You don’t need a crystal ball to know that tablets are going to be the hottest gift item this year. Between the new iPad mini, a plethora of Android slates under $200 and exciting new Windows 8 devices, it has never been a better time to buy a tablet for Mom, Dad, Grandma, Grandpa or Junior. The key to getting the right one is having the answers to these five questions before you walk through that store door or click that Buy button.
Right now, the two most popular sizes of tablet are 7 inches and 10 inches. The former category is ideal for those who plan to use their device outside of the house often, especially those who love to read books or play games during their commute or when traveling. For the most part, 7-inch tablets are best for consuming content, while larger 10-inch models are better for productivity. Having more real estate gives that person on your list more room for working on documents, editing photos and more. In fact, a lot of people are starting to replace their laptops with tablets, depending on the task.
Apple’s iOS powers the iPad, and there’s a reason why it continues to be the most popular software. It’s the easiest to learn and use, and at a whopping 275,000 apps, Apple boasts the largest library of apps designed for tablets. The latest iOS 6 software brings both Facebook integration (making it easier to share) and Siri (for getting a ton of stuff done with your voice) to both the iPad mini and fourth-generation iPad with Retina Display.
Meanwhile, Android is gaining momentum, especially on lower-cost tablets like the Amazon Kindle Fire HD and Barnes & Noble Nook HD. These slates use customized versions of Android with interfaces geared toward watching movies, reading e-books and magazines and enjoying other content on the go. The Nexus 7 uses Android Jelly Bean, which delivers an experience similar to Android phones. The handy Google Now feature lets you search using your voice and remembers your searches to save time.
Windows 8 (and its close cousin, Windows RT) brings a fresh new face to tablets, with a dynamic Live Tile interface that streams updates right to your Start screen on everything from email and news to social updates. And unlike the iPad and most Android tablets, you can run two apps at once on the same screen using Microsoft’s Snap feature.
If that person on your list is primarily interested in surfing the Web, checking Facebook and playing games, smaller and lower-cost tablets like the Kindle Fire HD, Nook HD, Nexus 7 and iPad mini will satisfy their needs. While pricier, the mini is the most versatile of the bunch, because it has the widest selection of apps.
Got a student, artist or mobile professional on your list? Consider a tablet with a built-in pen, such as the Android-powered Galaxy Note 10.1 or the Galaxy Note II, which is a cross between a phone and a tablet. The ThinkPad Tablet 2 running Windows 8 is another compelling option, especially for traveling executives.
If they’ll be using that tablet for work as well as play, consider getting them a premium slate such as the fourth-generation iPad with Retina Display. The latest iPad’s A6X chip is so fast they can edit HD video in the blink of an eye. If they want to type quickly without looking, consider springing for an external keyboard (about $100). Another option for workers on the move is a Windows RT tablet, such as the Microsoft Surface or ASUS Vivo Tab (both $599 with keyboard). Both devices come with Office 2013 preloaded.
Those buying a tablet for a child no longer are limited to educational toys like the LeapPad. There’s a wide variety of slates explicitly designed for kids, many of which cost less than $200. The $199 nabi 2, for example, is a 7-inch Android device that comes with a drop-safe bumper and built-in parental controls. The 1024 x 600-pixel display is on the small side, but the device comes with more than 2,500 lessons in English, math, science and other subjects from kindergarten to fifth grade.
The Amazon Kindle Fire HD and Nook HD are also great options for kids. Amazon’s FreeTime feature enables parents to set daily screen time limits and decide which content their kids can access from within their profiles. Barnes & Noble also offers the ability to create individual profiles for family members.
Ah, here’s the $200 question. Or $500. Or somewhere in the middle. Here’s what you can expect for your money. For less than $200, you can get a lot more than you might expect. We’re talking sharp 7-inch HD screens, fast dual-core (or even quad-core) processors and front-facing cameras for video chat. Both the Kindle Fire HD and Nexus 7 come with 16GB of memory, which is enough to store a good amount of apps, movies, books and music. The Nook HD starts at just 8GB, but you can upgrade to 16GB for $229.
As you climb up the price ladder, you can expect bigger displays and more premium designs. The $329 iPad mini, for example, has a sturdy aluminum design and a bigger 7.9-inch display. The screen isn’t HD, but Apple makes up for this shortcoming with its app library.
At the top end, you’ll find tablets with 9-inch or larger displays with full HD resolution (1080p or higher) and the fastest processors. The iPad with Retina Display (16 to 64GB), Galaxy Note 10.1 (16 to 64GB) and Microsoft Surface (32 to 64 GB) all start at $499, but the Google Nexus 10 starts at just $399 for 32GB. If they want 4G capability built in on a device like the new iPad to get online anywhere, expect to spend $130 more up front.
Editor-in-chief Mark Spoonauer directs LAPTOP’s online and print editorial content and has been covering mobile and wireless technology for over a decade. Each week Mark’s SpoonFed column provides his insights and analysis of the biggest mobile trends and news. You can also follow him on Twitter.
This post was sponsored by Best Buy. All opinions on products are our own.