We compare all the tablets you can buy to reveal the best tablet for you
Tablets such as the Kindle Fire HD, iPad mini and Nexus 7 are hugely popular right now. But which is best for you? We explain which tablet you should buy, depending on your budget and interests. (See also: Kindle Fire HD vs Kindle Fire HD 8.9 review.)
What tablet should I buy? The story so far
Here's a fun game. Ask the person next to you when the iPad was first announced. Then watch them look surprised when you reveal that Apple's iconic tablet was first launched as late as 2010.
Tablet computing has been around for a long time, of course. PDAs were popular in the 1990s, and Microsoft was heavily pushing tablet PCs from as far back as the start of that decade. But until the iPad changed everything tablets occupied only a tiny niche of the wider personal computing market. The current tablet boom has grown from next to nothing to its current staggering pitch in just two-and-a-bit years.
Following the never-to-be-surpassed success of the iPad, tech hardware manufacturers rushed to capture a slice of the pie with what turned out to be inferior devices. Throughout most of 2010 and 2011 the iPad had no rivals that could match its combination of high-end software and good-looking, stable and seemlessly integrated platform. Android tablets were hobbled with, in essence, an outsized smartphone operating system, and the best ones cost the same or more than the iPad anyway. Windows tablets were heavy, shrink-wrapped laptops with poor battery life and a desktop OS. BlackBerry managed to launch a great tablet in the PlayBook, just as smartphone users were turning their back on BlackBerry phones, and with barely an app worthy of the name to make the PlayBook useful or fun.
As of the end of 2011 there was only one answer to the question 'what tablet should I buy?' - the iPad. (See also: Group test: what's the best tablet PC?)
What tablet should I buy? All change
That all changed in 2012, however. For one thing Apple release an unprecedented three tablets in the year, including its first 7in device, meaning a broader choice for iOS users. Meanwhile Google pulled of the neat two-card trick of finally creating a true tablet OS in Android 4 Jelly Bean, and then subsidising hardware makers to produce in the Nexus 7 and Nexus 10 genuinely high-quality products at a staggeringly low price.
In Windows 8 Microsoft has an OS fit for tablets, and in the Surface RT the ARM-based hardware to match. Meanwhile the eReader makers Amazon and Barnes & Noble have brought to the UK their own subsidised devices, the Kindle Fire HD and Nook HD. Both offer high build-quality and easy access to content - in theory.
What tablet should I buy? Christmas 2012
As I write Christmas 2012 is rapidly approaching and the range of tablets available has never been bigger or better. The Kindle Fire HD is set to be this year's must-have present, closely followed by Nexus 7, iPad mini and Barnes & Noble Nook HD. At the top of the range sits Apple's fourth-generation full-sized iPad, under some pressure from the Nexus 10. The Surface RT means Microsoft has added its own intriguing device to the mix, with Intel Windows 8 Pro tablets to follow in the new year offering another exciting new development. Meanwhile a plethora of Android devices of varying quality plug every price point... and we haven't even mentioned BlackBerry, set to relaunch in the new year with BlackBerry 10. Don't write off BlackBerry just yet.
For children there is a dedicated category of specialised kid's tablets, and laptop makers are beginning to launch hybrid devices that offer the benefits of both tablet and PC. See also: TOP 5 CHILDREN'S TABLETS.
Tablet sales are set to go through the roof this Christmas which can only help to push app, movie and music makers into creating more content and software to be enjoyed on these devices. So expect 2013 to be the year tablet computing really matures, and these truly portable computers become capable of being your only entertainment device or workstation. Which leads on to the question, which tablet is right for you?
What tablet should I buy? Mini/7in tablets
The Nexus 7 changed the tablet market, bringing to the market iPad-like build quality, an easy way to purchase movies and music, and a good tablet OS at a staggeringly low price. It also relaunched the 7in tablet.
That size change from the 10in form factor of the original iPads makes a big difference: mini tablets are great for reading on and using on the move, fitting into a handbag or suit pocket. They are less able than full-sized tablets when it comes to creating or editing documents, and the smaller screens can make for a less satisfying movie-watching experience. But if you are watching on the move you'll find that holding a 7in device in one hand is a lot more fun that taking on a wrist-aching 10in tab.
The Nexus 7 is an utterly brilliant media consumption device, with which you can also email and web browse, as well as edit documents and photos and so on. You probably won't want to use it for anything more complex than that, but at this price why would you? The Nexus 7 is cheap enough that you could buy it and a cheap laptop and it will still cost you only about the same as a top-end iPad.
Further along the same media-consumption road is the Kindle Fire HD. This is set to be the biggest seller this Christmas, priced to shift and well built. You can web browse and email, and consume all the media you want. In fact it seems too good to be true and to an extent it is - but only if you are looking for a full-featured tablet. The Kindle Fire HD is made by - and subsidised by - Amazon in order to drive sales of books, music and movies. It is very easy to use, but only if you are happy to buy your books from Kindle and our films from LoveFilm. As such it will make a great gift for that person who doesn't want a computer, but does want a brilliant gadget. For more see: Google Nexus 7 tablet vs Amazon Kindle Fire HD comparison review.
A similar proposition is the Barnes & Noble Nook HD. It is also a well built and easy-to-use tablet made for the consumption on the move of movies, books, music and so on. But like the Kindle Fire HD it is locked down, in this instance to B&N's own Nook store.
Should you want a 'proper' tablet at this size the iPad mini is probably better even than the Nexus 7. But it costs more than £100 more, and we're not sure that it is worth the extra cash. Buy one, however, and you are unlikely to be disappointed.
There are other, cheaper, 7in Android tablets such as the Acer Iconia Tab A110. There's nothing wrong with such devices, but in the tablet world you get what you paid for and we think that in the list above there is a device for everyone. For the best cheap tablets, read our story: Group test: what's the best cheap tablet PC?
What tablet should I buy? Full size/10in tablets
The iPad remains the best full-spec, full-sized tablet there is. If you want the best tablet on the market, get Apple's fourth-generation iPad with Retina display: the so-called iPad 4. It is a beautiful device with unsurpassed build quality. And the iTunes market offers more quality apps than any other platform. But you pay a premium for quality, and you will find that you are pretty much locked into Apple's world when it comes to purchasing music and movies.
Apple still sells the iPad 2 at a discounted rate, by the way, and it remains a great tablet. So if you want an iPad but don't want to pay the full price it is worth checking out.
The list of alternative 10in tablets starts with the Nexus 10. Google's new Nexus 10 Android tablet has an impressive PLS screen with a resolution of 2560x1600. The Samsung manufactured device is also thinner and lighter than Apple's iPad, runs Jelly Bean 4.2 and for £400 is a bargain.
Samsung has two other 10in tablets in the Android tablet market, both are solid competitors: the Galaxy Note 10.1 and Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 10.1. With pen input and a highly customized version of Android 4.0, the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 distinguishes itself in a crowded market, but at £500 you'll have to really want pen input before it makes sense to choose the Note. Meanwhile the Tab 2 10.1 is like the iPad and the Nexus 10, only not as good. Unlike its predecessors, however, it is cheaper. For £299 it will make all but the most stringent tablet fans happy.
Honestly, unless price is your primary driver, we wouldn't recommend other Android devices such as the GoClever Tab R974, Toshiba AT300, Archos 101 XS and Disgo 9104. In the 10in tablet market you get what you pay for. It doesn't make them bad devices, but you should know that you are making a compromise.
There are two alternatives, however, both intriguing. The Barnes & Noble Nook HD+ is a 10in tablet with expandable storage that costs only £229 inc VAT. It runs Barnes & Noble's locked down, stripped down version of Android, and shares the Nook HD's high build quality. Like that device and the Kindle Fire HD the price you pay for such value is that the Nook HD+ locks you into Barnes & Noble's world, all-but forcing you to buy books, music and movies via its store. But it is a quality device at a great price, and less technical users may actively enjoy the ease of use in a closed market.
Last, but far from least, is the Windows option. Microsoft's Microsoft Surface RT runs a version of Windows 8 on hardware not dissimilar to the iPad or Nexus 10. It isn't without flaw, but it is well priced and a very solid option for those who want a tablet on which to work. Keep an eye out for the Surface Pro, however. This is the Intel version of the Microsoft Windows tablet, and should launch early in the new year. It should be the perfect alternative to an ultraportable laptop, but the US price is $899, so expect it to be expensive!