Three and a half years after the launch of the original Apple iPad, tablet computers may not be bleeding edge, but that's all to the good. No longer cool in and of themselves, they've had to constantly boost their quality and features to stand out from the crowd. Today's top tablets are truly impressive devices that combine stellar screens with first-rate performance.
Which makes them better than ever as holiday gifts. We've pinpointed this year's best offerings in the Android, iOS and Windows arenas. We've also rounded up an array of useful tablet accessories, including a versatile keyboard, a powerful mobile charger and an exceptionally protective case. There's even a shower curtain that holds and protects a tablet for in-shower tunes or TV.
When possible, we've provided a range of prices as offered by various vendors. Be aware: Prices fluctuate, especially at this time of year. (And as always, be careful of false deals and scams.)
Also don't miss the rest of our 2013 gift guide, featuring audio gear, smartphones, gadgets and stocking stuffers.
Android: Google Nexus 7 (2013 model)
When it comes to Android tablets, Google's Nexus 7 stands in a league of its own -- both in quality and in value. The device has a sleek design, top-of-the-line performance and a stunning HD display that offers 323 pixels per in. And with a price of $229 for the 16GB Wi-Fi version, no other tablet comes close to matching its bang for the buck.
Direct price: $229 - $349
At 7.87 x 4.49 x 0.34 in. and 0.64 lbs., the Nexus 7 is the ideal size for around-the-house video watching, Web browsing or social media use: It's bigger than a phone, with plenty of screen space, but not as big and consequently uncomfortable to hold for extended periods as a 10-in. tablet.
Its narrow profile and soft-touch rubberized back give it a warm and inviting feel and make it perfect for single-handed use.
The Nexus 7 has impeccable performance and great battery life. And, as a Nexus device, it runs Google's unmodified Android software, resulting in a clean and intuitive user experience without all the bloat and complications that third-party manufacturers tend to add. It also gets software upgrades directly from Google, which means it'll continue to have the latest and greatest features available within weeks of their release.
For anyone into video chatting, the Nexus 7 has a 1.2-megapixel front-facing camera and stereo speakers ready to handle the task. The Nexus 7 also has a 5-megapixel rear-facing camera in case your gift recipient feels the urge to snap a photo while holding the slate.
The Nexus 7 supports wireless charging, so your giftee can charge the tablet simply by setting it on any Qi-compatible pad -- no cables required.
For folks who might use the tablet on the go, you can opt to buy an LTE-connected 32GB model with service through AT&T or T-Mobile; that device runs $349 (though you'll have to sign them up for a data plan in order to take advantage of the added connectivity).
-- JR Raphael
In last year's holiday gift guide, we recommended the iPad Mini as the iOS tablet to get. We found its small size and weight to be compelling reasons to choose it over the full-size iPad, despite some tradeoffs in the hardware.
Direct price: $399 - $829
This year our choice is no different, but the Mini is. Announced in October, the revamped Mini comes without the tradeoffs present in the 2012 model.
For starters, it sports a gorgeous Retina display with pixels packed so densely that they blend together at normal reading distances. In fact, the Retina Mini offers the same 2048 x 1536 resolution as the 9.7-in. iPad but on a 7.9-in. screen, which makes for an even sharper image -- 326 pixels per in. for the Mini compared to the full-size model's 264 ppi.
The new iPad Mini also has the same powerful 64-bit A7 chip found in the new full-sized iPad Air, as well as the M7 chip, a coprocessor designed to sense, track and record motion without using the main CPU, and dual Wi-Fi antennas with MIMO technology for better Wi-Fi reception.
The updated rear camera system is capable of recording 1080p HD video and taking 5-megapixel pictures. This iSight camera comes with smart software features like autofocus, face detection and tap-to-focus, and the smarter hardware (featuring a five-element lens with hybrid IR filter, /2.4 aperture and backside illumination sensor) means taking great photos is pretty effortless. The front-facing camera is capable of taking 1.2-megapixel photos and 720 HD videos, which is good enough for FaceTime video calls.
The new Mini is available in white and silver as well as the new black and "space gray" color scheme borrowed from the iPhone 5S. It measures 7.87 x 5.3 x 0.29 in. and weighs just 0.73 lb. (0.75 lb. for the models with LTE); in other words, this device won't wear out your wrists during extended sessions.
In short, this year's iPad Mini is a full-powered iPad in a smaller, lighter package; you'll find all of the same features in a more travel-friendly design and at a more wallet-friendly price. The lineup comes in a few storage configurations: 16GB ($399), 32GB ($499), 64GB ($599) and 128GB ($699); add an additional $129 if you're looking for a model with LTE/3G cellular connectivity via AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile or Verizon.
Note that the original iPad Mini is still available (starting at $299) at the Apple Store and elsewhere online, so make sure you're getting the new Retina display model when you make your purchase. Also, it might be wise to shop early; industry watchers expect shortages of the new model this holiday season.
You might also like: Starting at $499, Apple's new iPad Air brings a 20% thinner, 28% lighter body to the 9.7-in. iPad, with the same excellent features as the new iPad Mini. If a larger screen is a priority for your gift recipient, the iPad Air is exactly what you're looking for.
-- Michael deAgonia