The workhorse: Microsoft Surface 2
Price: $449 to $549 (Wi-Fi only version now; cell service expected in 2014)
For those seeking a powerhouse tablet that does a lot more than just entertain, the Surface 2 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 positively bricklike in comparison with the iPad Air or smaller tablets available.
The Surface 2 runs Windows 8, 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 also 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 it 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 fall 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 with the second-generation Nexus 7, released late last summer, it firmly plants its flag as 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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