This is the year tablets stopped being a one-horse race. There are real options now, and that means making real decisions. Here's how the top four choices compare—and which one measures up to be the best.
We've already run reviews of all of these products (except for the iPad), and a lot of the ground we'll cover is fleshed out more in depth in those posts. The goal here is to put the tablets in context next to each other in a which-is-the-best-value sort of way.
Over several weeks, we used the tablets as we would if we owned them. We watched HD movies, both streamed and local, read books and articles, and tried out apps.
Our battery test, as usual, was run using a 10-hour video of Nyancat—just the video running in the YouTube app, or in the absence of an app, the tablet's browser. Screen brightness was set to max (turning off ambient sensors if applicable), with Wi-Fi on and Bluetooth off. This test was only to rut out how the tablets lasted comparative to one other—the broader battery life "test" was using the tablets as you normall would, picking them up, putting them down, and reading things.
The Surface is a beautiful piece of hardware. At no point when you pick it up will you think that it's too thick or too heavy or too ugly. But. Microsoft's much-hyped hybrid is also deeply flawed in ways that preclude it from being mentioned as a viable tablet for most people—even though it sort of accomplishes its goal of being the most "create-centric" tablet.
It's tempting to say that the Surface's biggest problem is its ecosystem. That it simply doesn't have enough apps. And that's true, kind of. But the issue is actually a little more systemic than all that. It's the state of its software, Windows RT. The first party apps themselves aren't good enough or comprehensive enough to be your go-to place to interact with friends (the way they sort of are on Windows Phone). And there aren't many alternatives, really. So you're constantly left wanting to touch this compelling, wonderful hardware (even though it loads apps a little too slowly), but you can't find anything to do outside of the browser.
The Surface is a 16:9 display, as opposed to the 16:10 displays on the Nexus 10 and Kindle Fire HD, and the 4:3 display on the iPad. While that makes it a familiar experience when you pop the kickstand out and use it as a demi-laptop, it's clumsy and unnatural when you're holding it vertically. It's clearly meant to be held in landscape—preferably on its stand on a table, where the screen looks fine—like a typical laptop panel. For watching movies like that, it's great. But when you hold it up close—like, you know, the tablet it is—the resolution on its 1366x768 panel just doesn't hold its own against the competition.
The keyboard covers are incredibly impressive. As you touch them and type on them, you feel like you're using a tiny technological marvel. And they do what they set out to: The Surface is the only "tablet" on this list that you'd even want to think about sitting down and writing a paper on. The Type Cover is much more type-able—I was able to type at basically full speed after just a day of use. But the drawback is that it's slightly thicker (not that much, honestly) and feels sort of flimsy. The Touch Cover is totally usable, but you're going to take a few weeks, realistically, to get totally used to it.
That sort of epitomizes the choice you're making if you get the Surface: It's a highly impressive piece of tech that's a pain in the ass to use.
Overall, the sense you get from the Surface isn't a lack of quality. Not really. It just feels unfinished. Like a term paper that's been thoughtfully researched and laid out, but then rushed together at the last minute, leaving rough edges and incomplete thoughts strewn throughout.
Microsoft Surface RT Specs
Dimensions: 10.81 x 6.77 x 0.37 inches
Weight: 1.5 pounds
Processor: Nvidia Tegra 3 (with quad-core A9)
Memory: 2GB RAM
Storage: 32GB (16 available), 64GB (46 available)
Ports: USB 2.0 (A-connector), microSD, magnetic proprietary charger
Battery life: 5 hours 14 minutes
Price: $500 for 32GB, with $120 Touch cover, $130 Type cover
The Kindle Fire HD is not a complete tablet. That's the first thing you should know. It's a highly advanced consumption device that you can use to access a massive amount of content—books, videos, music, etc.—but that's more or less it. This is the anthesis of Microsoft trying to pull your laptop's capabilities into your tablet.
The Fire HD's screen is wonderful for reading and watching movies. Its video and music stores are extremely well stocked and often cheaper than Apple and Google's. Movies on the Fire HD sound great, because of its surprisingly loud and clear stereo speakers. And its smaller 8.9-inch size makes it the lightest and thinnest of any tablet in this roundup—and also the most comfortable to hold.
So what's the problem, then? It's the software. Amazon's content selection is unquestioned, but its app store is limited to those that are ported to its Kindle OS Android skin. Most of the big guns are there, like HBO Go, Twitter, Facebook, Skype, and Pocket. But even though Android finally has a good stable of apps, it still needs every good app it can get, and Amazon limits the selection even further. Multitasking, or even just keeping apps where you want them is tough—they're relegated to a "Carousel" of recent items on the home screen and a favorites tray that's way too easy to forget about. (You can read more about the software struggles in our review of the Kindle Fire HD 7 and 8.9.)
On the plus side, the Fire 8.9 feels relatively fast when loading apps and large movies—much more than the Fire HD 7 did. Apps are smoother, too, though a few still lag compared to their stock Android counterparts. The slowdown makes its way into the store and other places from time to time, too. It's not pervasive—this still feels like a fast tablet—but is enough to be quite frustrating.
Its biggest, bluntest weapon, then, is its price. It's an amazing price. $300 is a full $200 less expensive than the cheapest iPad and the Surface, and $100 less than the Nexus 10. The $50/year LTE deal is pretty great if you're going to be carrying the tablet around and just want access to articles and email. All in all, it's a humongous value if you just want a pretty screen that lights up and lets you read stuff.
Kindle Fire HD 8.9Specs
Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.4 x 0.35 inches
Weight: 1.25 pounds
Processor: TI OMAP 4470
Storage: 16GB, 32GB
Ports: USB 2.0, Micro-HDMI
Battery life tested: 4 hours, 43 minutes
Price: Starts $300 for Wi-Fi only 16GB
The Nexus 10 combines the highest resolution screen in a 10ish-inch tablet with a slim body mostly covered in soft-touch rubberized paint. It's a looker. It holds up on build quality and ergonomics with the iPad, and it's actually lighter and thinner to boot (though it does get as hot or even hotter than the iPad).
Further, Android has largely closed the gap with iOS in terms of quality apps and how those apps function. Largely, but not entirely. Developers still mostly aim at iOS first, and some wonderful, must-have apps for iPad (like Reeder) are still unavailable here.
You'll also notice some slowdown from time to time while coming in and out of apps. You'll see it some more while reading hi-res magazines or books. That's not there in the iPad.
One note about the screen: It's brighter and more true white than either the iPad or the Kindle Fire. But it's also a little harsher on the eyes. It's a tradeoff. Color in movies seems a little less cinematic on the Nexus, but also better at capturing some details. You'll also notice the letter boxing a little less than on the iPad because of the 4:3 display.
One actually-kind-of-large nitpick is the cover. It's a big downer. The Nexus 10's cover is actually attached to a small plate that snaps into the back of the tablet. To remove it, you've got to replace it with another plate that doesn't have a cover attached. It seems clever for about five seconds of holding it, until you realize that wait, no, of course I don't want my cover to be constantly attached to my tablet. Extra points off for it not being useful as a stand (or, obviously, a keyboard).
The Nexus also has a strange design detail that makes it tricky to hold with one hand. It's slightly thicker on one end than the other—a wedge design sort of like an ultrabook. But the thick side has that sort-of slippery backplate, which can slide from your grip, and holding the skinny side leaves you supporting the heavy end uncomfortably. Another small thing that will wear on you using it every day for weeks.
The Nexus 10 is what probably the tablet you want if you're going to be using your tablet like command central from your couch. Android 4.2 is powerful, fast, and complete. And for $100 less than the iPad, it's likely you'll find enough value to offset its imperfections. This is closer to ranking 1.5 than a clear number 2.
Nexus 10 Specs
Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.4 x 0.35 inches
Processor: Exynos 5 Dual
Memory: 2GB RAM
Storage: 16GB, 32GB
Ports: Micro-USB, Magnetic charger, Micro HDMI
Battery life: 4 hours 50 minutes
Price: Starts $400 16GB
1. iPad 4
The iPad isn't perfect. It still gets warm to the touch under relatively minor loads. It's still a little heavier and thicker than the iPad 2 (and the Nexus 10 and Fire 8.9). iOS is not as information-dense as competitors like Android and Windows RT. And its tiny ass speaker is a sad sound compared to the Kindle Fire.
Here's what it does have, though: A beautiful screen, unquestionable build quality, and superb battery life (everything made it all day in the real life testing, but the iPad was easily the best in the standardized test). And it still has the best combined library of apps and content. You're never left wondering when something will be released for the iPad.
A lot of the iPad's comfort comes from the feeling of stability and containment in iPad apps that isn't quite there on Android. Android still feels like you're plugged into the Matrix at all times, like you can turn on a heel and be into your calendars or Google Docs on a moment's notice. iOS has gotten better at all that, but its adherence to the one-button interface (and some sneaky-handy gestures, like the five-finger pinch to close an app) make using iPad apps feel more self-contained.
The screen is beat out on resolution by the Nexus 10, but it's always pleasant to look at. You can blast it on full brightness most of the time without your eyes hating you, due in part to a few more shadows and gradients than Android has keeping you from staring at a sheer white LCD.
One advantage of Apple hardware family shines through when using the iPad as as second screen in ways its competitors can't yet match. Using AirPlay, you can control your iTunes library, or mirror to your Apple TV really fluidly. Microsoft's Surface (or any phone or tablet with the SmartGlass app) can do an approximation of this, but it's not nearly as responsive. SmartGlass more resembles the iPad's own "swipe to navigate" features for Apple TV (which also stink).
The iPad doesn't have all of the features and whistles that competitors do—though, at this point, it's got most of 'em. But for now, Apple's fourth iPad is still the most complete and effortless full-size tablet you can buy.
iPad 4 Specs
Dimensions: 9.5 x 7.31 x 0.32 inches
Weight: 1.44 pounds
Processor: Dual core A6X
Storage: 16, 32, 64GB
Ports: Lightning connector
Battery life: 5 hours 23 minutes
Price: Starting $500 16GB