Which Tablet Computer Should You Get?

December/January 2013/14

Let's cut to the chase: buy an iPad.

Okay, now that my bias is clear, let's take a look at what's available, including the other (lesser) options. Actually, even though the iPad is still the most popular, other tablets are catching up, particularly those from Samsung.

As always, which tablet you get will depend a lot on how you plan to use it. The biggest argument in favor of Apple's iPads is the huge number of apps designed specifically for the larger screen: over 475,000. Plus, the iPad has a huge number of accessories available that expand its functionality. No other tablet can compare.

Apple's main competition is the tablets that run Google's Android software, and there are many fewer apps — numbering only in the tens of thousands. Bottom line: you can simply do more on an iPad, everything from video editing to recording music (up to 32 tracks) to word processing/page layout — and a huge range of other productivity tasks.

In addition, even if you have an Android tablet, it may not be compatible with all the Android apps available. Amazon's Kindle Fire tablets, for example, only run a subset of Android apps. Also, tablets from companies other than Google may be delayed in getting the latest version of Android, or in some cases may not get it at all.

If you want the best Android experience, buy a Google Nexus tablet. Their 10-inch Nexus that came out in 2012 is now a bit outclassed, but as of this writing a new 10-inch model is rumored to be imminent. They released an updated version of their 7-inch model this fall.

If you use Amazon for movies, music, and books, and if you use a tablet mainly for consuming media, then the Kindle Fire HDX tablet may be the best option. It comes in two sizes, 7 inches and 8.9 inches, and it is completely integrated with Amazon's shopping and media ecosystem.

Samsung's high-end Galaxy Note tablet has gotten good reviews and has features most tablets don't have, including a built-in stylus and a MicroSD slot for additional storage.

Those four tablets seem to be the leading contenders right now. Microsoft just came out with the second generation of their Surface tablet, but the first generation sold so poorly that they had to take a $950 million writedown on the loss. It runs Windows 8.1 RT, and not much software is available.

Whichever tablet you get, a primary decision you'll need to make is whether to get a model that can connect to the cellular data network. This feature lets you access the Internet wherever there's a cell phone signal. Otherwise, you're limited to access via WiFi hotspots. In addition, the cellular data models usually include GPS for navigation.

I've always preferred the cellular data model, because I'm addicted and need to be able to access the Internet wherever I am. You don't need to commit to a plan, but typically pay for monthly data as you need it. And the price is reasonable. For example, for the iPad the base price for cellular data from the major carriers is $0 for 200MB data per month from T-Mobile, $15/month for 250MB from AT&T, $15/month for 1GB from Sprint, and $20 for 1GB/month of data from Verizon.

If you don't already have a tablet and are considering getting one, here's more detail on some of the leading models.

Large-screen tablets

iPad Air (9.7-inch display): Among large-sized tablets, there are fewer choices, with many reviews of the new iPad Air designating it as the best tablet on the market. It just went on sale November 1 and is notable for being light and thin, with a long battery 10-hour life, speedy 64-bit processor, and high-resolution 2048 x 1536 display. Apple claims that it's the lightest full-sized tablet on the market.

It weighs in at one pound — a half-pound lighter than the previous iPad. And it's .29 inches thick. It's actually narrower, too, than the previous iPad, thanks to the narrower bezels (or borders) left and right. It's 6.6 inches wide compared to 7.31 before and just feels much smaller than the previous iPad, yet still with the 9.7-inch display.

The iPads run Apple's iOS software, and I find it to be intuitive, elegant, and a pleasure to use.

The price starts at $499 for the 16GB WiFi version. Add $130 for the cellular data model, and $100 for incremental memory upgrades up to 128GB.

Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 and Galaxy Tab 3 10.1 (10.1-inch display): The Galaxy Note 2014 Android-based tablet may be the iPad Air's biggest competitor. It's roughly the same price, but has more features. Most notably, it comes with a stylus that lets you draw or write on it by hand, and it translates your handwritten words into typed text. (Its conversion of handwriting is less than perfect, but the software has been improving.)

Unlike the iPad Air, the Note also comes with a MicroSD slot, so you can inexpensively add a lot of storage. It's just slightly thicker at .31 inches, and 1.2 lbs. It comes with an 8-megapixel camera compared to the iPad's 5 megapixels, but megapixel count doesn't always translate to quality. The Note has a 2560 x 1600 display, with a pixel density of 298 pixels per inch, compared to the iPad's 264.

The price for the Galaxy Note 2014 WiFi model is $549 for the 16GB of memory and $599 for 32GB. Expect to pay an additional $100 for the cellular data model.

Also available is the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 10.1, which is lighter (1.12 lbs), thinner (.31 inches), and cheaper than the Galaxy Tab Note 3. But the components are based on previous models and haven't kept pace with other tablets. The screen is lower resolution than most, at 1280 x 800. Reviews say its performance is sluggish and that even the 2012 Google Nexus 10 is a better choice, with a better screen and faster performance.

The price for the Galaxy Tab 3 10.1 is $359 for the 16GB model. There's no cellular data model.

Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 (8.9-inch display): This is the least expensive option if you want a larger-screen tablet. Plus, it's actually lighter than the iPad Air, at 0.84 lbs. It's only just slightly thicker than the iPad, at .31 inches. The 8.9-inch display has a resolution of 2560 x 1600 resolution display with a pixel density of 339 pixels per inch, which is higher than the other large tablets. Like the Galaxy Note, it has an 8-megapixel camera.

The Kindle Fire HDX runs a modified version of Android, and you can only download apps from Amazon's app store, which has a more limited selection than Google's app store. An interesting and unique feature on Amazon's HDX models is the "Mayday" button that lets you immediately get live expert help 24 hours per day.

The 16GB WiFi version starts at $379. If you want more storage, you can add incremental memory upgrades (32GB and 64GB) for an additional $50 per increment, half the price Apple charges. The cellular data model will cost an additional $100.

Smaller-screen tablets

iPad mini (7.9-inch display): Apple came out with a new, high-resolution version of their iPad mini in late November, and it's identical to the iPad Air except for the smaller screen size. It has the same 64-bit processor, same cameras, etc. The 7.9-inch 2,048 x 1,536 display hi-res display has a pixel density of 326 pixels per inch — nearly on par with the Kindle Fire HDX.

On paper, the display might seem to be only slightly larger than a 7-inch Android tablet, but the useable space is actually 35% larger, in part because Android takes up part of the display with navigation icons. In my experience, the difference is a lot, and I much prefer my iPad mini over my Google Nexus 7. I also love the thinness and lightness of my iPad mini, and take it everywhere. It's .29 inches thick and .73 pounds.

The price starts at $399 for the 16GB WiFi version. Incremental storage upgrades add $100 (up to 128GB). And the cellular data model adds another $100.

Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 7 (7-inch display): With a starting price of $229, this is a lot cheaper than the iPad mini. But there's no rear camera, and again a limited number of apps. Also, the casing for both HDX models is made of plastic compared to the iPad's unibody aluminum casing. The 1920 x 1200 display has a pixel density of 323 pixels per inch, almost identical to the mini.

The price is $229 for the 16GB WiFi model, with incremental storage being just $40 per increment up to 64GB. The cellular data model adds $100.

Google Nexus 7 (7-inch display): Google came out with the second generation of their Nexus 7 this fall, and like the Kindle Fire HDX, it has a 1920 x 1200 display with 323 pixels per inch. Unlike the first Nexus 7, this one has a 5-megapixel camera for shooting photos and video. However, the processor wasn't updated, and certainly won't be as speedy as the iPad mini.

It's a bit thicker than the iPad mini, at .34 inches, but is just slightly lighter at .64 lbs. Unlike most tablets, the WiFi-only model includes GPS. It runs Google's Android and can access the Google Play store, which has the largest selection of Android apps. Plus, being a Google tablet, you'll be able to immediately update to the latest version of Android.

The Nexus 7 starts at $229 for the 16GB WiFi version, and jumps to $269 for the 32GB version. The cellular data model comes with 32GB and costs $349.

Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0 and Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 8.0 (8-inch display): The Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0 includes the same stylus feature as the Galaxy Note 2014, but overall the components aren't nearly on par, nor is the software. It comes with a 5-megapixel camera and a lower resolution 8-inch display of 1280 x 800, which is only 189 pixels per inch. It weighs .74 lbs and is .31 inches thick.

The price begins as $399 for the 16GB version, and jumps to $499 for the no-contract cellular data model. Reviews suggest the Nexus 7 may be a better choice.

The Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 is actually thinner and lighter than the iPad mini, at .7 lbs and .27 inches, and has a similar-sized screen. The display is lower resolution, at 1280 x 800. It has a 5-megapixel camera, and MicroSD slot for adding more storage. This is pretty much the same tablet as the Note 8.0 but without the stylus.

The price starts at $279 for the 16GB WiFi model. There's no cellular data model.

Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 7.0 (7-inch display): Finally, on the low end is the Tab 7.0 with a 1024 x 600 7-inch display. It's similar to the Tab 8.0 in other respects, including 5-megapixel camera and MicroSD slot. The price is $179 for the 16GB WiFi model. There's no cellular data model.

You can also find earlier versions of some of these tablets in the sub-$200 price range, such as the Amazon Kindle HD. But I focused on the latest models, since they have the best screens and best feature set.

As you can see, there are a lot of great choices — and many that I didn't mention. While Apple still leads in terms of market share, Samsung comes in at a strong #2. I think your best choices are the iPad Air, iPad mini, Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 2014, Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9, and the Google Nexus 7.

© 2013 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.

E-mail Jim Karpen