This was a hell of a year for tablets--and we're thankful for it, too, as 2012 was underwhelming.
In 2013, across the board we saw hardware refreshes from all the major players, including Apple, Google (via Asus for its Nexus 7), and Amazon. Although Microsoft's Surface Pro 2 didn't stray too far from last year's design, it improved on some of the major shortcomings that plagued its predecessor.
The best tablets of the year emphasized easy access to content, as well as portability and speedy specifications--not to mention high-definition screens on which to view anythingA at any time.A Here are the five tablets we liked the best. If you're looking to buy a new tablet, make it one of these.
Apple iPad Air and iPad mini with Retina display
How do you improve on a tablet that's already hugely successful? You shave off a few ounces until it weighs only one pound.
Everything about the iPad Air is a step up from its predecessors. Its battery is smaller, but its powerful A7 processor makes it more energy efficient. It uses the same M7 coprocessor featured inside the iPhone 5s, as well, so it can monitor motion-sensor data without fully engaging the main processor. It's thinner, so it fits right in with the pile of books and magazines you shove into your bag on a daily basis. And it's easier to hold precisely because it's not so heavy.
The iPad Air is part of the Apple ecosystem, so if you're wholly invested in iTunes as your primary entertainment gateway, there's no need to mess around with setting it up--all of your content should become available once you log in to your account. The App Store is chock-full of applications, too, and it's no secret that iOS has a wealth of games developed specifically for tablets. If you like to watch TV--and who doesn't?--you could even invest in a relatively affordable $99 Apple TV to toss content up to the big screen without tethering. Apple's Newsstand makes it easy to subscribe to magazines and other periodicals.
If you're looking for something just a little more compact, consider the iPad mini with Retina display. As with the iPad Air, AppleA improved more than just one feature of the iPad mini--the latest model features a high-pixel-density display, in addition to the same A7 processor contained inside the iPhone 5s and iPad Air, a long-lasting battery, and a 5-megapixel camera with a sensor that helps to enhance the image quality of low-light FaceTime sessions.
With these tweaks, the iPad mini is no longer a second-class citizen. It's the same as the regular iPad, just smaller.
Google Nexus 7 (second-generation)
Google delivered a hit with the first-generation Nexus 7, and this year the Android tablet received a huge refresh, officially becoming the best cheap tablet out there.
The revamped Nexus 7 is more than just a stock Android tablet. It features a 1.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro processor, up to 9 hours of battery life, goodies such as an MHL-compatible port for plugging into your HDTV, wireless-charging support, NFC, and a high-resolution, 1200-by-1980-pixel LCD screen. With a pixel density of 323 pixels per inch and a price tag less than $250, that's plenty of pixel bang for your buck.
If you grab a Nexus 7, you're guaranteed to get all the latest Android updates directly from Google for 18 months after the device's release date. It hasn't been too long since the tablet's initial release, andA reports indicate that the second-generation Nexus 7 already has Android 4.4 KitKat, so have at it.
Amazon Kindle Fire HDX (7-inch and 8.9-inch)
Amazon launched the third-generation 7-inch and 8.9-inch Kindle HDX tablets last month. Unlike with Apple's iPads and Google's second-gen Nexus 7, the HDX's hardware isn't its main selling point--though the hardware is much improved over that of last year's Kindle Fire. Its huge content library and its novice-friendly features are what make this tablet a worthy buy.
Both the 7-inch and 8.9-inch Kindle Fire HDX models boast some impressive specifications, including a 2.2GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor, a high-resolution display, and up to 64GB of storage.
The real gold to be mined out of the Kindle HDX is its content-centric interface. Amazon's Fire OS 3.0 is essentially a "forked" version of Android, meaning that it's built on Android's original framework, so you might find some UI similarities. Every digital thing you've ever purchased on Amazon is readily available for your consumption, whether it's an ebook you bought last week or a bunch of MP3s you forgot you picked up last year. The Fire HDX's only drawback is that its Amazon App Store doesn't have all of the apps you might want to use.A
The HDX is the friendliest tablet for people who are technophobic. If you're wondering about a feature or struggling with a problem, you no longer need to call a friend for tech support; instead, you can tap the Mayday button to start a live video chat with an Amazon customer representative who can walk you through the issue.
Microsoft Surface Pro 2
You have work to do? But maybe you want to watch a movie, too? The Surface Pro 2 is a hybrid device, in that it offers both a tablet environment and a laptop experience. But a regular ol' tablet it is not.
Microsoft's Surface Pro 2 looks like a standard tablet, but when you pop on the keyboard, it resembles a laptop. The Intel Core i5 processor makes it act a lot like an Ultrabook--or if you prefer, you can whip out theA included active digitizer stylus to see its softer tablet side. You can use the device for sketching during the train ride to work, and then get to presentation-giving and note-taking the rest of the day. And if you're a power user, you can purchase it with up to 8GB of RAM and 256GB of internal storage, and even run a full version of Photoshop on it.A
We have to note one serious caveat: The app selection for the Surface Pro 2 is limited. Although it provides access to office-ready favorites such as Evernote and Microsoft Office, as well as a library of other touch-centric titles, you'll find that it lacks some well-known apps that other tablets have. If your entire tablet existence relies on being app-centric, this device may not be a good fit. But if you like to work and then play a little, you might find the Surface Pro 2 to be a sound investment.