To iPad or not to iPad: A tablet buyer's guide

Wilson Rothman, NBC News
Customers check out the new Apple Inc. iPad Air at the 5th Avenue Apple store in New York
Craig Warga | Bloomberg | Getty Images

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.

Screen size

Tablet is the new PC: Lenovo CFO
Tablet is the new PC: Lenovo CFO

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

Pixel density

Matt Clinch | CNBC

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

Viewing Apple

Apple's iPad Air: Thinnest, lightest tablet yet
Apple's iPad Air: Thinnest, lightest tablet yet

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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

Battery life
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.

Availability of content

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

Child's play
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