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Tablets: Which One's Right for You?

Today's consumers have better options than ever before. Here's what to look for

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Man using iPad and Microsoft Surface. Digital tablet buying guide. (Iain Masterson/Alamy)

Shopping for a new tablet? Check out these options. — Iain Masterson/Alamy

En español | Nonexistent as recently as 2009, the tablet market has exploded. Over the first half of this year, nearly 100 million tablets were shipped worldwide. According to a recent Pew Internet study, more than a third of all Americans over the age of 16 own one. Among those between ages 50 and 64, 31 percent own a tablet, and 18 percent of Americans over 64 are tablet owners. Those numbers are expected to rise in 2014 and beyond.

That means it’s very likely that you or someone on your holiday list is hoping for a new tablet this season. At this point in the tablet’s evolution, most devices can reliably offer sharp screens, vivid cameras for photos and videos, and access to myriad video, music, apps and books. We’ve chosen these standout devices for overall functionality, reliability and price. But, you might ask yourself, which is right for me? Read on.

The can’t-miss kids: iPad Air and iPad Mini

Price: iPad Air (Wi-Fi only versions run from $499 to $799; Wi-Fi/Cellular from $629 to $929)

iPad Mini with retina display (Wi-Fi only from $399 to $699; Wi-Fi/Cellular from $529 to $829)

Apple created the tablet market with the original iPad in 2010, then pioneered the small-tablet market with the iPad Mini last year. Consumers have purchased more than 170 million iPads in the past three years. Competition is now stiffer than ever, but the iPad still sets the standard.

The newly released iPad Air raises that standard. It’s a slimmer, faster version of its predecessor, the now-discontinued iPad 4, and sports the same crystal-clear retina display. With a 9.7-inch screen, the Air lives up to its name, weighing in at a single pound, nearly a half-pound less than the iPad 4. It’s astonishingly light, but if you already own an iPad 4, it’s hard to recommend ponying up for an upgrade that essentially consists of, well, air.

The iPad Mini also got a recent makeover. The new version is faster and adds the retina display of its bigger sibling. The visual upgrade is apparent, but on a smaller screen it’s not essential. Again, anyone who owns the first-generation Mini should probably stand pat. Both new iPads run iOS7, the latest version of Apple’s operating system. But if you already own an iPad, you don’t need to upgrade your device to get iOS7; it’s available as a free download.

The benefits of the iPad remain the same: It’s intuitive, hyperfast, useful and fun, at whatever size.

For those partial to reading, the Mini may be a better choice (I can’t be the only one with bruises on my nose where my iPad has whacked me after I’ve drifted to sleep while reading in bed), but for video consumption the larger screen offers fantastic clarity. The depth of inventory at iTunes and the App Store is nearly unmatched, and it’s incredibly easy to navigate.

You’ll pay a premium to get an iPad, but you won’t be disappointed.

The bookworm: Amazon Kindle Fire HDX

Price: $229 to $424 (Wi-Fi)

With its small but slick 7-inch screen, Amazon’s latest version of its popular tablet is a sleek device roughly the size of a trade paperback. As an e-reader, with its lower price and seamless integration to the Amazon bookstore, it’s at the top of the tablet heap.

The tablet is powered by a new, faster version of Amazon’s Fire OS, a variation of Android, and sports a higher-resolution screen than its predecessors. No wonder videos look great on the HDX. Amazon Prime subscribers get access to the Amazon Instant streaming service as part of their $79 yearly membership fee. Using the Amazon Instant service with an HDX offers viewers the ability to download videos for offline viewing.

The selection at Amazon’s app store isn’t quite as robust as its competition, and its built-in Silk Web browser is clunkier and not as smooth as some others. 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.

Next page: Check out tablets from Microsoft and Google. »

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