The best tablets to give this holiday season

November 16, 2012
iPad mini

Pro: Light, portable

Con: Less-than-premium display at a premium price

Best for: Bed-readers and e-mail junkies

Retail price: $329 and up

At first pass, it may seem like there’s not much to say about the iPad mini. It’s the iPad but smaller — 7.9 inches to the full-size 9.7 inches.

It’s much easier to say what the iPad mini isn’t. It’s not a computer replacement. It’s not an ideal reading device because of screen glare. It’s not a phone. But as you use the device, you find that it is ideal for in-between moments. Think of it this way: Most people might pull out the iPad when they don’t feel like lugging their laptop around. The mini is just right for those moments when the iPad seems like a bit too much. You might use it on the sofa for light e-mail or Web browsing.

If you have a third-generation iPad with the high-quality “retina” display that Apple says is the best the human eye can see, you’ll be disappointed by the iPad mini’s fine but not fantastic screen. It’s also one of the more expensive tablets, starting at $329 for the WiFi models and $429 for tablets that run on cellular networks.

There are lots of people for whom the iPad mini probably isn’t the best fit. If you love e-reader screens, need to watch video on a bigger screen or want to get some serious work done on a tablet, then you should look elsewhere. Even the new, larger iPad, which starts at $499 and has a faster processor than its predecessor, may be a better fit for you. But if you find you want a tablet good for transitioning from the hectic workplace to your sanctuary at home, the iPad mini is worth a look.

Barnes & Noble Nook HD

Pro: Tablet with the best reading screen

Con: Limited apps

Best for: Readers

Retail price: $159 and up

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Barnes & Noble’s latest tablet is great for reading. It’s clear from the way the tablet functions that it was built with the reader in mind, from the screen that reduces (but doesn’t eliminate) glare to the simple design that puts content front and center.

This strength is also a weakness, however, since the tablet covers the basics of non-reading apps but doesn’t have the rich ecosystem of apps that other tablets do. If reading isn’t the primary reason you want a tablet, then this probably isn’t the right choice for you.

As you may expect, books and magazines look fantastic on this 7-inch device, especially the large collection of children’s books that the company has made available for the device.

Barnes & Noble has made a point of marketing this tablet to families, adding in features such as parental controls and the ability to support multiple accounts at once — just to make sure that the kids don’t get an unintentional peek at your copy of “50 Shades of Grey.”

Kindle Fire HD

Pro: Cheap; seamless access to Amazon.com.

Con: Can be a bit unpolished

Best for: Content consumers, not content creators

Retail price: $199 and up

When Amazon released its first Kindle Fire for $199 last year, the tablet quickly shot to the top of many shoppers’ holiday wish lists. Hoping to strike gold again this year, Amazon released several tablets that offer better features than the original Kindle Fire, but with the same low-price pitch.

Amazon improved a lot about the device, which in its original form was little more than a souped-up e-reader. The screen is designed to have less glare and has a higher resolution, so video looks even sharper. The redesign also addressed many of the complaints that users had with the original Fire. For example, the power button was in a place that was too easy to hit by accident, so now Amazon has made it flush with the edge of the tablet and added volume buttons.

The new Kindle Fire HD also has more storage at 16 GB, and — of course — access to all the Amazon books, movies, music and other stuff that you could possibly want. That seamless shopping largely makes up for the occasional lags and rough edges that Amazon is still working out with its software.

The 7-inch and 8.9-inch versions of the Kindle Fire HD are out now.

Microsoft Surface

Pro: Near laptop-replacement quality

Con: Is best with accessories

Best for: Those who are always working

Retail price: $499 and up

Most tablets are tweener devices, but the Microsoft Surface edges closer to the ultrabook category than the pure tablet. The company clearly put a lot of thought into this tablet’s design, adding intuitive touches such as a kickstand so pretty it’ll make your bicycle jealous. Its USB and HD video ports are a welcome addition for those who want to connect the tablet to other devices.

The Surface has a 10.6-inch screen that’s bigger than the iPad’s but is a little more horizontal to accommodate its Windows operating system. It eschews other tablets’ tapered curves for a more angled look of its own. Plus, its optional keyboard covers (with a touchpad!) can seriously up your productivity when it’s time to create Word documents or PowerPoint presentations.

The tablet has its limitations. For one, while the device starts at a price of $499 for a model with more memory than the iPad, the keyboard cover isn’t included with the base model, severely limiting your productivity. Also, the current version of the Surface has an operating system that works with your PC, but in a limited way. It can only run apps from the Windows Store; a tablet running a full version of Windows 8 is due out next year. If you just want a very work-capable tablet, the Surface is a good fit. But if you were seriously thinking about ditching your laptop for it, you may want to wait for a bit.

Google Nexus 10

Pro: Great screen

Con: WiFi models only

Best for: Google fans

Retail price: $399 and up

Google has jumped whole-heartedly into the tablet market, introducing both 7-inch and 10-inch tablets that carry its well-known brand. The Nexus 10 is the company’s answer to the market-leading iPad. It has a big, sharp screen made by Apple’s main competitors in the tablet market, Samsung.

The Nexus 10, with its plastic frame, isn’t as nice to look at as the iPad, but is a bit easier to hold. Performance-wise, there’s little to complain about here. The tablet is snappy, smooth and even has micro HDMI and USB ports, so you can easily connect to other devices when needed.

The tablet could have better battery life, and the fact that it can’t run on cellular networks makes it a bit impractical for folks who want to use it for work on the road.

Still, the tablet runs great on a WiFi network and is tapped into all of Google’s services — Gmail, Google Drive, etc. — seamlessly, making it a great device for the great indoors.

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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