If you are holiday gift shopping this year, chances are a tablet is on your list. Once again, the devices are the No. 1 most-requested gift for adults and kids are clamoring for them too.
What is the best tablet to buy, though? Since those days when the iPad from Apple Inc. (AAPL) was the only game in town, the number of big glass, metal and plastic slabs has exploded. Some run Android, iPads run iOS, and Microsoft (MSFT) is in the game with Windows tablets.
The best tablets are well designed and well-built, and they offer an excellent user experience and good value for the money. The best tablets 2014 produced have features like better-than-HD displays, high-powered CPUs with graphics that can rival game consoles and thinner cases than ever.
The 2014 edition of our tablet-buying guide lists our picks as the best tablets of 2014 in key categories, including the best tablets for kids, general use and for business.
Best Tablets for General Use: iPad Air 2
Last year, the iPad Mini with Retina Display topped our list of the best tablets for general use — the “do everything” tablet for home use. This year, we’re going with Apple’s iPad Air 2.
The iPad Air 2 is thinner and lighter, and Apple laminated the display components so graphics are sharper and brighter than ever. The latest model includes a Touch ID sensor and this is the only Apple device to include the new A8X CPU (with 2GB of RAM) — a beast of a processor.
Among the best tablets 2014 has seen, the iPad Air 2 is tops for being a well-rounded, beautifully designed and reasonably priced choice that should make anyone happy.
Best Tablets for Business Use: Microsoft Surface Pro 3
Microsoft repeats by once again, taking the category of best tablets to buy for business use or productivity gurus.
The new Surface Pro 3 grows its display to a massive 12.2-inches, but switches to a 3:2 aspect ratio that makes the tablet seem much less awkward. Despite the increase in display size and the fact that there’s an Intel (INTC) Core CPU inside — the same processor that powers PCs — the Surface Pro 3 is thinner and lighter than last year’s model.
This is the priciest tablet on our 2014 tablet-buying guide, but with Windows Pro 8.1 and the ability to run Windows PC software, the Surface Pro 3 series are without a doubt, the best tablets to buy someone on your list who intends to be a mobile productivity champion.
Best Tablets for the Money (Full-Sized): Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9, Google Nexus 9
What is the best tablet in terms of value? If you want bang for your buck when shopping for a full-sized tablet, we have a tie this year between the Amazon (AMZN) Kindle Fire HDX and the Google (GOOG) Nexus 9.
The two tablets share a similar display size (at the lower end of full-sized), but otherwise are very different products.
Choose the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 if you’re shopping for someone who loves Amazon. This tablet has an excellent and pixel dense (339 ppi) display, a powerful CPU and Dolby Atmos sound making it a good choice on its own. But, it’s tied to Amazon, which means fewer app choices but excellent integration with Amazon services from shopping to Kindle, Mayday and Firefly. Plus, at $379, it’s a bargain.
Android fans will be much happier with the Google Nexus 9, an HTC-made tablet with a $429 price tag. While not perfect, the Nexus 9 has topped many “Best Tablets 2014” lists. It has a powerful CPU, Full HD display, front-facing HTC Boom Sound speakers, and it runs Android 5.0 (Lollipop).
As a Nexus device, the Nexus 9 tablet will also receive priority Android updates from Google, ensuring it stays current for years to come.
Best Tablets for the Money (Compact): Samsung Galaxy Tab S 8.4, iPad Mini 2, Google Nexus 7
There are lots of great compact tablets to choose from, including two bargains from last year that still make great, affordable gifts. So many, in fact, we have a three-way tie this year.
The Samsung (SSNLF) Galaxy Tab S 8.4 is one of the best tablets released this year, period. This Android tablet was the thinnest thing in town until the iPad Air 2 arrived and it also sports an incredible Super AMOLED display: 2560 x 1600 pixels, 100,000:1 contrast and 94% accuracy color reproduction.
Last year’s iPad Mini with Retina Display has been re-named the iPad Mini 2. It’s identical to the new iPad Mini 3 with the exception of no Touch ID sensor and no gold case option. It’s still a great all-purpose tablet, and Apple has dropped the price to $299, making the iPad Mini 2 a no-brainer for our tablet-buying guide.
The Google Nexus 7 was one of the best tablets of 2013. It’s a year old, and you can’t buy it on Google Play any longer. But this compact Nexus tablet can still be found in stores — often in the $200 range — and it’s received the Android Lollipop upgrade, so someone receiving a Nexus 7 as a gift will be able to enjoy the latest and greatest Android features.
Best Tablets for Kids: Amazon Fire HD Kids Edition
What is the best tablet for kids?
The iPad Mini 2 and Nexus 7 are the right size for kids, but at $200 and up they are expensive to replace if they get dropped and broken. With kids, that happens.
That’s why the Amazon Fire HD Kids Edition is our no-contest pick for best tablets for kids in the 2014 edition of our holiday tablet-buying guide.
For $189 (on sale at $159 at the time of writing), you get a compact tablet with an HD display that has a year of unlimited free access to Amazon’s FreeTime kid-friendly content (educational apps, games, books, TV shows and movies), parental controls and a colorful, kid-proof case.
Sealing the deal, if the tablet breaks — despite the case — Amazon will replace it for free, no questions asked, for up to two years.
If there are kids on your holiday gift shopping list, the Amazon Fire HD Kids Edition tops our list of best tablets to buy for so many reasons.
As of this writing, Robert Martin did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.