The single hottest tech gift category this holiday season will undoubtedly be tablets. While Amazon’s $199 Kindle Fire kicked off the budget tablet trend last year, this year we’re seeing many more options available, and they’re also much improved over the original Kindle Fire.
It’s not difficult to find a fast and well-designed tablet this year that won’t break the bank. In fact, you’d probably have to try hard to get stuck with a truly bad tablet.
I was never a big fan of big tablets. Even as Apple’s large iPad slimmed down its weight and added much more powerful hardware over the years, it has always seemed like a device that’s not as convenient for content consumption as smaller tablets, and not as useful as a laptop for actually producing content.
But this year we saw tablets that truly showed the potential of the entire category.
Best overall tablet: iPad Mini
When it came to deciding on the best tablet of the year, the choice was simple. I love the iPad Mini. It’s everything that the large iPad isn’t: light, convenient, and preciously tiny. It packs in the power of the iPad 2 in the weight of your average paperback book, and it still manages to be the cheapest iPad offering yet at $329 (compared to the big iPad’s standard $499 price).
Sure, it doesn’t have a sharp Retina Display, and its hardware is admittedly dated, but it’s one of those devices that you need to touch and feel to truly appreciate. Once you use the iPad Mini for a day, it’s almost impossible to go back to anything bigger.
The Android-powered Nexus 7 is a much better deal for $199 (more on that below), as is Amazon’s 7-inch Kindle Fire. But both of those tablets lack the iPad Mini’s superior assortment of apps. Apple clearly isn’t trying to compete with other smaller tablets when it comes to price.
If your budget’s tight, it may be tough to justify the iPad Mini compared to its pint-sized competitors. But if you don’t mind spending a bit more, the iPad Mini will undoubtedly be your best tablet choice (until the iPad Mini 2 comes out).
Best Android tablet (and best budget tablet): Nexus 7
Prior to the iPad Mini’s debut, Google’s 7-inch Nexus 7 was my favorite tablet. It’s fast, portable, surprisingly stylish (for something built by Asus), and best of all, it’s freaking cheap at $199. With the Nexus 7, Google blows away Amazon’s original Kindle Fire and proves that it’s possible to build a cheap tablet that doesn’t stink.
I raved about the Nexus 7 in my review, and it’s only gotten better with Android’s recent updates. It’s the perfect tablet for newcomers because it can accomplish most basic tasks — like web browsing, email, and media consumption — without killing your wallet (which also makes it the perfect gift). If you’re already a heavy user of other Google services, like Gmail and Google Calendar, it’ll sync up with those painlessly too.
In general, I’m not too hot on Android tablets. Google has been slow to make Android truly tablet-friendly, and there’s still a surprising lack of decent tablet apps. But the Nexus 7 is cheap and functional enough to even make me recommend it. (If you really need a large Android tablet, the Nexus 10 is also nice — but you don’t really need a big Android tablet.)
Amazon’s revamped Kindle Fire is another decent budget tablet option, but since it can only run a limited selection of Android apps, I think the Nexus 7 remains a better choice.
Best big tablet: iPad 4th gen
Okay, so you don’t agree with me that small tablets are truly the best. Or you just have to have the most horsepower available. Or perhaps you work in digital photography and need an incredibly high-resolution tablet screen. Then Apple’s latest iPad ($499), which adds a blazing fast quad-core graphics on top of last generation’s gorgeous Retina Display, is the best choice for you.
In general, if you absolutely need a big tablet, then go for the latest generation iPad. Big Android tablets have historically been too expensive and lacked the features and apps that have made the iPad so popular. Microsoft made a noble attempt at taking on the iPad this year with the Surface, which better bridges the gap between tablet and laptop. But as I explained in my review, the Surface simply has too many compromises for me to recommend to anyone aside from hardware geeks.
Best kids’ tablet: LeapFrog LeapPad2
LeapFrog’s first LeapPad proved that it could create a tough, inexpensive, and educational tablet for kids. With the $99 LeapPad 2, it raised the bar even higher. The new tablet for children features more memory, front and rear cameras, and a recharger (because relying entirely on AA batteries can get expensive).
It still plays the same cartridges and downloadable apps as the original LeapFrog, which includes games, videos, and e-books featuring popular characters.
I haven’t had much time to play with the LeapPad2, but in my exploration of kid-friendly tablets it’s clearly the best option.
Wrapping up: Finally, there’s a tablet for everyone
The one major takeaway for tablets this year is that there are finally enough options to satisfy everyone — including a tablet critic like me. Small tablets entered the market in full force and showed that their portability and lower prices make them hard to ignore.
I suspect we’ll see less hype around big tablets over the next few years (just look at how Apple unceremoniously unveiled the fourth-generation iPad at the iPad Mini event). Instead, we’ll likely see more devices like Microsoft’s Surface trying to make tablets more useful, and laptops more like tablets.
For more information on the tablets above, as well as other tablets on the market, check out our tablet comparison chart, with data supplied by FindTheBest, below.
Check out VentureBeat's product data sheets for more in-depth information on tablets.