Lately, the availability of content for Android has gone through the roof. For video, you can find Netflix and Hulu, plus a growing lineup of pay TV or ad-supported services such as Watch TBS, HBO Go, FoxNow, Crackle and Xfinity (which is for cable subscribers of Comcast, NBC's corporate parent).
The iPad nevertheless leads, because it's the crossroads for every video platform: Not only does it support everything I mentioned above plus Apple's own massive iTunes video catalog, you can even stream Google Play content, or Amazon video on demand. No other tablet gives you all that leeway.
The same is true for other content types: You'll find reader apps and music apps of all stripes now on Android tablets — plenty enough to keep you satisfied. Still, if for some (bizarre) reason you buy books from Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Google Play and Apple … the iPad would be the only way to keep them all in one place.
The final frontier for tablet content is gaming, and here Apple is still well ahead of everyone else. Sure, Electronic Arts has released 35 titles for Android, but that's for both phones and tablets. Meanwhile, the games publisher has 54 titles optimized specifically for the iPad. There's a similar imbalance with Activision and other publishers, though things even out more when it comes to viral casual gaming like Angry Birds.
If you're looking to buy an Android tablet and want to make sure it will support all of your specific content needs, just go to the Google Play store and check out the apps.
You can check app availability for the Kindle Fire HDX, too, but if you are interested in buying one of those you're either heavily invested in Amazon content or committed to putting Amazon in charge of your content needs. (And why not? Amazon has some of the better pricing for video and music, and I find its video streams and downloads to be reliable.)
- Winners: The iPads (but Android tablets are catching up)
- Losers: Nokia Lumia 2520 and anything else running Windows 8.1 RT
If you have kids and let them use tablets, there's another set of content choices to be made: Do you want the best and freshest kids apps? Do you want a tailored, controlled experience for them?
Apple still gets the best kids' apps first — I'm talking about the ones that aren't shady or thrown together, real high-production-value stuff that costs between $2 and $8 a pop. And the iOS does let you control children's access to the iPad. If you go into Settings, you can hit restrictions, pick a PIN, then block all kinds of content and activities. No buying stuff on iTunes or surfing the Web. No rated-R movies and 17 rated apps and games. You can also shut down advertising, social media and other services that you may find inappropriate for young ones.
Still, on an iPad, there's no way to put the kids in a customized sandbox of their very own apps, shows and games. That's what you can do with the Kindle Fire HDX, which lets you create multiple accounts on your device for each child. Best of all, you can set the timing parameters for each media type, so it'll let the kids read books indefinitely, while putting time limits on TV and games.
- Winners: Kindle Fire HDX and the iPads
- Losers: Most other Android & Windows 8.1 RT tablets
Some more stuff to think about
The tablet business really isn't a three-way battle — I looked at the Nokia because it's fresh and frankly quite stunning, but I still don't recommend its operating system, Windows 8.1 RT, to folks who don't already know what that is. Microsoft's fraction of the tablet business is still tiny but, unlike Microsoft's lackluster Surface 2, that Nokia will certainly turn heads.
The other tablet I can't recommend wholeheartedly is the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1, and not just because it had the worst screen in my tests. Samsung has been actively covering up all that's good about Android with gaudy, noisy, unintuitive interface components that don't cohere well and interfere all too often. On top of the software mess, the company adds features — stylus tools, gesture sensing and Samsung-to-Samsung device interactions — that often don't work as billed, and tend to take away the promise of harmony among Android devices. Samsung doesn't want you on Android ... it only wants you on Samsung.
Regardless of which tablet you choose, you'll invariably have the option to add 4G cellular data capability for a premium cost. I find that to be excessive: Wi-Fi-only tablets are fine, and I can deal with the rare occasions where I don't have Wi-Fi access. There are now plenty of ways to download video and other content for trips, and many phones can become Wi-Fi hotspots in a pinch.
That said, if you do opt for a 4G wireless tablet, carriers tend not to require you to sign a 2-year contract, and you can shove the hardware onto your existing plan for a nominal monthly fee (and take them off of your plan almost as easily).
This brings me to pricing. Now that so many tablets are worthwhile, price may be the most important factor of the tablet buying decision. The newest iPads scored pretty highly in most of my tests here, but they cost a lot. If you have $229 in your pocket, you could do far worse than to buy the Nexus 7 or the 7-inch Kindle Fire HDX. In fact, if you only have $300 to spend, I recommend that over buying the last-generation iPad Mini, especially if you plan to do a lot of reading.
If you are an Amazon Prime customer or spend a lot on Kindle and Amazon Instant Video, then the Kindle Fire HDX is almost a no-brainer buy, even if you are an otherwise Apple-friendly family.
And if you are a PC household that has happily made the jump to Windows 8, and you have an Xbox 360 (or are about to score an Xbox One), then you should really check out that Nokia. It was the surprise of the lineup, a genuinely pleasant device to test, even if its mobile Windows platform isn't yet ready for all audiences.
--By Wilson Rothman, NBC News