Q: Which tablet should I buy - or put on my Christmas wish list?

A: Just three years ago, tablet computers were clunky devices that only hardcore geeks could pretend to love.

The introduction of Apple’s first iPad in April 2010 turned the tablet market on its head, demonstrating that what people really wanted was a thin, light device with good battery life.  And, more importantly, they were willing to sacrifice raw power and flexibility to get it.

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It’s taken a couple of years for the competition to catch up, but now there is a credible choice of tablets from a range of manufacturers, all ready to compete with the iPad for your Christmas money.

Before we go any further, I’ll try to pigeonhole the myriad tablets out there:

Apple iPad – the original 10-inch tablet, now on its fourth generation with more than 100 million units sold in less than three years.

Premium Android tablets – devices like the Google Nexus 10 and Samsung Galaxy Tab offer a very similar experience to the iPad for a very similar price.

Microsoft Surface – Microsoft were late to the tablet party, but they’ve finally arrived with a product that could upset the market.  However, the first-gen models come with too many compromises: a cut-down version of Windows that doesn’t run existing desktop software, and a thin veneer of touch-enabled apps that vanish to reveal old Windows controls that are impossible to control via a touch screen.  One for the future, perhaps, but one to avoid for now.

Mini tablets – Google’s Nexus 7 and Amazon’s Kindle Fire lead the pack in the 8-inch-and-under market, but face fresh competition from Apple’s new iPad Mini.

Budget tablets – the free and open Android operating system has allowed hundreds of small companies to release their own tablets.  Typically sold for under £100, these tablets appear to offer good value, but with limited support and poor quality control they aren’t a good long-term bet.

The right option depends on your budget and intended use of the tablet.  Here are my top recommendations:

As a laptop alternative

If you’re looking for a tablet to use at home instead of a laptop, or if you need a device that lets you stay productive on the road, then the 9.7-inch iPad is the only sensible choice.

Excellent build quality paired with an unrivalled selection of apps and intuitive software places the iPad head and shoulders above the competition.

The only decision that’s left is which model to go for.  The third-generation iPad – confusingly named the “new iPad” – has just been discontinued, leaving a choice between the older iPad 2 and the brand new fourth-gen model. 

Size, weight and performance is very similar between the two models, so the choice is all about the screen.  The iPad 2 has a pretty standard computer display while the fourth-gen model has an ultra-sharp screen, dubbed Retina, that packs in four times as many pixels. 

If you have good eyesight, the difference is stunning – on the Retina display text and pictures that appear sharper and brighter than on a printed page – but I know several iPad owners who can’t tell the two models apart, so it’s worth testing both models in person before parting with your cash.

The entry-level storage on the iPad is 16GB which is enough for thousands of books, a couple of hundred albums or around six feature-length movies.  If you need more storage then Apple’s cheeky pricing strategy forces you on to the fourth-gen model where each leap in storage adds £80 to the price.

Adding an extra £100 to any model buys go-anywhere connectivity via mobile networks, either 3G or 4G depending on the model.  Making use of this mobile connectivity requires an extra SIM card and contract (around £7.50 per month).

Very occasional mobile users would be better served with the cheaper Wi-Fi only model.  These can be wirelessly ‘tethered’ to both iPhone and Android handset for mobile access, usually for around £2 per day but this is only paid on the days that you use it.

As a pocket entertainment device

If you’re looking for a tablet for reading, watching movies or playing games and don’t fancy lugging around a magazine-sized model then the new 7-inch tablets are worth considering. 

Dozens of models are flooding the market from £59.99 and up.   Personally, I wouldn’t touch any of the unknown brands in this price range. Cheaper models tend to be unresponsive, don’t receive the latest software updates and, crucially, are often banned from the app marketplaces that turn a dumb tablet into a useful device.  

Instead, consider the Google Nexus 7 or Kindle Fire HD, both of which are identically priced (£159) and almost identically specced.

The choice here comes down to content – if you’re already bought into the Amazon eco-system through Kindle books, MP3 downloads or Amazon Prime then the Fire HD makes a lot of sense.   If not, the slightly more flexible Nexus 7 wins by a nose.

But what do you think?

If you agree or disagree with my answer, please post your comments in the box below.

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