A holiday buyer's guide to tablets, big and small, Apple or Android

TORONTO – It wasn’t all that long ago that if you wanted to buy a tablet there was really only one choice: Apple’s iPad. For quite a while, Apple enjoyed a virtual monopoly in the tablet market. Sure, there were some other tablets to choose from, but they weren’t even in the same league as the iPad.

But the competition has heated up and consumers now have a dizzying array of options to consider. There’s the choice of big or small; tablets running Apple’s iOS, Google’s Android or another mobile operating system; and price, which can range from a little over $100 to more than $1,000.

Full-sized tablets

Any debate about tablets has to start with the iPad. The latest version starts at $499 for the 16-gigabyte WiFi only model and goes up to $829 for a 64-gigabyte unit that can access mobile networks. Now in its fourth generation, Apple has nearly perfected the iPad, which has more apps to download than other tablets — and the best, top quality apps are almost always released for the iPad first. Other tablets are beginning to match and even surpass the technical specifications built into the iPad, but no other can offer the same slickness and polish that makes it a joy to use.

But there are savings to be had in looking at some of the iPad’s big competitors.

Users looking to save some money, or others who simply don’t like Apple products and want to buy something different, may want to take a look at Google’s newly released Nexus 10 tablet, which starts at $409. It has a sharper screen than the iPad’s much ballyhooed Retina Display technology (although not all apps take advantage of the extra sharpness) and comes with the latest version of the Android 4.2 Jelly Bean operating system, with features including the ability to load different user profiles on the same tablet.

Another Android option is Samsung’s Galaxy Tab 2, which typically starts at $350. It’s not state of the art and suffers in the specs department compared to the newest iPad but offers a decent savings for those who don’t demand the latest and greatest from their gadgets. It’s perfectly suitable for browsing the web, reading ebooks and running most apps and games.

Those who are faithful to Microsoft products may also want to check out the Surface, although the reviews have not been overly positive. An updated, more powerful version of the new tablet is expected out next year, which will be able to run Windows applications designed for desktop PCs.

Smaller-sized tablets

Apple may have introduced the tablet concept to the mass market but it can’t claim its new iPad mini is innovative. The company was a bit late in introducing a smaller tablet and once claimed it had no interest in the product type. The late Steve Jobs famously slammed the seven-inch size popularized by the Amazon Fire and BlackBerry PlayBook, saying users would need to “sand down their fingers to around one-quarter of their present size” to find them useful.

But many users do find them plenty useful, particularly for carrying around on a daily basis and for reading; a full-sized tablet has enough weight to it that it can feel burdensome after extended periods of use. Smaller tablets are also significantly cheaper than their larger cousins.

One of the best available is Google’s Nexus 7, a great Android-based device. At just $209 for a 16-gigabyte WiFi only version, it offers tremendous value considering it’s about 60 per cent cheaper than a full-sized iPad. Some industry analysts believe Google may have priced the tablet at or near its cost to challenge the iPad’s market dominance. For those who always wanted a tablet but couldn’t afford one, the Nexus 7 is a great choice.

Even cheaper is the PlayBook, although it’s difficult to heartily recommend. It’s regularly on sale, and a 32-gigabyte version can often be had for less than $150, but it’s not nearly as user friendly as some other tablets and the app selection is dire. But it does work — with some frustration and annoyances — for web browsing and ebook reading, making it a decent budget-priced device.

The aggressive pricing of competing tablets makes Apple’s latest look a little expensive. The iPad Mini — which works just as well as the regular iPad, just smaller and lighter — starts at $329, considerably more than its smaller tablet rivals. It may arguably be a better tablet than the Nexus 7 and other smaller tablets, but the $120 premium over Google’s tablet might be difficult for some frugal buyers to accept.

Avoid no name tablets

Given how little the PlayBook and the Nexus 7 sell for it’s not worth taking a gamble on one of the even cheaper tablets produced by unknown brands. A cheaply made tablet with dated technology is not a good deal at $100 or any other price.

If you have no allegiance to Apple, Android or any other brand, consider a trip to a big box store where a collection of tablets are likely to be on display and available to demo. Before you go, think about what you’d most want to do with a tablet and prepare a test drive checklist. If they’re connected to the Internet, try loading some of the websites you most frequently visit to make sure they load and read comfortably on the screen. Visit a website like YouTube to see how well the tablet can handle streaming video. And check out the selection of apps available to download.