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The Apple iPad Air reigns supreme

Although it's facing more competition than ever from Android slates by Google, Amazon, Samsung and others, the fifth-generation iPad, dubbed the Apple iPad Air (Est. $500 and up) , remains the tablet computer to beat, at least among larger slates.

Nearly every reviewer that's gotten their mitts on one has heaped praise on Apple's latest 9.7-inch tablet. That includes Editors' Choice awards (or their equivalents) at CNET, PCMag.com, Laptop Magazine, CompuerShopper.com, Trusted Reviews, TechRadar.com and elsewhere. Anand Lal Shimpi at AnandTech.com says that compared to previous iPads, "it's smaller, lighter and faster with absolutely no trade-offs made in the process." Brad Molen at Engadget.com calls the iPad Air "the best iPad we've reviewed," adding that it is also the "most comfortable 10-inch tablet we've ever tested."

Performance is driven by the same 64-bit A7 dual-core processor used in the iPhone 5s, though speeded up a bit to 1.39 GHz as opposed to the 1.29 GHz of the iPhone. CNET calls the iPad Air "ridiculously fast," even slightly outperforming the latest iPhone in its benchmark testing. Elsewhere, it easily beats the previous generation iPad in testing at Laptop Magazine, and edges out -- or demolishes -- other large tablets.

But performance isn't the headliner here. Instead, it is the dramatically improved aesthetics of the tablet. The iPad Air is impossibly thin -- pencil-thin if you've seen the commercials. Nilay Patel at TheVerge.com notes that the iPad Air comes in at half a pound lighter and 0.07 inch thinner than its predecessor, but then says to forget the numbers: "The difference is astonishing in person: You can hold it comfortably in almost any orientation or position, and it feels far more tossable and casual than any other large tablet I've used." Patel concludes that compared to other large-screen tablets, the iPad Air is in "an entirely different league."

There are some complaints of course, but most are modest. The biggest one is the price. Load up the iPad Air with the maximum memory and mobile broadband connectivity and the cost soars past $900. To be fair, pricing (at least of the base model) is competitive with other premium large tablets, such as the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (Est. $550 and up) and the Sony Xperia Tablet Z (Est. $430 and up) .

The iPad 2 (Est. $400 and up) remains available as a budget alternative. In the past, it was worth considering as aside from the Retina display introduced with version 3, aesthetics and performance were not that big a step downward. Now, that argument is harder to make. You do save around $100 for the base (16 GB) version, which is the only version of the iPad 2 offered. However, you now not only trade in the 2,048-by-1,536-pixel Retina display for a more mundane but still nice 1,024-by-768-pixel display, but also must accept a significant performance hit and a much chunkier and heavier form factor.

If $400 is the most you can spend on a tablet computer, and you want a tablet that makes use of the Apple/iTunes ecosystem, take a serious look instead at the iPad mini with Retina Display (Est. $400 and up) . Initial reviews indicate that the new mini tablet could be a winner.

When the original -- and still available Apple iPad mini (Est. $300 and up) -- was introduced, critics were a little disappointed that it featured components and performance that were more similar to the iPad 2 than the then-current Apple iPad with Retina Display.

This time around, however, there are no such qualms. "The new Apple iPad mini With Retina display ... is just a shrunken iPad Air," writes Sascha Segan at PCMag.com.

That said, speed is just a hair behind the Air; that's because the A7 processor runs at the same 1.29 GHz as the iPhone 5s instead of the 1.39 GHz of the Air, CNET reports. That still puts it in the "same territory" performance-wise as the Air and "a significant leap forward" from the Google Nexus 7, Scott Stein says.

But there are serious qualms regarding value. "Unlike the large-screen Air, the iPad mini has many viable small-tablet competitors that are much less expensive, making it less of a must-buy and more of a luxury purchase," Segan observes. Examples include the Google Nexus 7 (Est. $230 and up) and Amazon Fire HDX 7 (Est. $230 and up) , which offer screens every bit as nice for nearly half the price. Both are a little less powerful than the mini, but are excellent performers in their own right. However, neither of those tablets is iOS-based, so those tablets won't appeal to those who want the Apple experience and access to the iTunes app store.

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