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.)