Ever since the iPad was introduced in 2010, manufacturers from Motorola to Samsung have tried to muscle into the market by coming up with their own versions of Apple's blockbuster tablet, but all with less-than-stellar results.
This year, the battle for tablet supremacy has heated up even more. Earlier this week, Google announced its 10-inch Nexus tablet and an update to its 7-inch tablet. Apple recently introduced a smaller, 7.9-inch version of the iPad called the iPad mini that is squarely aimed at the popular Amazon Kindle Fire (the mini goes on sale Friday). And Barnes and Noble debuted its color Nook HD, which comes in two sizes. Amazon upgraded its Kindles with a new lineup that features higher-resolution screens and a model with a bigger 8.9-inch screen. Finally, Microsoft is entering the fray with its first device, the 10-inch Surface, which landed in Microsoft stores Oct. 26.
That's a lot of choices. If you're new to the computer tablet market, it's a tough decision. Do you go with a 10-inch tablet or something smaller? How much should you pay? Which operating system is right for you?
Here's a basic but handy guide for the unintiated who have never purchased a computer tablet (about 80 percent of Americans still don't have one).
Tablets can be broken down into two screen sizes - roughly 10 inches diagonally and 7 inches. Of course, the bigger tablets will be more costly. So choosing a size depends on what you best think the device will be used.
If you will keep it mostly at home to watch a lot of videos, a bigger tablet might be the best choice. Movies and TV shows will look much better on a larger screen, especially if it has a higher-resolution such as on the iPad, Nook or Kindle Fire HD.
A smaller tablet is more portable and better for on-the-go use. It also would be better for reading because it's lighter (although the most ideal book readers are still the E-ink e-readers, such as the regular Kindle, because they're easier on the eyes than a backlit LCD screen). Also, because smaller tablets are cheaper, you won't feel as bad if you take one out of the house and it ends up stolen or lost.
There are three different types of computer tablets that run different operating systems, Apple's iOS-powered iPads, Android tablets such as the Kindle Fire and Samsung Galaxy Tab 2, and the Microsoft Surface, which uses the Windows RT operating system. The apps for each are not compatible with the others, so choose wisely.
The two most popular types of tablets by far are the iPad and Android models. Microsoft is so new to the game that there may be reason to hold off on buying a Surface because the number of apps that run on the device are small by comparison.
But all three are easy to use and intuitive. One important factor to consider is what types of devices you already own. If you are an Apple fan who has an iPhone or iPod touch, perhaps it's best to stay with an iPad so all your apps, videos and songs are compatible. If, on the other hand, you own an Android phone, you might want to stay with an Android-powered tablet because you're already familiar with the interface.
All brands of tablets are capable of enabling users to play games, surf the Internet, watch videos and read books. But there are subtle differences. Scrolling pages on the iPad is very smooth, and the touchscreen is responsive, possibly the snappiest performer of all tablets on the market. But it's also the most expensive.
Android tablets are smooth, just not as silky as the iPad, largely because the software and hardware are not as optimized as the iPad and its operating system. And in most cases, the processors in Android tablets are not as powerful as those in the iPad, according to researchers that have conducted speed benchmark tests.
Early reviews of the Surface have shown it to be mediocre at best, saying the responsiveness of the processor and touchscreen are just fair, but still not a bad first attempt.
Here, the decision is a little simpler. Android and Apple have the two biggest catalogs of apps, each in the hundreds of thousands. Apple's advantage is that it has more apps that were developed specifically for the iPad and its bigger screen size. There are many fewer tablet-specific apps for Android devices. Most were developed for the smaller Android phone screens and are simply blown up to the tablet's screen size.
Microsoft won't say how many apps the Windows Store has for the Surface tablet, but it's thought to be far below 10,000. That's a big factor to consider if there is a favorite game or other app you that may not be available for the Surface.
Obviously, the smaller the tablet, the cheaper the cost. Of the 7-inch models, the Google Nexus 7, Amazon Kindle Fire HD and Barnes and Noble Nook HD are competitively priced at $199 each for the base models.
As with all Apple products, the new iPad mini will be sold at a premium, $329 for the base model (although it has double the storage memory of those three cheaper Android-based tablets).
The bigger tablets usually range in price from about $500 to $800, depending on the storage size. The new Microsoft Surface begins at $499, the same as the iPad. The new Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 10.1, which sports a 10.1-inch screen, begins at $349, while the upcoming Amazon Kindle Fire HD with an 8.9-inch screen will debut next month starting at $299.
All of these tablets have built in Wi-Fi reception, but expect to pay an additional $100 or more if you want to add cellular 4G LTE connectivity. That allows you to connect to the Internet away from a Wi-Fi hotspot.