a gentle nudge into the digital world for an older adult with little computing experience. This year's crop costs $199 and up, but last year's models are available for less.
If you've settled on a large tablet, here are some top
Apple iPad, fourth generation
Price: Starts at $499
Apple usually updates the iPad once a year, so it was a surprise when it dropped a new model in October, with a faster processor and the new "Lightning" connection and charging port, replacing the wide port inherited from the iPod. Like the third-generation iPad launched in March it has an ultra-high-resolution "Retina" screen. The model's resolution of 2,048 by 1,536 pixels is only surpassed by the Google Nexus 10.
That means the current iPad is two generations ahead of the iPad 2 that was on sale last holiday season. It packs enough improvements to make the upgrade worth it. The iPad 2 is still on sale for $100 less, but it's not a very good value for the money: if $400 is all you can spend, there are better tablets out there than the iPad 2.
While other tablets are starting to approach it in terms of hardware, the iPad still enjoys the best support by far from third parties, both in terms of quality applications and accessories like cases.
One caveat: the base model of the iPad has only 16 gigabytes of storage, which fills up fast these days. The thoughtful giver goes for at least a 32-gigabyte model, for $100 more.
Other than that, there are few downsides to the iPad: no one will frown when opening this package.
Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1
Price: Starts at $499
If the Nook is for the avid reader or movie watcher, the Galaxy Note 10.1 is for the creative type. It's the only tablet in our roundup that comes with a "pen" that can be used to write and draw on the screen. In our test, this worked well, though the number of apps that take advantage of the pen is still small. (Other tablets, like the iPad, only respond to finger-like objects, so third-party styluses for them are of necessity thick and clumsy.)
The Note 10.1 runs Google's Android software, giving it access to a wide array of apps originally written for smartphones. The selection is not on par with the iPad's but better than other alternatives.
The Note's screen falls into the low-resolution category, sporting 1,280 by 800 pixels. That's a third of what the iPad musters.
Like the Nook, the Note 10.1's storage memory can be expanded with cards.
The Note's appeal is somewhat niche, but it could be just the thing for the budding or established artist.
Barnes & Noble Nook HD+
Price: Starts at $269
For a book store, Barnes & Noble makes some amazing tablets. The HD+ is its first model that approaches the iPad in size, with a screen that's 9 inches on the diagonal. That makes it slightly smaller than the iPad, and the resolution is lower as well, but still very respectable. At 1,920 by 1,280 pixels, it can show more detail than a living-room HDTV.
The Nook is family-friendly too. You can create user accounts and restrict them from certain content, so there's less risk that your kids will stumble on your copy of "Fifty Shades of Grey."
Like the basic iPad, the basic Nook HD+ comes with just 16 gigabytes of storage memory, but it can be expanded with a microSD memory card. That means another 32 gigabytes will cost you just $25 - a good deal.
But the Nook is the least versatile tablet in our roundup. The number of apps available is small, and it's focused on Barnes & Noble content like e-books, magazines and movies. It doesn't have any cameras, while the competitors have two each. It's best for someone who's likely to stick to media consumption, and doesn't need the latest apps and games.
Asus Vivo Tab RT
Google Nexus 10
The Nexus 10 is a snappy performer, and among the iPad's competitors, it comes the closest to matching the versatility of Apple products.