Windows tablet: Microsoft Surface with Windows RT
Microsoft's reborn operating system, Windows 8 -- and its lower-caste cousin, Windows RT -- was created in order to offer a new interface for touch-screen devices (while, presumably, still enabling non-touch usability). Because Windows 8 first shipped this October, there are only a limited number of tablets out there running the new OS.
Certainly the most innovative was introduced by Microsoft itself at the same time the OS shipped: the Surface with Windows RT. There is a great deal to like -- even love -- about the Surface. At 1.5 lb., the 10.6-in. tablet is lighter than you'd expect. The 1366 x 768 ClearType HD touch display provides bright, color-rich imagery; performance is fast and smooth.
There are front- and rear-facing 720p cameras, stereo speakers that offer surprisingly full sound, and more ports than most tablets offer, including a full-sized USB 2.0 port, a headset jack, an HD video-out port and a microSDXC card slot for extra storage (which you'll probably need; the OS takes up so much space that the 32GB Surface really offers 16GB of user storage, while the 64GB version has 45GB of user space). And there is a stand that pulls out so you can sit it on a flat surface.
But the real surprise is the Touch Cover, a lightweight, flexible 3mm-thick cover that also works as a touch-sensitive keyboard. It attaches via a magnetic hinge at the bottom of the tablet and bends back out of the way when you don't need it. (It also detaches easily.) I'm very picky about my keyboards, and this one actually works better for me than some traditional ones have.
The basic black Touch Cover adds $100 to the price of the 32GB tablet and is included with the 64GB tablet. You can also buy it separately in one of several colors for $119.99, and a more "clicky" Type Cover keyboard is available for $129.99.
The Surface has, unfortunately, some glitches that should be taken into consideration. Some of the earlier Touch Covers seem to have developed cracks, and some users are experiencing Wi-Fi issues where users get only "limited" service for some connections. And, of course, there is the OS itself; currently, only the Windows RT version of the tablet is available, which means you can install only Windows 8 Store apps.
However, covers can be (and are being) replaced, a firmware update should fix the Wi-Fi glitch, and a version of the Surface with the full version of Windows 8 will be available soon. And aside from these issues, the Surface is an excellent way to work with the new Windows RT interface on a lightweight, well-designed device.
You might also like: There are a number of Windows 8 tablets with attachable keyboards coming out for the holidays; the best strategy is to try each out for yourself. These include the HP Envy X2 ($850 and up), the Dell XPS 10 ($500 and up) and the Samsung Ativ Smart PC ($750 and up).
-- Barbara Krasnoff
E-reader/tablet: Barnes & Noble Nook HD
An e-reader these days provides much more than just a way to read electronic books. It's also used for Web browsing, social media, email, and movie and TV watching as well.
All that is why the new Nook HD beats its main competitor, Amazon's Kindle Fire HD, as the e-reader/tablet to buy this holiday season. For a start, the Nook HD has a superb 1440-x-900-resolution screen that's great not only for reading books, but for viewing full-color magazines, graphic novels, cartoons and videos.
The Nook HD's new software, built on top of Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, is smart and lightning fast, with speedy Web browsing and an excellent email client. The new Profiles feature allows multiple members of a household to share the device, with each person having their own content library, home screen and preferences. Also new is the Nook Video service for buying and renting movies on an individual or a pay-for-play basis.
In my recent review of the Nook HD I concluded, "Its better software, exceptional screen, faster Web browsing and much smoother performance make it the winner in my eyes." I've been using it considerably since then, and if anything, I'm even more impressed after longer use. Whoever is lucky enough to receive it from you will enjoy it, too.
You might also like: The Kindle Fire HD ($199 for 16GB; $249 for 32GB) is a bit more sluggish than the Nook HD, and its software isn't as good, but it's a solid e-reader, and it has a far better selection of video offerings than the Nook HD.
-- Preston Gralla
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