by Jeff Bertolucci | shared from informationweek.com

How did the tablets fare last year?  Read on!

The basic design of tablets — a nondescript black slab — hasn’t changed much since the debut of the Apple iPad in 2010. But tablet technology is rapidly evolving, and there’s been market segmentation. Several categories have emerged over the past four years: mini tablets with screens that measure from 7 inches to 8 inches diagonally; larger tablets with 9- to 11-inch screens; and hybrid devices that function as both tablet and laptop. One might also include phablets — cellphone/tablet hybrids with 5- to 6-inch screens — as a fourth category, although these devices qualify more as oversized smartphones than true tablets.

So what makes a great tablet? Light weight and long battery life are two key characteristics, obviously, as well as processing power and a well-stocked app store. Affordability matters too, but super-cheap slates aren’t worth it, particularly in the workplace where tablets and tablet/laptop hybrids are increasingly replacing laptops. It looks as if no single operating system will dominate tablets, with Android, iOS, and Windows operating systems all finding their niche. For instance, the 7-inch Amazon Kindle Fire HDX and the 10.6-inch Microsoft Surface Pro 2, both technically tablets, appeal to different types of user.

Our Best Tablets of 2013 takes a variety of factors into consideration, including size, usability, price, availability of applications, and compatibility with existing enterprise systems.

1. Apple iPad Air

The iPad Air — the fifth and newest edition of Apple’s 9.7-inch tablet — isn’t much different from its predecessor except in two areas: It’s lighter and faster. Those two virtues make the Air a worthy upgrade. The Air weighs just over a pound, making it one of the lightest full-size tablets. And the Air’s new 64-bit A7 processor — the same chip powering the iPhone 5S — is a nice step up from the iPad 4’s dual-core A6X. Starting at $499 for 16 GB of RAM and Wi-Fi, the Air is expensive, but its beautiful Retina display, rich selection of applications, and 9- to 10-hour battery life make it an excellent choice.

2. Amazon Kindle Fire HDX

You know that old joke about selling at a loss but making it up in volume? That almost applies to Amazon, which famously offers its Kindle tablets at cost, but theoretically turns a profit by getting its users to buy all kinds of merchandise at its online store.

Whatever the business model, the bottom line for consumers is that the Kindle Fire HDX is a tremendous value. Starting at $229 for the 16-GB model, the 7-inch Kindle Fire HDX features a crisp 1920- by 1200-pixel display, which rivals that of the new (and much pricier) $399 Apple iPad Mini. The 2.2-GHz quad-core processor delivers zippy performance, and Amazon’s new “Mayday” button gives HDX users 24/7 access to live tech support.

The Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 weighs just 13.2 ounces (0.825 pounds), has an excellent 2560- by 1600-pixel screen, and starts at $379 (16GB/Wi-Fi) — that’s $120 less than the slightly larger iPad Air. Bottom line: the HDX lineup is a good deal.

3. Asus Transformer Book T100

Asus gets high marks for tablet innovation. Its Transformer Book Trio, a dual-boot Android/Windows 8 hybrid tablet announced earlier this year, might be a good choice for those seeking a tablet-laptop combo. Unfortunately, the Trio wasn’t available in time for our 2013 Best Of list.

In the meantime here’s an affordable option: The Asus Transformer Book T100 tablet/laptop, a Windows 8.1 hybrid starting at $349 with a detachable keyboard and 32 GB of storage. The T100 features a quad-core Intel Atom Bay Trail-TZ3740 processor, 2 GB of RAM, and a 10.1-inch, 1,366-by-768-pixel screen. It has a 1.2-megapixel front camera, but no back camera. (Hey, how often you do use your tablet’s back camera?) The T100 might not have top-of-the-line specs, but it’s a capable performer for the price.

4. Google Nexus 7

Attention, bargain hunters: The Nexus 7 might be the best 7-inch tablet your money can buy, although Kindle Fire HDX fans will likely disagree. Starting at $229 for 16 GB and Wi-Fi, the second-generation Nexus 7 has a lovely 1920-by-1200-pixel screen, Android 4.3, NFC, a 1.2-megapixel front camera, and a 5-MP rear camera. Powered by a 1.5-GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro processor and an Adreno 320 GPU, the tablet is bright and responsive. LTE versions with 32 GB of storage cost $349. Yes, the Nexus 7 is smaller than the 7.9-inch iPad Mini with Retina display, but it’s also a pocket-pleasing $170 less for a comparably-equipped model.

5. Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014 Edition)

If pen computing is your thing, the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014 Edition) deserves serious consideration. The Note’s revamped stylus software features Air Command (pictured), a menu of shortcuts that appears whenever you remove the S Pen stylus from its pouch or hover the Pen over the screen and press a button on its side. The updated S Note app makes it easier to sync your scribbled notes and drawings with Evernote, a boon for business users.

Starting at $550 for Wi-Fi and 16 GB, the new Galaxy Note 10.1 sports appropriately high-end specs, including a 2560-by-1600-pixel screen, and an 8-core 1.9-GHz Exynos 5 Octa processor (or a 1.3GHz quad-core Exynos 5420 chip in the US). The 8-megapixel rear camera has an LED flash, and the 2-megapixel front cam is more than sufficient for video chats. Weighing in at 1.19 pounds (Wi-Fi model), the 2014 Note 10.1 is easy to carry, although not quite as light as the 1-pound iPad Air.

6. Sony Xperia Tablet Z

In the tablet world slim has always been in, and the 1-pound mark is the latest goal for full-size tablets. The iPad Air is already there, and the 1.19-pound (Wi-Fi) Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014 Edition) is closing in. The 1.09-pound Xperia Tablet Z is another member of this slim-fast class.

“Skinny” and “great” aren’t synonymous, of course, and the Xperia Z has many other attributes, such as a water-resistant design that’s handy for kitchen or poolside use. The Z’s 1.5-GHz Qualcomm S4 Pro processor and Andreno 320 GPU deliver solid performance, the 1920-by-1200-pixel 10.1-inch screen is nice to look at, and the front-facing 2.2-megapixel camera is a step up from front-side cams on competing tablets. Starting at $449 (Wi-Fi, 16 GB), the Xperia Z is priced competitively, falling halfway between the Google Nexus 10 ($399, Wi-Fi/16GB) and iPad Air ($499, Wi-Fi/16GB).

7. Microsoft Surface Pro 2 

Some might argue the Surface Pro 2 isn’t a true tablet, but rather a Windows laptop with an optional, detachable keyboard. There’s merit to this claim, particularly considering the Surface Pro 2’s laptop-like $899 starting price, hefty 2-pound weight, and Intel Core i5 processor, which allows it to run legacy Windows apps. But despite its hybrid oddities, the Pro 2 makes a fine tablet in the workplace where the included Surface Pen stylus is handy for filling in forms and taking notes. The device’s 10.6-inch, 1,920-by-1,080-pixel screen is large and bright, and the addition of Windows 8.1 makes navigation a bit easier for keyboard and mouse users. Granted, the Surface Pro 2 isn’t for everybody, particularly the majority of consumers who want a less expensive multi-touch tablet. But organizations with hybrid needs should give the Pro 2 a closer look.

8. Apple iPad Mini with Retina Display

The original iPad Mini was embraced by critics and consumers alike, although more than a few critics griped about its 1024-by-768-pixel screen, which was surprisingly ho-hum for a small, pricey ($329 and up) tablet. The new iPad Mini with Retina display corrects that shortcoming by bumping up the screen resolution to 2048-by-1536, on par with the iPad Air. (Because its screen is smaller, the iPad Mini with Retina packs in more pixels per inch, 326, than the Air’s 264ppi.) Featuring Apple’s 64-bit A7 CPU and M7 motion coprocessor, the Retina Mini is no performance slouch. either.

Starting at $399, the 7.9-inch iPad mini with Retina display is unabashedly expensive. Apple makes no effort to slug it out on the pricing front with some very good 7-inch slates from Amazon, Google, and others that start in the low $200s.

9. Google Nexus 10

The Nexus 10 tablet is due for an upgrade, and one could arrive very soon. The first-generation model, despite positive reviews, hasn’t sold nearly as well as its smaller sibling, the Nexus 7. Why? The high-end specs certainly aren’t to blame. With a 10.1-inch, 2560-by-1600-pixel screen and $399 starting price, the Nexus 10 is very competitive in a crowded market. Its dual-core A15 processor is due for an upgrade, however, and its dull industrial design could use a makeover as well. One thing is likely: The second-gen Nexus 10 will be aggressively priced with impressive specs.

10. Microsoft Surface 2

Don’t laugh. Yes, the dismal sales of the original Surface RT tablet make the Surface 2 an unlikely choice for tablet of the year. But the Surface 2 is a well-built tablet, albeit one still hobbled by a slowly improving selection of applications. So what’s to like? The Surface 2 has a number of noteworthy upgrades over its unloved predecessor, including a faster 1.7-GHz Tegra 4 processor, a 1,920-by-1,080-pixel display, a 3.5-megapixel front camera, and a 5-megapixel rear camera. The kickstand now has two angles: 24 degrees and 45 degrees. Surface 2 includes a copy of Microsoft Office 2013, and the optional Touch and Type Covers ($119 and $129, respectively) now are backlit. If Microsoft can persuade developers to write Windows 8.1 apps, Microsoft might finally have a winner in the consumer tablet market.

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