While 2012 was a knockout year for tablets — with the introduction of the iPad Mini, Nexus 7, and Microsoft Surface — 2013 is actually somewhat boring in comparison.
Yes, tablet sales continued to grow steadily (up 53 percent from 2012, says Gartner), but this year is more about evolving last year’s killer tablets than breaking new ground. The iPad Mini got a killer hardware upgrade and a much-needed Retina Display screen, and the Surface and Nexus 7 both got major upgrades of their own.
Apple’s iPad Air, which is mainly notable for being incredibly light, is the only big tablet surprise I can recall this year.
What 2013 lacked in groundbreaking tablets announcements, it made up for in better overall value. All of the revamped tablets from this year offer far better hardware at reasonable prices, and they’re also run off better software. If you held off on a new tablet last year, now is the perfect time to upgrade.
Best overall tablet: iPad Mini with Retina Display
The original iPad Mini was my favorite tablet last year, so it’s not a huge surprise that I’ve fallen head over heels for its replacement. Apple’s new iPad Mini with Retina Display upgrades the original’s disappointing display, but it also manages to pack in all of the juicy hardware from the iPad Air, including the fast A7 processor and M7 motion processor.
But at $399, up from last year’s $329 iPad Mini launch price, the new model also makes it clear that Apple doesn’t see its smaller tablet as a budget device.
Best big tablet: iPad Air
Apple is now basically offering two high-end tablets, the new iPad Mini and the iPad Air, separated only by their price and screen size. The Air weighs in at close to a pound, closer in size to the iPad Mini than last year’s big iPad. That means it’s much easier to hold with one hand, which should be helpful for prolonged reading sessions (and it deftly solves one of my biggest issues with large tablets).
If you need a big 10-inch screen, go for the $499 iPad Air. But for everyone else, I’d recommend prioritizing portability with the new 8-inch iPad Mini.
Best budget tablet (& best Android tablet): Nexus 7
Once again, the Nexus 7 is the best tablet deal on the market — even after Google raised its price slightly to $230 (the original was just $200). While last year’s model was notable for being fast and cheap, the new Nexus 7 is much slimmer and easier to hold.
It also packs in the usual speed improvements, but really, the biggest upgrade with this new model is that it no longer feels like you’re holding an overweight slate. In the domain of tiny tablets, that’s key.
Best Windows tablet: Surface 2
After raising our hopes and swiftly dashing them with the first Surface, Microsoft has apparently learned from its mistakes. The Surface 2 ($449) is a fast and capable tablet — and together with its revamped keyboard covers (from $120 to $130), it’s also a productivity dream. While you’re stuck with Windows 8′s slim app ecosystem, the Surface 2 also includes Microsoft Word, Excel, Powerpoint, and Office, which means it will fit right into many corporate IT setups.