Tablets emerged into the mainstream in 2010 with the launch of the original iPad, and the market has since become flooded with dozens of these portable devices. Buyers today face a confusing landscape with tablet computer choices segmented by operating system (Apple iOS, Android and Windows RT) and size.
Among large tablets with screens that measure more than 8 inches diagonally, the new iPad Air (Est. $500 and up) has helped Apple keep a firm grip as the market leader. However, it faces stiff competition from a slew of Android tablets, such as the Google Nexus 10 (Est. $350 and up) , Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (Est. $550 and up) and the Sony Xperia Tablet Z (Est. $430 and up) . The Windows RT-powered Microsoft Surface 2 (Est. $450 and up) tablet is much improved over its predecessor, reviews say, but the still comparatively paltry app selection in the Windows app store relegates it to "also-ran" status, at least for now.
The battle for supremacy among smaller tablets is, if anything, even fiercer. There, the Asus-made Google Nexus 7 (Est. $230 and up) is strongly challenged by the Amazon Fire HDX 7 (Est. $230 and up) and other Android slates. The new iPad mini with Retina Display (Est. $400 and up) had just begun shipping at the time of this update, and initial reports say that it fixes the shortcomings of the initial iPad mini. Value is a concern, however.
Tablet computers take two main forms -- convertible tablets and slates. This report looks only at slate tablets, which have virtual keyboards accessed through the touch screen, either through finger gestures or through a stylus. A convertible tablet can look and work like a regular laptop but has a screen that either flips around or detaches for use as a slate.
Most convertible tablets are powered by Intel processors and run the full Windows 8 or Windows 8.1 operating system. These convertible tablets are covered in our report on laptops and cheap laptops. Lower-powered Windows slates that use ARM or similar processors are also available. These run a less robust version of Windows, called Windows RT. The key difference is that while Windows 8 slates can run any program that works under Windows, Windows RT slates -- such as the Microsoft Surface 2 -- can only run apps available in the Windows app store. Windows RT slates are discussed in more detail elsewhere in this update.
So which tablet is best for you? To help answer that question, we look at the best available advice from expert reviewers such as CNET, PCMag.com, Laptop Magazine and many more. We then cross-check those reviews with feedback from tablet users. To find the best choices, we rate tablets in important categories including performance, ease of use, features and value to find the ones most likely to please and to determine which models more often disappoint.