The bookworm: Amazon Kindle Fire HDX
Price: $199 to $399 (Wi-Fi)
Amazon's latest version of its popular tablet is a sleek device available in two sizes: the bigger is 8.9 inches and its smaller counterpart is 7 inches, roughly the size of a trade paperback. As an e-reader, with its lower price and seamless integration to the Amazon bookstore, that 7-incher is at the top of the tablet heap.
The tablet runs Amazon's Fire OS 3.0, a variation of Android, and sports a higher-resolution screen than its predecessors. Videos look great, and Amazon Prime subscribers get access to the Amazon Instant streaming service as part of their $99 yearly membership fee. HDX owners who are also Amazon Prime members get the ability to download videos for offline viewing.
The selection at Amazon's app store isn't quite as robust as some, and its built-in Silk Web browser is a bit clunky. But battery life is strong. The device can easily run a full day on an overnight charge, and longer if you're using it mostly for reading. If you need help with the tablet, just tap the cool new MayDay icon and you're quickly connected, via video chat, to an Amazon tech adviser who can answer questions and, with your permission, take charge of the device to walk you through your issue.
The workhorse: Microsoft Surface 2
Price: $349 to $579 (Wi-Fi; cellular version available through AT&T only)
Microsoft recently introduced the new Surface Pro 3, which is more of a laptop replacement than a portable tablet. For those seeking a powerhouse tablet that does a lot more than just entertain, the Surface 2 — introduced last year — could be the choice. With a 10.6-inch screen, it's larger than brethren devices, and even at a relatively light 1.42 pounds, it can feel a bit bricklike in comparison with the iPad Air or other smaller tablets.
The Surface 2 runs Windows RT 8.1, the latest version of the Microsoft operating system. That means it comes equipped with the Microsoft Office suite, including Word, Excel, Outlook and PowerPoint. One key caveat is that if you plan to use the Surface for such tasks, it's pretty much imperative that you have a keyboard, which Microsoft sells separately. Tacking on another $80 to $120 for a touch keypad, which also doubles as a cover for the device, isn't incidental.
The Surface 2 sports a screen that, to my eye, matches Apple's vaunted retina display. Consuming media on the device is enjoyable, and its integration with Xbox video and music services make it a good choice for a family that already owns the gaming console. The Windows Store selection pales in comparison to its competitors, but the device arrives loaded with helpful news-gathering and travel apps that personalize your experience the more you use them. And its built-in Health and Fitness app is miles beyond similar offerings from its competitors, offering health news, trackers, fitness plans, recipes and symptom checkers, all within a few taps and swipes.
The rising star: Google Nexus 7
Price: $229 (16GB, Wi-Fi only) to $349 (32GB, Wi-Fi/Cellular)
It's hard to consider Google an underdog in anything, but the search engine giant was late to the tablet game, releasing its Nexus 7 in summer 2012, more than two years after Apple unveiled its first iPad. In this realm, that's an eternity.
But Google has quickly made up for lost time, and the second-generation Nexus 7 has made it a major tablet player. Though the Nexus 7 sports the same 7-inch screen as small tablet competitors such as the HDX and the iPad Mini, its chassis is notably thinner, making it much easier to hold in one hand.
And it's an impressive, powerful handful. The Nexus 7 runs Android, Google's ubiquitous mobile operating system, and features a shimmering, 323-pixel-per-inch screen that delivers eye-popping clarity. It's zippy, too, allowing users to toggle seamlessly between apps and tasks.
Games and apps are available through the Google Play store, as are videos, music, books and magazines. The store doesn't yet match Apple for ease-of-use or depth, but it's getting there. One new app is worth pointing out: Google Helpouts, available as a free download from Google Play, allows a user to get expert advice on any subject, via video chat. It's similar in function to Amazon's MayDay feature, but where MayDay is designed to help the user learn the device, Helpouts are meant to help the user learn about, well, anything, from cooking to car repair. That's Google for you.
Austin O'Connor covers television, film, gaming, gadgets and all kinds of entertainment for AARP.org. Follow him on Twitter: @austinjoconnor.
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