Tablet computers have become the go-to gadgets for gaming, browsing, reading and generally goofing off. And as demand for tablets heats up, the choices get more interesting. (Unfortunately, the Nook Tablet HD wasn’t available in time to include it in this review.)
The most intriguing entry is the Microsoft Surface RT ($500 and up). It comes loaded with Internet Explorer and Microsoft Office 2013, which is compatible with previous versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint. But the Surface RT can’t run standard desktop Windows programs such as iTunes and Photoshop. Tablets and PCs with Windows 8, including the pricey Surface Pro (due out soon), will be able to run your other apps and programs.
If Microsoft can successfully explain the difference between Windows RT and Windows 8 to customers, the Surface looks like a winner. It has a thin yet sturdy magnesium case, and its 10.6-inch display is crisp and colorful. The Surface RT comes with a built-in kickstand and two optional covers with built-in keyboards: the Touch Cover ($120) and the Type Cover ($130). And the tile-based Windows RT software is intuitive, colorful and comes with plenty of useful apps.
Other worthy competitors. Google recently added the Nexus 10 ($400 and up), a 10-inch model, to its tablet roster. The best feature of the new version is its eye-catching display with 2560-by-1600 resolution—better than any other tablet’s, including the iPad’s. The Nexus 10 costs $100 less than a comparably equipped, 16-gigabyte iPad. All Nexus slates run Google’s Android software, which has become a reasonably good tablet operating system—although users have far fewer tablet-specific apps to choose from.
The first-generation Kindle Fire from Amazon, a 7-inch model with a plastic shell, didn’t exactly wow critics, but its $200 price tag made it a hit with consumers. Amazon recently upped its game with two new tablets: the 7-inch Kindle Fire HD ($200 and up) and the Kindle Fire HD 8.9” ($300 and up). The smaller unit has a 1280-by-800 display and dual stereo speakers that deliver quality audio. The larger model, which wasn’t shipping at press time, has a 1920-by-1200 screen; upgrade to the $500 version and you get 4G LTE wireless (Amazon charges a flat $50 for 250 megabytes of data a month for 12 months).
The Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 ($500) is a stylish, 16GB Android touch tablet with a 1280-by-800 display. The Note is speedy and easy to use; a stylus allows users to write directly on the screen, and there is a small selection of apps for taking notes, drawing and so on.
Apple weighs in. Apple is fighting to keep its title. The full-size, 9.7-inch iPad recently got a faster processor and a smaller connector for peripherals. Plus, Apple recently unveiled the iPad mini ($330 and up), with a 7.9-inch display. A sleek aluminum-and-glass shell gives the mini an upscale feel, and optional 4G LTE wireless (an additional $130, plus a monthly service charge) is handy for when you’re nowhere near a Wi-Fi hot spot. Plus, mini owners have access to 275,000 iPad programs, games and utilities. Still, it’s hard to justify the mini’s premium price when the device’s 1024-by-768 display has the lowest resolution in its class.
This article first appeared in Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine. For more help with your personal finances and investments, please subscribe to the magazine. It might be the best investment you ever make.