Sunday, 2 December 2012

the hottest gift is a tablet but which one to buy

The other day, I joined National Public Radio for a segment about high-tech holiday gifts. I was ready for the calls from listeners. I'd brushed up on cameras, phones, laptops, music players and game consoles. I was prepared to talk about limiting screen time, digital addiction, cyberbullying. I knew where to get the best deals.
But all six callers had the same question: "What tablet should I get?"
There were variations, of course. "— for my kid?" "— for my elderly father?" "— just for reading?" "— for not much money?" But in general, it was clear: the gadget most likely to be found under the tree this year is thin, battery-powered and flat.
<em>Illustration: Stuart Goldenberg/The New York Times</em>
No wonder people are confused. The marketplace has gone tablet-crazy. There's practically a different model for every man, woman and child.
There's the venerable iPad, of course. And now the iPad mini. There are new tablets from Google, also in small and large. There are Samsung's Note tablets in a variety of sizes, with styluses. There are cheaper touch-screen colour e-book/video players. There's a new crop of black-and-white e-book readers. There are stunningly cheap plastic models you've never heard of. There are tablets for children (and I don't mean baby aspirin).
So how are you, the confused consumer, supposed to keep tabs on all these tablets? By taking this handy tour through the jungle of tablets 2012. Keep hands and feet inside the tram at all times.
Dirt-cheap knock-offs
You can find no-name tablets for $100 or even less. You can also find mystery-brand Chinese tablets in toy stores, marketed to children.
Don't buy them. They don't have the apps, the features, the polish or the pleasure of the nicer ones. The junk drawer is already calling their names.
E-book readers
The smallest, lightest, least expensive, easiest to read tablets are the black-and-white e-book readers. If the goal is simply reading — and not, say, watching movies or playing games — these babies are pure joy.
Don't bother with the lesser brands; if you're going to get locked into one company's proprietary, copy-protected book format, you'll reduce your chances of library obsolescence if you stick with Amazon or Barnes & Noble.
Each company offers a whole bunch of models. But on the latest models, the page background lights up softly, so that you can read in the dark without a flashlight. (These black-and-white models also look fantastic in direct sun — now you get the best of both lighting conditions.)
The one you want is the Kindle PaperWhite, whose illumination is more even and pleasant than the equivalent Nook's.
Of course, plain, no-touch, no-light Kindles, with ads on the screen saver, are cheaper. But the light and the touch-screen are really worth having.
Colour e-readers/players
Amazon and Barnes & Noble each sell a 7-inch tablet that, functionally, lands somewhere between an e-book reader and an iPad. They have beautiful, high-definition touch screens. They play music, TV shows, movies and e-books. They can surf the web. They even run a few hand-picked Android apps such as Angry Birds.
They're nowhere near as capable as full-blown, computer-like tablets of the iPad/Nexus ilk, mainly because there are so few apps, accessories and add-ons. But you're paying only a fraction of the price.
The big two here are, once again, Amazon and Barnes & Noble. If you're not already locked in to one of those companies' books and videos because you owned a previous model, the Nook HD is the one to get. It's much smaller and lighter than the Kindle Fire HD. It has a much sharper screen. It includes a wall charger (the Fire doesn't) and no ads (the Fire does).
Or get the classy Google Nexus 7. Although its book/music/movie catalogue is far smaller, its Android app catalogue is far larger (but see "iPad versus Android," below).
Big colour readers/players
This year, both Amazon and Barnes & Noble have introduced jumbo-screen (9-inch) versions of their HD tablets. Here again, Barnes & Noble offers a better value than its 9-inch Kindle Fire HD rival. The Nook HD (PLUS) offers a sharper screen, lighter weight, no ads, a memory-card slot and a wall charger.
Amazon's 9-incher is no slouch, either. It has twice the storage but no card slot, and it has a front-facing camera for Skype video; Nook HD models have no cameras.
iPad v Android
Google is coming after Apple hard. The company now sells two tablets, the Nexus 7 (7-inch screen) and the fast, loaded Nexus 10 (10-inch screen), manufactured under Google's supervision by Asus and Samsung respectively.
The 10-inch model has a gorgeous screen. Technically, it packs in even more dots per inch than the iPad's Retina display, although you can't really see a difference.
Google's tablets also have more hardware features than the iPads, such as a video-output jack and stereo speakers — and they cost less. The Nexus 10 costs $469, which is $70 less than the equivalent iPad (16 gigabytes of storage).
Samsung is also flinging its own Android tablets into the ring. Its Galaxy Note tablets come with a stylus and a handful of stylus-oriented apps that let you draw or take notes, for example.
But Android tablets' plastic backs feel cheaper than the iPad's metal. Their cameras aren't as good as the iPad's. Their batteries generally don't last as long.
Above all, the Android-tablet app catalogue is still very disappointing. The apps that exist are often hastily re-jigged versions of Android phone apps, rather than apps thoughtfully designed for the bigger screen. For example, the Android apps for Twitter, Yelp, Pandora, Vimeo, eBay, Spotify, Rdio, Dropbox, LinkedIn, and TripAdvisor are scaled-up Android phone apps — basically, they're just lists. On the iPad, the screen is filled with useful visual information about whatever is selected.
No matter how much progress Android tablets make in hardware and price, those 275,000 tablet-designed iPad apps can't help making the iPad more attractive. (Google won't say how many apps there are for Android tablets, and there's no tablet area of the Android app store.)
iPad v iPad mini
The iPad mini runs all the same apps as the big iPad, unmodified. It shows the same content on the screen, just smaller.
The big iPad's screen is much sharper. I'm betting the Retina resolution won't come to the mini until next year's model. But otherwise, the mini makes so much sense. You can slip it into a purse or overcoat pocket. You can hold it for far longer without finger fatigue (it's very light and thin). And you can pay $369 instead of $539.
You know the old photographer's adage: "The best camera is the one you have with you?" You could say the same thing about your tablet.
Now, listen
If you don't find one of the tablets recommended here under your own tree, don't cry in your eggnog. These days, the competition is fierce and the quality is high. There aren't any certified turkeys among the name-brand tablets.
But if you do unwrap the Kindle PaperWhite, the Nook HD or the iPad mini — or wrap one up for someone else — you'll get that extra glow of satisfaction. You'll know that, at least in this moment of marketing time, you or your loved one wound up with the best that money can buy, in the most desired gift category in the land.
Next year, the hot gift might be a camera, phone, laptop, music player or game console. But this year, the marketplace has spoken: at least in technology, the world is flat.

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