To iPad or not to iPad: A tablet buyer's guide
At first, there was only the iPad. Then came Android tablets — overpriced, oversized and app-less. Eventually, the table(t)s turned: Prices for Android tablets dropped while quality improved. Now, Android makes up themajority of tablet shipments in the market. Deciding on a tablet has gotten trickier.
For this roundup, I gathered the tablets that cover 95 percent of what shoppers care about: Both new Apple iPads ($399 and $499),Google's Nexus 7 ($229), both new Amazon Kindle Fire HDX tablets ($229 and $379), and the new Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 ($549). The dark horse Windows tablet in my lineup wasn't the uninspiring Microsoft Surface 2. Instead, I checked out Nokia's candy-apple red, exceptionally sleek Lumia 2520 ($499) — and was glad I did.
In fact, all turned out to be impressive in some ways, so instead of picking an overall winner, I looked at various aspects that will matter to you, and declared winners and losers for each.
There are basically two tablet categories: The 7- to 8-inchers, and the 9- to 10-inchers. These might sound similar in size, but because screens are measured diagonally, a 7-inch tablet can be half the size of a 10-inch tablet. So think of the two categories as small and large. (Panasonic's now selling a 20-inch tablet for $6,000 but we won't go there.)
Your choice between small and large depends mostly on what you're going to do with it — and where: Are you reading books, watching TV and checking email? Or are you editing photos, recording music and working on spreadsheets? Will you be lying in bed, holding the tablet aloft in one hand? Or will it be propped up in front of you in conference rooms and airplane seats?
I personally find the smaller size most appealing, but that's because I still also carry a laptop everywhere. I consider the tablet to be my "low blood pressure" device — less work, more play. If you are trying to streamline your work setup, though, the larger size makes way more sense.
- Winners: For reading and passive entertainment, the smaller tablets; for multitasking and doing real work, the larger ones
- Loser: Any tablet that is sized wrong for your needs
The iPad Air is supposed to have a "Retina" screen — with pixels so small you can't seem them — but in fact, at 264 pixels per inch, the screen is actually less dense than much of the competition's. It looks better than the screen on the older (now cheaper) iPad Mini and the iPad 2, but sharp eyes will definitely spot some dots.
The new iPad Mini has a real Retina screen, with over 300 pixels per inch, and so does the Nexus 7, the Galaxy Note 10.1 and both Kindle Fire HDX tablets. If you spend a lot of time staring at text on a tablet, you should care about this.
- Winners: New iPad Mini, Kindle Fire HDX, Nexus 7, Galaxy Note 10.1 2014
- Losers: Last year's iPad Mini, now selling for $299; the iPad 2, now selling for $399, and last year's Microsoft Surface tablet
More from NBC News:
Though important, pixel density isn't the only factor in a good screen. Viewing angle, another key indicator, can be tested by looking at the picture from any angle but head on. Suppose you and a loved one want to sit together and enjoy the same movie on a tablet — if the display doesn't have a wide enough viewing angle, you'll both experience bleached colors and limited contrast.
- Winners: Nexus 7, Nokia Lumia 2520, both Kindle Fire HDX tablets and both iPads
- Loser: Galaxy Note 10.1 2014
Brightness and outdoor visibility
Tablets are famously hard to read outdoors, especially when the sun is shining. Finally, some manufacturers are changing that with bright and innovative screens. This is the first year that I've seen screens I'd recommend to be used outside, especially those on the Nexus 7 and the Nokia Lumia 2520.
Unfortunately for Apple aficionados, the iPads are not so hot in the sun. (Neither is the Galaxy Note 10.1.) I will say this, though: Because the iPads have such comparatively low brightness, they're useful for reading in pitch-dark environments. As someone who reads at night, I like the fact that iPads get really dim. I just never realized until now that the benefit comes at the cost of outdoor visibility.
- Winners: Nexus 7 and Nokia Lumia 2520 (with both Kindle Fire HDX tablets coming in close behind)
- Losers: The iPads and the Galaxy Note 10.1 2014
For now, iPads consistently have the best battery life — I got over 10 hours of streamed video over Wi-Fi with medium brightness. That said, if you are looking elsewhere and concerned about battery life, the largest tablets tested, the Galaxy Note 10.1 and the Nokia Lumia 2520, did run for upwards of 9 hours. The smaller Android tablets, the Nexus 7 and the Kindle Fire HDX tablets couldn't quite hit 8 hours.
- Winners: The iPads, Galaxy Note 10.1 2014, Nokia Lumia 2520
- Losers: Nexus 7 and both Kindle Fire HDX tablets
I won't judge you if you like to take pictures with a tablet. Just don't do it in front of me at a concert that I paid $50 to attend. Also, be aware that even the best tablet cameras are just OK compared with smartphones. They're getting better, though, and the winners below could deliver medium- to low-light indoor shots suitable for most uses.
- Winners: The iPads, Galaxy Note 10.1, Kindle Fire HDX 8.9-inch
- Losers: Nokia Lumia 2520 (surprising, given the fact that Nokia has the best camera-phone on the market), Nexus 7
- Non-compete: The 7-inch Kindle Fire HDX has no back-facing camera, so it's not in this race at all.