(Ed. Note: For an updated list, check out 5 Best Tablets for the 2014 Holidays!)
Deciding what is the best tablet for each friend or family member on your holiday shopping list is far from an easy feat. That’s because there are so many options, so choosing the best tablets to buy can be overwhelming.
Less than four years ago (a lifetime in the tech world), the best tablet computer was a much easier choice … because the Apple (AAPL) iPad was pretty much the only game in town. Today? There are 29 Samsung (SSNLF) tablets currently offered on its U.S. website.
New platforms have arrived on the scene, with Android tablets as top-sellers and Microsoft (MSFT) Windows 8 tablets also attempting to fill the void being left by shrinking PC sales.
Plus, while cheap, no-name Android tablets were tempting bargain shoppers last year, flagship 7-inch Android tablets from big-name players like Google (GOOG) and Amazon (AMZN) have driven prices lower than ever … even as the cheap tablets get more powerful. In many cases, last year’s premium models are available as cheap tablets this year as well, so there’s no need to buy a bad tablet anymore.
But that just makes choosing the best tablets to buy that much harder. While there’s no right answer for all circumstances, we’ve put together a tablet-buying guide for the 2013 holidays, including the top tablet choice in various categories.
Best Tablet for General Use – Apple iPad Mini with Retina Display
The Apple iPad Mini was a hit last year, but its biggest weak point was corrected when Apple released the iPad Mini with Retina Display this fall.
The iPad Mini was already one of the best tablets for the casual tablet user; it’s smaller than a full-sized Apple iPad but its 7.9-inch display with 4:3 aspect ratio offers 35% more screen area than the other top 7-inch tablets. That extra space makes reading and web surfing much easier on the eyes.
At the same time, the littlest iPad has access to the full Apple app store, including the most comprehensive selection of apps that are optimized for tablets (not simply magnified smartphone visuals).
The iPad Mini with Retina Display may be more expensive than last year’s version, but it’s still one of the best tablets to buy in 2013. That’s because, at $399, it’s $100 less than the Apple iPad Air. And with that 2048 x 1536 display and Apple’s new 64-bit A7 processor, the iPad Mini with Retina Display should be not only enough tablet for any general user, but enough to satisfy just about any AAPL fan too.
That makes it the best tablet for general use in this 2013 tablet-buying guide.
Best Tablet for Business Use – Microsoft Surface Pro 2
When the Microsoft Surface Pro 2 came out, it didn’t change much from the original. Instead, MSFT tweaked and bumped the Windows 8 Pro tablet into a viable laptop replacement.
This Microsoft tablet boasts an Intel (INTC) Core i5-4200U processor commonly found in Ultrabooks. So the Surface Pro 2 is one of the best tablets because it’s nearly 10% faster than the original and outclasses Windows 8 Pro tablets from competitors like Sony (SNE) and Asus.
Anyone who wants to replace their laptop with something more portable (at 2 pounds, the Surface Pro 2 is light vs. laptops) while being able to set the keyboard aside and use the device purely as a Windows 8 tablet will appreciate what the Surface Pro 2 has to offer.
Add in the ability to run Windows 8 PC software (including the Microsoft Office suite), a USB port for connecting peripherals, a full range of accessories (including a dock, wireless keyboard covers, mice and stylus) and the ability to stack the specs with up to 8GB of RAM and 512GB of storage … and the Surface Pro 2 is difficult to beat when looking for the best tablet for business use.
Plus, this top tablet just got even better with a recent firmware update. The Surface Pro 2 got a 20% boost in battery life, so you can now squeak seven to eight hours out of a charge.
Best Full-Size Tablet for the Money – Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9
While the Apple iPad Air is arguably the best full-sized tablet available today, that doesn’t mean it’s the best tablet for everyone. Amazon tablets are impressive too. In fact, for the past two years, it’s been unusual to find a holiday tablet-buying guide that didn’t have an Amazon Kindle Fire on it.
2013 is no exception. The Kindle Fired HDX 8.9 is one of the best tablets for the money, as it starts at just $379.
The Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 is one of the best tablets thanks to its brilliant display and ultra-sharp 2560 x 1600 resolution (339 PPI) display that’s been winning raves as the current best-in-class display for a tablet. The Amazon tablet itself is also compact and very light — weighing less than Apple’s iPad Air — but still performs well thanks to a quad-core processor.
Plus, for those who are new to tablets, Amazon has included a unique ‘Mayday’ button. Tap it and within 15 seconds, an Amazon support rep will appear in a small video chat window to help out. The service is available 24/7, 365 days of the year. And it’s free, making this the best tablet to buy for beginners.
The downside of going with the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 is that you’ll be locking yourself into Amazon’s ecosphere, though. The app selection isn’t as good as Google Play or iTunes … so if your recipient is stuck on a specific app, maybe check out Amazon to make sure that app is available before deciding this is the best tablet to buy.
Best 7-Inch Tablet – Google Nexus 7
Not everyone wants a full-sized tablet, though. The 7-inch form factor has become the hot category in tablets — cheaper and small enough to stuff in a coat pocket. But that also makes finding the best 7-inch tablet just as difficult a task.
Our answer: The best 7-inch tablet is the new Google Nexus 7. The original quickly sold out and the 2013 version is even better. The Nexus tablet is a compact powerhouse with a razor sharp display and an affordable $229 starting price. As a Google device, it’s also a showcase for the latest Android operating system, with no third party UIs or overlays to complicate things.
Mobile gaming is one of the most popular uses for a tablet and the Google Nexus 7 has the power of a quad-core Qualcomm (QCOM) Snapdragon S4 processor, a 323 PPI display, up to 10 hours of battery life and access to all the games on Google Play. Combined with its size, the powerful specs make it a portable gaming natural and one of the best tablets to buy this holiday season.
Another thing to note in this tablet-buying guide: The Nexus 7 also makes for a great general use tablet if small is your thing.
Best Tablet for Kids – Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 7.0 Kids
When tablets first blew up in a big way, the idea of tablets for kids in a tablet-buying guide would have seemed ridiculous — an Apple iPad was too big and too expensive for children.
But then app-makers started cranking out games and educational software to take advantage of the growing number of tablets in households. The result: Kids were drawn to those expensive glowing slabs of glass like moths to a flame, schools started handing them out and now it seems perfectly normal to discuss the best tablets for kids.
Samsung recognized this market, for one. Instead of buying a toy tablet — usually a proprietary device with its own line of cartridges — or trying to kid-proof a hand-me-down tablet, the company is now offering the new Galaxy Tab 3 7.0 Kids.
It’s a real tablet (albeit with last year’s specs like a 1024 x 600 display), but it’s lightweight, runs Android Jelly Bean (with Google Play access), comes equipped with an intuitive kid-friendly user interface along with pre-loaded games and educational apps, and offers extensive parental controls. So the tablet’s capabilities can grow with the child.
This Samsung tablet is also brightly coloured and comes with a grippy, protective case for easier handling, making it hands-down the best tablet for kids this 2013 holiday season.