2013 iPad buyers guide: How to choose between the iPad and other tablets, including Samsung Galaxy, Google Nexus, Amazon Kindle Fire, and more!
Apple has flipped the tables - er, tablets - and not only managed to cram a 2048x1536 display into the 7.9-inch Retina iPad mini, but managed to cram a full-sized 9.7-inch display into the new iPad Air. But is either of them to right tablet for you? While everyone here at iMore certainly believes the iPad is still the best tablet for most people, most of the time, there are rare exceptions where an alternative tablet might suit your specific needs better. The iPad may have the best overall user experience, the highest quality apps and games, the widest range of services, the biggest selection of accessories, and the best customer support, but there are also things the iPad doesn't offer that other tablets do, like subsidized hardware pricing, digitizer support, Microsoft compatibility, or simply no Apple about them. How do you know which one is for you? Keep reading!
Unlike others, Apple built the iPad on top of a mobile-first operating system. (Little know fact: Apple actually began work on the iPad before the iPhone.) As such, it's not crippled by the need to support legacy interface paradigms or hardware, like mice and pointers and tiny click targets. Instead it was born from multitouch, and made everything that came before feel old and unwieldy by comparison. From slide to unlock to pinch and zoom, it's now become a mainstream sensation. Over time, Apple's built on that with everything from FaceTime for incredibly easy video calls to Siri for incredibly engaging voice control. A lot of other companies throw a lot more features at the wall, hoping something sticks. Apple's focus on the best, more coherent, most usable features. iOS 7 makes it even better. They re-built the entire interface on top of a game-style physics and particle engine, so it's even more discoverable, playful, and powerful than ever before.
Apple is neck-in-neck when it comes to sheer number of items in the App Store, but they're so far ahead when it comes to the sheer number of tablet apps that's it's not even a race any more. Out of the one million apps available, nearly half of them are now optimized for the iPad. Part of that is because Apple showed developers how to make tablet apps based on the ones Apple made at launch. Part is because of the set targets Apple provided, making it easier to create pixel-perfect tablet interfaces. Part is because that, from early on, iOS developers came from the very design-centric, experience-centric Mac developer community. That set the bar very high. Likewise, some of the biggest and best gaming franchises came to the iPad early, and still come to the iPad first. While you can get a lot of name brand apps on multiple platforms now, many of the boutique apps are still iOS exclusive, including Infinity Blade, Tiny Wings, Letterpress, and more. Then there are Apple's own - now free - App Store apps, which are some of the best in mobile: Numbers, Pages, Keynote, iMovie, iPhoto, and Garageband. Other platforms are still struggling to attain tablet breadth. iOS has that, and depth.
When you get an iPad, not only do you get instant access to all of Apple's great services, like iCloud backups, and iTunes in the Cloud re-downloads, but you also get access to pretty much all of Google and Microsoft/Nokia's best services - like Gmail, Google Maps, Chrome, Google Drive, Google+, Hangouts, Outlook, SkyDrive, Bing, Skype, Here Maps, and even BBM (BlackBerry Messenger) via iPhone compatibility. You also get the best third party services like Dropbox, Box, Spotify, Songza, Pandora, Netflix, Amazon Kindle and video, HBO Go, Hulu Plus, and many more. Apple doesn't offer their stuff on any other tablets (iWork for iCloud on browsers being the only exception), but almost everybody offers everything on iPad.
From protective to decorative cases, to keyboards and other peripherals, the choice of iPad accessories remains the best of any tablet on the market. Part of that is due to the iPads popularity. Part of that is due to Apple releasing new designs only once every couple years, and keeping designs on the shelf for 3-4 years. That means accessory makers can sell the same accessory for a lot of tablets, for a long time, which is the best thing in the world for them - and for iPad owners. Instead of worrying about making something for a wide range of tablets, they can concentrate on making a wide range of things for the iPad. No matter what kind of case you want, what capacity battery charger, what kind of stand or keyboard, what type of Bluetooth accessory, chances are you won't only find it, you'll find several different options to choose from.
Note: The full-sized iPad just got a redesign, becoming the iPad Air. It'll take accessory makers a couple of months to ramp back up, but they'll do it quickly.
If you have an Apple Retail Store near you, it's a great reason to buy an iPad. Apple will not only sell you the tablet, but they'll help you set it up and show you how to use it, and give you free lessons on all the main features and apps. More importantly, if anything goes wrong, they'll fix it for you or swap it for a new tablet, usually while you wait. You can make a Genius Bar appointment, walk in with a broken iPad, and thanks to Apple customer service and iCloud, walk out half and hour later with a replacement tablet containing all of your stuff, that's essentially a clone of the one you walked in with.
Microsoft is starting to do likewise with Microsoft Stores and Skydrive. Most other manufacturers aren't even trying.
Even though the iPad's user experience is unmatched, the app, accessory, and services unequaled, and the customer service the best in the business, there's still more you may need. That's where iMore comes in. We'll help you get used to your new iPad, help you figure out which are the best apps, accessories, and services for you, and help show you all the things you can do with it, like photography, music, and more. And when you're ready, we'll help you upgrade to your next tablet. Whether you keep up with us on the web, via RSS, Twitter, App.net, Facebook, Google+iMore, YouTube, or iTunes, or some other way, you'll quickly find out the iPad doesn't only come with great stuff, it comes with a great community!
If you want a tablet that just works, and that has all the great user experience, app and game, accessory and services, customer support and iMore community benefits, then the iPad is for you. It's not as cheap as many competitors these days, doesn't have a Wacom-style digitizer built-in, but it remains the single best tablet lineup in the world at what it does, and what it does it does very, very well.
Unless you have a very specific set of requirements or use cases that make something else a better option for you - see below - get an iPad. You'll be glad you did.
Samsung makes a dizzying array of tablets in what seems to be every half-inch increment between 7 and googolplex. I'm not a fan of the Galaxy Tab series. They're iPad knockoffs and not very good ones. However, I am a fan of the Galaxy Note series because, awkward software aside, they include Wacom-style digitizers. That means they work with styluses as first-class citizens. Anyone looking for an amazingly portable Wacom tablet that also happens to run Android apps would be well-served to look at one of the tablet sized Samsung Galaxy Notes.
The Nexus 7 has just been refreshed with a higher density screen, making an already good tiny tablet even better. The Nexus 10 hasn't been updated yet, but should be soon. Both run Android the way Google means for it to be run.
The interface isn't quite as good as the iPad, though it's getting better every iteration, and the tablet-optimized app selection is still a crime against larger screens, but services like Google Now are unmatched on any other platform. Also, Google typically eats profit margins on their hardware (since they make money off advertising in their services), so Nexus tablets can be quite a bit cheaper than competing devices, including and especially Apple's.
If price is your most important feature, and you like stock Android, you'll likely be happy with a Nexus tablet.
Amazon is perhaps the only company other than Apple that understands humans don't want old fashioned PC desktops on their tablets. That makes the Kindle Fire line much more useful and approachable to mainstream customers. They've also recently updated both their small and full-sized line of tablets with the Amazon Kindle Fire HDX.
Like Google, Amazon subsidizes the hardware cost of their tablets, although instead of ads, they do it with content. The Kindle Fire HDX is basically the world's best front-end to the Amazon store, and the best way to buy anything digital from Amazon. The downside is, because of that model, Amazon literally can't afford to put the Kindle Fire HDX up for sale in any country where they don't have a digital store to support it.
They also run a highly modified version of Android, called Mojito, but retain access to Android apps. If you're in the U.S. (or a few other countries), you're all in on Amazon, and you want to save some money up-front, however, the Kindle Fire HDX could make you happy.
While the iPad sits between the phone and the laptop, Microsoft's Surface, and Windows tablet strategy in general actually sits between tablets and laptops. That makes them quite different in kind. And, thanks to the RT vs. Pro strategy, a little complicated.
If you have to run Windows apps, specifically Office, then you might have to get a Surface or RT tablet, or a Windows Pro tablet. The Surface is Microsoft's own hardware, but there are other brands as well, like the Nokia 2520.
If you want slightly more than a tablet, Windows RT might appeal to you. If you want slightly less than a laptop, Windows Pro might appeal to you.
(I'd still rather a MetroOS-only tablet (or one based on Windows Phone OS), with a touch-optimized versions of Office, but that's not the world we live in. Yet!)
If you're still not sure about the iPad Air or Retina iPad mini - or even the still-on-the-market iPad 2! - jump into our iPad discussion forums and the best community in mobile will happily help you out. If you're not sure in general, head on over to your local big box or carrier show and ask to try them out, and ask a lot of questions. Then dive into Android Central, Windows Phone Central, and experts there will help you make a final, fantastic decision.