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Tablets have become as standard as smartphones this year. You can see them on the morning commute, in parks, schools—just about anywhere there’s a Wi-Fi connection. But as tablets become more ubiquitous, and the selection of tablets grows, you need to make hard and fast choices about the tablet you buy. If you want our picks for some of the best tablets this season, read on.
There’s a reason this is appearing on all the tablet top-ten lists. First, the A7 processor is a huge leap over the previous iPad, and faster than many low-end tablets. It’s based on 64-bit, desktop-class architecture, which means it can use the RAM more efficiently (thankfully, because there’s only 1GB of RAM inside).
The 9.7” screen is also Retina-enhanced, with 2048 x 1536 resolution and more than 3.1 million pixels. Are you going to notice the difference? Yes, you are. The screen resolution is one of the most appealing features of the iPad Air. That and the fact that it weighs one pound and is less than 0.30 inches thin.
It’s available in both a Wi-Fi only (the Wi-Fi is greatly improved as well, using dual channel and MIMO technology for the antennas) and a Wi-Fi/Cellular combo for an always-on connection. It ranges from 16GB to 128GB of internal storage, but the lack of a microSD slot, which would have expanded the memory capacity cheaply and efficiently, is an unfortunate omission.
But I have to say, it was a great move on Apple’s part to open up all of their productivity software at no charge. Having free access to the iLife suite of iPhoto, iMovie, GarageBand, and the iWork suite of Numbers, Pages, and Keynote (read: Apple’s version of Excel, Word, and PowerPoint) is a definite bonus.
And if you want to shrink your iPad Air experience, consider the iPad mini with retina display. It features most, if not all, of the features of the Air, but it does so with a 7.9” screen. It comes in the same Wi-Fi only or Wi-Fi/cellular combos, in capacities from 16GB to 128GB. It also records 1080p video with a 3x video zoom.
About the size of a large paperback, the 7” class of tablets is great for e-reading, some movie watching, and music appreciation. But heavy end productivity is encumbered by the tiny screen, and the price could be prohibitive—better tablets at this size are much cheaper. And once again, no microSD slot for extra storage.
PROS: Thinner, lighter, and faster. Apps are productive and fun, and the interface is intuitive without pandering.
CONS: A little too thin. Don’t leave this lying around the house if you have young ‘uns roaming about. Also, the lack of a microSD card slot is a big deal—you’ll feel it as soon as you overcrowd the internal storage.
PROS: Smaller, more portable, same features of iPad Air.
CONS: Readability is sometimes a problem with e-books. Price.
ASUS has been in the tablet game for a while now, and are responsible for elevating the Android tablet playing field from mere gadgets to full-fledged productive mini-systems. For years, they’ve worked with the Tegra 3 processors in their budget Transformer line, but now they’re expanding their horizons to include the Intel® quad-core Baytrail chips. What this does is effectively turn their Transformer tablets into Windows 8.1 machines.
On their new T100TA-C1-GR Transformer Book, the 1.8 GHz processor is supported by 2GB of RAM and a 64GB solid-state drive built into the tablet portion of the unit. The 10.1” IPS screen showcases graphics at 1366 x 768 resolution, and although it’s no Retina killer, it does a great job for its smaller price tag. It includes a front-facing 1.2MP webcam, microSD card slot (for an additional 64GB of memory per microSDXC card), and Wi-Fi/Bluetooth connectivity.
But what brings this tablet up a step is its ability to attach to an included keyboard dock (which adds a USB 3.0 port to the mix) making it a small Ultrabook™, and including Windows 8.1 as the operating system. That’s right—Windows 8.1. This makes the Transformer Book T1000-C1-GR the best of the hybrid Windows 8 tablets. As an added bonus, ASUS throws in a fully functioning version of Microsoft Office as well.
PROS: Windows 8.1 operating system, long battery life (11 hours), detachable keyboard is included.
CONS: Plastic construction, no added battery life in dock, only HD resolution.
So what sets it apart in our eyes? It’s solidly built, has features that are now becoming standard on every tablet, and is Google Play certified, giving you the full Android experience (right now, using the Jelly Bean 4.2 operating system). It weighs only 1.12 pounds and is only .31 inches thick (very close to the iPad Air thickness), but it is constructed on a plastic chassis that makes it feel somehow…not there? Sometimes, especially when handling the Microsoft Surface 2 or iPad, you appreciate a little bit of volume in your tablet. The Galaxy Tab 3 does such a good job at concealing that volume that it almost feels insubstantial.
The display is a winner—bright and clear and colorful—and if this is mainly going to be a multimedia tablet for you, you could do worse. There have been reported problems of lag between screen interactions and response times, but in the model we played with, it seemed to move fairly quickly (although my model was not loaded with applications—yet). It does have a cool remote control feature which uses an IR blaster on the top of the tablet. It lets you control your home cable box right from the tablet—nifty, but not a deal maker.
PROS: Some additional functionality with the remote feature; good screen quality; solid tablet features.
CONS: Uses older Clover Trail processor; lots of reported lag time.
While we’re exploring Samsung’s Galaxy, take a look at the Galaxy Note 10 (2014 edition). Please note: this is the new 2014 edition, not the prior standard edition. Although not yet available for sale (these should ship in the first week of December), we’ve seen the specs. They come in 16GB and 32GB versions, and contain a proprietary Samsung Exynos 1.9 GHz Quad Processor and a 1.3 GHz Quad Processor. That’s right—two processors. The octa-core chipset does not have eight cores working overtime. This thing would melt. But it does ramp up and slow down processing across multiple cores for a better, faster experience. It’s supported by 3GB of RAM, the most in any tablet we’ve seen so far. Samsung also includes a microSD card slot for expandability.
Another plus for Samsung is their 10.1” touch screen with beautiful 2560 x 1600 resolution. The touchscreen can also interface with the included S-Pen for taking notes or sketching, making this the go-to tablet for students or productivity-minded tableteers. It also includes a number of standard features like front and rear cameras (although the rear camera on this unit is a currently whopping 8MP). It uses the Android 4.3 Jelly Bean operating system at this writing, but should be upgradeable to the newer Android KitKat OS.
PROS: Great screen, fastest processing, microSD expansion.
CONS: Not yet available.
There’s a reason the Nexus 7” FHD tablet is being called the perfect tablet. It delivers exactly what a tablet should, at a price far below its competitors. Its nearest competition is the iPad Mini, at almost double the price, a no-no in this new economy.
From the processor up, the Nexus shoots for the stars. It uses a 1.4 GHz Snapdragon S4 quad-core chip, made for gaming and delivering high-end graphics, and is supported by 2GB of RAM. The 7” display crackles with 1920 x 1200 resolution, and uses the 400 MHz Adreno graphics processor to aid in showing off what it can do visually. It includes other standards, like Wi-Fi/Bluetooth connectivity, 1.2MP front and 5MP rear cameras, micro USB, and even a specialized HDMI out slot (which needs an optional dongle, sold separately). It even rocks some pretty good speakers.
Perfect in almost every way. Except…
For some reason, ASUS has forsaken the microSD card slot. At 16GB, the internal storage was eaten up in almost a week’s time with my movies, music, and books. Without the extra space a microSD would have afforded me, I’m stuck with making some tough storage decisions. Something’s gotta go, and I think my high-definition movies will be first.
But if you’re not a gigabyte hog, and you only have a movie or two, a couple of gigs of music, and a few e-books to read, then this is an almost perfect tablet experience. Hopefully, when the 10” version comes along, they’ll put the microSD slot in and everything will be copacetic.
PROS: Great screen, fast processor, no application lags, Google Play certified.
CONS: Screen size is prohibitive, no microSD storage options.
So there you have our picks for some of the tablets to beat this season. What you need a tablet for will determine which of these six are for you. Entertainment, productivity or a combination of both can be achieved with almost anything on your list. Apple fans who are invested in the ecosystem around the iOS infrastructure will definitely want the iPad Air, a great all-around choice. Windows fans will be happy with the Transformer Book. Android fans have their hands full with the Samsung Galaxy choices, and those who enjoy their entertainment on the truly portable scale will have the Nexus to keep them company.