Update: We've now published a more updated version of this guide.
Meet the tabletsWe had to narrow our list down somehow, so we went with what we consider to be the highest-profile tablets of the holiday season. If you stroll into your local electronics or retail store, these are the models you're most likely to see.
Are they also the best tablets? Many are, others maybe less so. But for the sake of simplicity, we had to cut it off somewhere, so "high-profile" it is.
We also left out hybrid tablet PCs that run full desktop operating systems, like the Surface Pro and Lenovo Yoga. Their software, internal guts, and prices basically make them laptops trapped in tablets' bodies, so we left them out of this round.
We divided our picks into two groups, based on size. We have the large (8.9" and larger) tablets:
- Apple iPad Air
- Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9"
- Microsoft Surface 2
- Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 10.1
- Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014 Edition)
And we have the miniature (8.0" and smaller) tablets:
- Apple iPad mini with Retina Display
- Apple iPad mini (1st generation)
- Amazon Kindle Fire HDX
- Google/Asus Nexus 7 (2013)
- Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 8-inch
- Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 7-inch
- Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0
For each category, you'll see two visuals: one showing the five big boys, and another with the seven little guys. The images sit smack dab on top of each other, so you can easily ogle all twelve at once.
Got it? Good. Without further ado, we present to you our 2013 Tablet Comparison Guide.
Quite a variety here. We have everything ranging from Microsoft's big honkin' Surface 2 to Samsung's teeny Galaxy Tab 3 7". How big of a difference is it? Well, the Tab 3 only gives you 46 percent as much surface area as the Surface. All the other tablets lie somewhere in between.
We'll get to displays in a minute, but it's worth noting that the screens of the three iPads and the 8-in Galaxy Tab take up the highest percentage of their front faces. Other tablets, like the Kindle Fires and the Surface 2, have much more space devoted to their bezels.
Among the big tablets, the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 is the lightest, but remember that it also has a 27 percent smaller screen than the feathery iPad Air. The Surface 2, despite being a hair lighter than the 1st-gen Surface RT, is by far the heaviest in this group.
The Nexus 7 is the lightest in this bunch, but the small tablets are all in the same general weight class. That's a win for the 8-in tablets, as they all give you significantly more screen real estate than the 7-in slates do (more on that in a minute).
Plastic shows up the most, but it's also generally going to give you the cheapest feel. Only the Surface and the iPads use metallic build materials.
The two Kindle Fires and the Nexus 7 all lack physical navigation buttons. So you'll sacrifice a portion of their screens, in exchange for virtual buttons.
Also worth noting: the Surface 2 is the only tablet in this group that gives you a kickstand. It helps to use it as a faux laptop, when paired with one of Microsoft's keyboard covers.
Here are your color options, with eight of the 12 tablets giving you some choice in the matter.
If you're wondering about those percentages above, that's a quick reference to show you the relative size of each screen (with the biggest screen, the Surface 2, marking 100 percent). These stats are based on screen area, not the misleading diagonal measurements that manufacturers use.
When is a 7.9-in screen bigger than an 8-in screen? When they have different aspect ratios, that's when. The iPad mini's 4:3 aspect ratio gives you four percent more screen area than the Galaxy Note 8.0's 16:10 screen.
Speaking of aspect ratios, the iPads' 4:3 is easily the best for portrait mode use, and is also good for landscape. The 16:10 tablets can work decently for portrait mode, but are more oblong. The Surface's 16:9 screen is, more or less, strictly landscape. Use it in portrait, and you'll feel like you're reading a long scroll of parchment.
The majority of the tablets in this group have razor-sharp, high resolution displays (which you'd call "Retina" if you were Apple). The exceptions? Four Samsung tablets and the 1st-gen iPad mini all have much lower resolution.
Samsung's Galaxy Notes are the only slates in this group that are centered around stylus input. They also include some software features that take advantage of the S Pen, including quick note-jotting from anywhere, screen annotating, and scrolling through web pages by hovering your pen over the screen.
You can buy third-party styluses that are compatible with the other tablets, but they don't have the system-wide software integration that the Notes' S Pens do.
Each platform has its own fans, but when it comes to apps, the iPad still rules this roost. Apple's most recent stats (from October) boast of over 475,000 total tablet-optimized apps in the App Store. A recent report estimated that Google Play's count of tablet apps is "in the low tens of thousands."
Curiously, the Surface's Windows Store has over 120,000 apps. It must be loaded with lots of useless filler apps, though, because our experience paints a very different picture. Despite those stats, we're confident in declaring its app selection the weakest in this group.
Of course you can also run scaled-up smartphone apps on all the Android tablets. You can get away with that on smaller tablets like the Nexus 7, but the bigger the screen gets, the more ridiculous those stretched-out apps will look. Expect lots of blank space and unattractive layouts.
Bundled office apps
Apple is throwing in its iWork suite of office apps (Pages, Numbers, and Keynote) with every new iPad purchase. Microsoft also includes the RT version of Office, which looks and behaves almost exactly like the desktop version, with the Surface 2. Not to miss out on the fun, Amazon is tacking on a third-party office app called OfficeSuite Pro 7 with Fire HDX purchases.
The two new iPads offer the most storage options, but everything else (apart from last year's iPad mini) is available in multiple flash storage tiers.
The Surface 2 is the only tablet in this bunch that isn't sold in a cellular version, but that will supposedly come sometime in 2014.
There shouldn't be too much concern about performance anywhere in this group, but expect the 7-in Galaxy Tab to be the most questionable. The 1st-gen iPad mini is no speed demon either, but the two new iPads are about as fast as it gets right now.
RAM ranges from a mere 512 MB in the first iPad mini, all the way up to 3 GB in the 2014 Galaxy Note 10.1.
We haven't put all of these tablets through our standard battery test, so the above visuals show their capacities (at least where they're known). From where we stand now, we'd say the iPad Air and Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 are the ones to beat here.
Who's up for some awkward tablet photography? Everything but the 7-in Kindle Fire HDX includes a rear camera.
On-device customer service
We'll throw Amazon a bone here, and highlight the Kindle Fire HDX's "Mayday" button. If you want help using your device, tap the button, and an Amazon rep will pop onto your screen to lend a hand. It's kinda like one-way video chat: you can see the Amazon rep, but they can only hear you. They can, however, see your screen, draw on your screen, and even control your device, if you're into that kind of thing.
The original iPad mini is the only 2012 holdout on this list (Apple kept it around for a second year at a lower price). Most of the other tablets just launched within the last few months, so there isn't too much to worry about here.
The Galaxy Note 8.0 has been around since April, so it's possible we'll see its follow-up in around five months.
The iPad mini with Retina Display was the last to launch, just recently hitting Apple's online stores. It could be in short supply until 2014.
And it all leads up to this. As you can see, prices are all over the place. Apple has never been known for budget pricing, and the iPads are no exception. That includes a US$70 hike for the 2nd-gen iPad mini over what the original went for last year. In exchange, the 1st-gen model got a $30 price drop.
Apple's high margins leave room for Amazon and Google to price their tablets pretty aggressively. You could easily argue that the two Kindle Fires and the Nexus 7 give you the most hardware bang for your buck. They all have razor-sharp screens, fast performance, and modest price tags.
... just remember that the base prices for Amazon's tablets include advertising on the lockscreen. You'll need to fork over an extra $15 to turn those ads off.
Wrap-upSo there you have it, your most high-profile tablets of the 2013 holiday shopping season. The iPad is still the most popular tablet, and we think
The odd man out is the Surface 2: it's improved over its predecessor, but its app selection isn't great, and its supposed productivity advantage is dampened by the fact that it doesn't run desktop apps (you'll need to check out the Surface Pro 2 for that). Plus you'll have to fork over an extra $120 or so to get one of Microsoft's keyboard covers, an integral part of the Surface experience.
But hey, we aren't here to make up your mind for you. What fun would that be? We can say that there aren't any tablets in this group that we'd avoid like the plague. The hardest sell might be the 7-in Galaxy Tab 3 ... not because it's a terrible tablet, but because you can get a much better device, the Nexus 7, for only $30 more.
Thinking about the iPad, but not sure which one you want? Then you can check out our hands-on showdown between the iPad Air and Retina iPad mini. You can also check out our updated Smartphone Comparison Guide.