NEW YORK -- Not all that long ago, you couldn't imagine wanting a
tablet computer. Your smartphone and laptop met all your computing
requirements, or so you figured. And tablets were those awkward,
stylus-driven computers that were pushed for years by Bill Gates at
Microsoft, with very little to show for it.
Today, you're in crowded company if a tablet computer tops your holiday wish list.
6 in 10 shoppers surveyed recently by the PriceGrabber price-comparison
site said they'd rather receive a tablet computer than a laptop. And
71% said that tablets would replace e-readers as gifts this year.
Research analyst Sarah Rotman Epps forecasts that tablets will reach
112.5 million U.S. consumers - one-third of the U.S. adult population -
by 2016. The market was practically non-existent as recently as early
That was right before everything changed with the arrival of the iPad, still the finest mainstream tablet out there.
last two generations of full-size iPads boast knockout Retina display
screens. More than 275,000 apps have been especially produced for
Apple's slate, way more than the apps that have been optimized for any
other platform. The iOS software behind Apple's tablet is generally
friendlier than competitors' software.
But there's no shortage of rivals trying to dethrone the market
champ, with most challengers to date relying on some variant of Google's
Android operating system. Gartner predicts that 219 million tablets
sold worldwide in 2016 will run Apple's operating system, compared with
about 109 million for Android.
Google's own Nexus 7 (made by
Asus) and Nexus 10 (made by Samsung) models lead the Android brigade and
run the current flavor of Android called Jelly Bean. You still see some
Android tablets running the previous version, Ice Cream Sandwich.
Specs-wise, the Nexus 10 boasts an even higher-resolution 10-inch
display than the iPad, though you have a difficult time detecting much
of a difference in a side-by-side comparison.
On the various
Kindle Fire tablets that Amazon sells and the Nook tablets sold by
Barnes & Noble, Android is present but shoved in the background and
barely recognizable, replaced by those companies' own user interfaces.
fresh challenge is coming from another flank, the radically different
Windows 8 operating system driven by Microsoft and its PC partners.
Windows 8 is designed not only for multi-touch tablets but traditional
desktop PCs and laptops, a controversial and somewhat confusing decision
for Microsoft that differs from the approach Apple is taking. Despite
overlapping features, Apple is keeping the OS X operating system (for
Macs) and iOS (for the iPad and iPhone) separate.
NPD data suggest a very slow start for Win 8 tablets so far, with market share of less than 1%.
latest crop of tablets from all comers brings screen sizes that are
typically in the 7- to 10-inch range, though you see some displays that
are a bit smaller or larger. The trade-off to shoppers is obvious. Do
you want more screen real estate? Or a lighter machine you might be able
to stash in a pocket?
Apple's popular iPad has a 9.7-inch display; the recently added iPad Mini has a 7.9-inch screen.
smartphone screens are in some instances expanding so greatly, that
they are inhabiting territory occupied by smaller tablets. The Samsung
Galaxy Note II, more phone than tablet despite the use of a souped-up
S-Pen stylus, has been nicknamed a "phablet."
Prices are big and
small, too, with most new tablets from well-known companies at a rough
starting point of $200. Knockoffs from companies you've never heard cost
even less, though they usually aren't as snappy or have screens that
quite measure up.
At the other extreme, the current top of the
line iPad commands $829, in addition to monthly fees you might incur for
fast cellular data service.
Serving laptop masters
of course, serve many masters. You use them to browse the Web, watch
high-definition movies and TV shows, play games, chat over video, shoot
pictures, catch up on e-mail, read books and periodicals, and otherwise
entertain, educate and in some cases let you get work done.
iPad excels in all of these areas. But rivals are making inroads and
producing strong alternatives that are well worth considering, depending
on how you're most likely to employ them:
• Tablets for readers.
If reading is your passion, you have solid reasons to stick with
dedicated eReaders, such as the various monochrome Kindle and Nook
models from Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble, respectively, which some
folks don't even consider to be tablets.
Electronic readers lack
the color pizzazz of their multimedia siblings, but they're
comparatively inexpensive, provide superb battery life and terrific
glare-free screens, and they let you tap into enormous virtual
Still, there's a reason that Amazon.com and Barnes
& Noble are aggressively pushing the more versatile color tablets in
their lineups. In many respects, the 7-inch $199 Kindle Fire HD, for
example, is your entrée into Amazon's vast digital storefront.
Collectively, Amazon offers more than 22 million movies, TV shows,
songs, magazines and apps. On certain audio books from the company's
Audible service, you can exploit a feature called Immersion Reading, in
which text on the screen is highlighted while you hear professional
narration. Another feature called Whispersync for Voice lets you read a
Kindle book on the Fire and pick up where you left off on a
corresponding audio book.
Amazon describes its X-ray for Books
feature that is in the Fire as a way to "explore the bones of a book."
It helps you find all mentions of characters, places and terms used in a
book. A similar X Ray for Movies feature lets you peek at information
about the actors in a scene you are watching culled from the
Amazon-owned IMDb service.
Notwithstanding all the other things
they can do, smaller-screen tablets such as Kindle Fire HD and Nook HD
or HD+ generally work better for heavy-duty book readers than their
large-screen brethren. It's also one of the reasons the iPad Mini ($329
on up) is arguably better for reading what Apple refers to as iBooks,
than the full-size iPads - you don't mind that the Mini display, while
perfectly fine, isn't as sweet as the full-size iPad's Retina display.
Google's Nexus 7 ($199 on up) is also an excellent eBook reader. What's
more, it's more than an eReader: It's a budget tablet that performs like
a pricey machine.
It's worth pointing out, though, that Amazon,
Barnes & Noble, Google and others make free apps available that will
let you read their eBooks not only on those companies' own devices but
on the iPad and other tablets as well.
• Tablets for business.
A 2011 Forrester study found that of 10,000 information workers in 17
countries, 24% of workers in small businesses use a touch-screen tablet
for work. While the iPad is primarily known as a play device, Apple has
been pushing the tablet's business virtues. Apps can turn the iPad into
a hub for capturing digital signatures, telephony and communications,
and computer-aided design (among numerous other productive purposes).
a chief drawback to using the iPad for work, and for that matter most
touchscreen tablets, is the lack of a physical keyboard.
where many of the Windows 8 convertibles are trying to gain a
competitive edge. They double as traditional laptops reliant on
keyboards and mice, as well as touch tablets that rely on your fingers
as the pointing device. The Lenovo Yoga 13, for example, is a $999
Windows 8 hybrid that via a 360-degree hinge can be contorted into four
distinct modes: as laptop, stand, tent and yes, tablet. For all its
PC-type virtues, which include an excellent screen and solid keyboard,
however, it is a bit more clumsy to use in tablet mode.
magnesium Surface, starting at $499, is impressive hardware. It
represents the first time Microsoft has built its own personal computer.
Anyone wanting to use it for work, though, should seriously consider
spending the extra $100 or so for a clever keyboard cover accessory that
provides a very usable keyboard. It nicely complements the Windows 8
The confusing element here comes with the Windows 8
software. The first Surface tablets run a Windows 8 variant known as
Windows RT, which relies on ARM processors and promises decent battery
life. Surface RT comes with multitouch versions of Word, Excel and
PowerPoint, but is overall short on apps. Worse, it can't run any of the
legacy Windows software you've been using forever.
The Windows 8
Pro version of Surface that is coming in January will run those older
programs, and it relies on generally more robust Intel processors. But
it's heavier (2 pounds vs. 1.5 pounds) and, at $899, costs a lot more.
no matter which way you go, expect a learning curve as you get
comfortable with the live interactive tiles that decorate the Windows 8
Start screen, a major departure from the Windows you grew up with. The
traditional Start menu has gone AWOL, though some screens in this new
Windows environment will look somewhat familiar under certain
• Kids. There's a swell chance Junior wants
to use your iPad, if not get one of his own - it's loaded with appealing
games and apps for kids. Still, parents might instead want to consider
tablets that were especially produced for the youngest members of the
household. And a slew of companies are jumping into that playground,
including venerable toymakers such as LeapFrog, Fisher-Price and Toys R
Us, which produces the $150 Tabeo.
The $200 Nabi 2 tablet from
Fuhu is representative of the category. It's a 7-inch, 1.3-pound Android
tablet running off an NVIDIA quad-core processor. Housed in a red
protective border, the tablet is preloaded with kids music, games and
promises educational lessons tailored for K through 5 students. A Chore
List app lets parents create tasks for their children ("be nice," "make
new friends") and assign them rewards. Open the Web browser and you find
buttons that take you to sites such as National Geographic Little Kids,
Crayola Kids and Disney Fairies. Sites for grown-ups are kept
off-limits. For $2.99 a month, you can stream kid-safe TV to the tablet.
The $150 Oregon Scientific Meep, also a 7-inch Android kids
tablet, comes with a protective orange silicon bumper. It is targeted at
6-year-olds on up. Art and learning apps are preloaded, along with
Angry Birds. Parents can tap into a cloud-based parental control portal
without having to snatch the tablet away from their kids.
kid-specific tablet may be just what Mom and Dad ordered, Nooks, Kindles
and iPads also come with built-in parental controls.
The iPad is
clearly still the tablet to beat. But consumers have an increasing
number of worthwhile tablets to choose from, with all sorts of sizes,
prices and features.