For the first time in a few years, buying a tablet isn't necessarily a simple decision. The prevailing wisdom has always been “just buy an iPad,” but that’s not always the case anymore. Google, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble are all promoting their own tablets and e-readers, and they’re all good products getting better quickly. Then there’s the whole “tablet” versus “reading tablet” versus “ebook reader” dilemma, in which companies make it impossible to figure out what their devices are even for. Plus, even if you do want an iPad, do you get the big one or the small one? The cheap big one or the expensive big one?
Here’s a handy guide to make sure you don’t go to Best Buy and end up walking out with the wrong thing.
You want a tablet? Buy an iPad
It may not have such a big lead anymore over the competition, but there’s still no besting the 9.7-inch iPad’s processing power, giant ecosystem of apps and accessories, and most of all its stunning Retina display. The most recent model has a Lightning port and an even faster processor, and is as great a gaming machine as it is a reading device. It's incredibly versatile, too — from your kid to your Grandma, the iPad legitimately works for everyone.
You want a more portable tablet? Buy an iPad mini
The numbers vary, but most studies and stories agree that most people’s iPads rarely leave their home. The iPad mini, on the other hand, is perfectly portable – it weighs just over half a pound, and will slide into your purse or backpack unnoticed. You don’t get the Retina screen or the cutting-edge processor, but you do get a tablet that’s easier to use in line, on the subway, or while holding a cup of coffee in your other hand.
You want a cheap tablet? Buy a Nexus 7
Google's 7-inch tablet can't compete with Apple's app ecosystem, but the $199 Nexus 7 is still a great tablet in its own right. It's fast, has a great screen, is well-integrated with Google's services, and is even more portable than the iPad mini. You can even get a data-enabled Nexus 7 for less than the price of an iPad mini, and for the ultra-mobile person in your life that might be the perfect deal.
You only want content? Buy a Kindle Fire HD
Amazon has more content than any other ecosystem, and the Kindle Fire HD (in 7- or 8.9-inch models) is a great way to access that huge universe of music, movies, apps, and books. It's not a device for power users, but it's a great tablet for a parent or friend who just wants something to watch or read.
You want an e-reader? Buy a Kindle Paperwhite
If you want to sit and read for hours at a time, undistracted by Twitter and Angry Birds Star Wars, an E-Ink e-reader is the way to go. Amazon's Kindle Paperwhite is the best of the bunch: it has a sharper, crisper screen than its competitors, and adds a subtle light to the front that makes it readable in the dark. It's the best in-bed companion you'll find, and it plugs into Amazon's gigantic ecosystem of books and periodicals. We'd recommend getting the $179 3G-enabled version, which lets you buy and download books from basically anywhere, but the $119 Wi-Fi version is good too.