NEW YORK ó The tablet computer is without a doubt the gift of the season ó just like it was last year.
But if you resisted the urge in 2011, now is the time to give in. This seasonís tablets are better all around. Intense competition has kept prices relatively low, making tablets incredible values compared to smartphones and PCs.
The first step in the buying process is to decide on the size of the tablet. They fall into two rough categories: the full-sized tablet, pioneered by the iPad, and the half-size tablet, epitomized by the Kindle Fire.
Full-sized tablets, which generally have screens measuring about 10 inches on the diagonal, are better for surfing websites designed for PCs, and far better when it comes to displaying magazines and documents. Overall, they go further toward replacing a laptop. They cost $400 and up.
Half-sized tablets, which have screens measuring roughly 7 inches on the diagonal, are cheaper and lighter, but just as good as full-sized tablets for e-book reading. Itís an excellent first computing device for a child, or a gentle nudge into the digital world for an older adult with little computing experience. This yearís crop costs $199 and up, but last yearís models are available for less.
If youíve settled on a small tablet, here are some top choices:
Apple iPad Mini (starts at $329 for 16 gigabytes of storage)
The most expensive of the small tablets is also the prettiest. Its exquisitely machined metal rim sets it apart from competing tablets clothed in plastic and rubber. Itís also thin and light, despite having a screen thatís 40 percent bigger than other ďsmallĒ tablets.
But the quality of the screen doesnít quite measure up to the competition. It has fewer pixels than other small tablets, and they are spread over a larger area, making for a relatively coarse, pixelated look. On the other hand, the Mini has two cameras, front and back, which is a rarity.
Where the Mini really wins is in third-party apps. Itís the only small tablet that has access to Appleís App Store, with a superlative selection of high-quality apps. Itís an excellent addition to the household thatís already hooked on iPhones and full-size iPads. For those not wedded to the ďApple system,Ē the other tablets merit a close look.
Amazon Kindle Fire HD (starts at $199 for 16 gigabytes of storage)
A year ago the Kindle Fire was the plucky, cut-rate tablet, the Dodge Neon to the iPadís BMW. This year the gap in quality and features has narrowed considerably. The Kindle Fire HD has a better screen than the iPad Mini, and now sports a front-facing camera. The original Kindle Fire had none.
In another nice touch, it has speakers on either side of the screen when itís held horizontally, making for much better stereo sound when youíre playing a movie.
The selection of content is narrower than for the iPad, since itís heavily slanted toward Amazonís services. Likewise, the selection of third-party apps is smaller than on the iPad or Googleís Nexus 7.
But there are enough games to thrill a kid for hours, and like Barnes & Nobleís Nook, the Kindle can be configured with a special ďkid modeĒ that shields them from racier content.
The Kindle Fire is especially useful for members of Amazonís Prime shipping service, since they get access to free streaming movies.
On the other hand, anyone could be annoyed by the ads that appear on the lock screen. Getting rid of them costs $15.
Barnes & Noble Nook HD (starts at $199 for 8 gigabytes of storage)
Barnes & Noble has paid a lot of attention to the screens on its Nooks. This year it clearly has outdone the competition, with a screen that packs the pixels tighter than any other small tablet. Itís very sharp and colorful, approaching the look of the Retina screen that graces the full-size iPad.
The other strength of the Nook HD is that it has a slot for a memory card, meaning that you can expand the storage space for movies and music by 32 gigabytes for $25. Itís the only tablet in our roundup with this feature.
The downside is that the Nook HD is less of a general-purpose tablet and more of a consumption device for books and movies. It doesnít have a camera, so itís no good for videoconferencing.
The selection of apps is the smallest. Youíll find big names like ďAngry BirdsĒ here, but there is no depth to the catalog.
Still, the Nook is an excellent choice for avid readers, kids and others who wonít be frustrated by the small apps selection.
Google Nexus 7 (starts at $199 for 16 gigabytes of storage)
Frustrated that Amazon and Barnes & Noble were taking Googleís Android software, gutting it and using it to power tablets that donít yield the search giant a red cent in advertising revenue or e-book sales, Google this year launched the first tablet under its own brand.
The Nexus 7 has a power-house processor and a screen similar to that of the Kindle Fire HD. Since it runs stock Android, it has access to hundreds of thousands of applications written for Android smartphones, and it has more sophisticated multi-tasking abilities than the competitors, so itís easy to switch from program to program.
The Nexus 7 is a great tablet for the technophile who would chafe at the restrictions imposed by competing manufacturers.