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Saturday, Nov 24 2012 12:33 AM

Techie: Holiday shopping guide for tablet PCs

By David A. Milazzo

Of all the electronic gizmos and gadgets vying for your attention this holiday season, tablet PCs will likely rank at the top of most wish lists. And while Apple has paraded the iPad since 2010, the challengers had a tough time catching up, until recently.

Now in its fourth generation, and with an iPad mini unveiling recently, the iPad platform has never been stronger. However, the competition is finally starting to heat up. Amazon, Google and Microsoft all offer compelling devices. So which do you buy?

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David A. Milazzo

In this holiday guide, I’ll point out some pros and cons of each platform to help you pick the tablet to purchase. Understanding the differences requires a desire to pay attention to the details. Here are some details to consider:

Size: Do you like the idea of a full-size tablet, or one you can stow in a jacket pocket? All but Microsoft offers a smaller 7-inch version to go along with their full-size models.

Screen resolution: Every model offers a slightly different resolution. The higher the resolution, the less you notice the individual pixels making up the screen. So text is sharper and photos are crystal clear. Bigger numbers are better.

Capacity: The larger the number, the more content you can store on your device. Only Amazon’s entry-level Kindle Fire has a meager 8GB — all others start with 16GB and have 32GB and 64GB options. Again, bigger is better.

Connectivity: Is access to Wi-Fi networks enough, or would you like the ability to connect to the Internet wherever you roam? Buying a model with 3G/4G cellular connectivity adds additional hardware and data subscription costs, but gives you Internet access anywhere you go.

Operating system: Probably the biggest consideration is the software or operating system running the device. Apple’s iOS is the software that powers the iPad, as well as the iPhone and iPod. Microsoft just launched Windows RT, which runs on the Surface and a few third- party devices. And Google’s OS is called Android. You’ll find Android (or a customized version of Android) running on dozens of tablets made by a slew of vendors: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Samsung, Acer and many others.

Are you still with me? Good. Let’s take a look at a few of the major players.

Amazon Kindle Fire: $159 to $614,  amazon.com/kindlefire
For the budget conscious, the Kindle Fire collection provides some serious bang-for- your-buck. The base model 7-inch Fire at $159 is a steal. And while the plastic casing and lower resolution may not be top-notch, the price point coupled with access to
Amazon’s vast library of media makes a persuasive case. If you pony up an extra $40, the Fire HD sheds a little weight and brings increased screen resolution, more storage and a host of real-tablet amenities like a front-facing camera, Bluetooth and a gyroscope for gaming. The real claim-to-fame of the Fire series is the simplicity of media enjoyment with enhanced access to Amazon’s electronic and physical stores. So, if you’re primarily looking to read a few bestsellers, watch movies, browse the web, and do some online shopping, this device is a perfect match. However, if you think you may want to delve into business and productivity apps as well, you’re better off choosing from one of the other vendors.

Google Nexus: $199 to $499, play.google.com/store/devices
The 7-inch Nexus is Google’s answer to the Fire. It’s fairly inexpensive and offers a wide array of Google’s strongest features: Gmail, Google+, Maps, Chrome and Voice Assistant. Plus the Google Play store is loaded with apps and media — not quite as large as Apple’s App and iTunes stores, but growing all the time. And though the Nexus may remind you of the Kindle Fire HD in size and price, it’s so much more. The $199 Nexus is a fully operational tablet, with all the bells and whistles you would expect with connectivity, a camera, gyroscopes and GPS. For those who already own an Android smartphone, adding a Google tablet to your life is a no-brainer. You won’t have to re- buy apps for the second device, simply login to Google Play and re-download your paid apps. But one caveat: Apps for your Android tablet are in most cases merely enlarged smartphone apps. This will improve over time, but most Android apps have yet to take full advantage of the tablet form-factor.

Microsoft Surfance: $499 to $699, microsoft.com/surface
Microsoft is the newest contender in the tablet scene and their hardware, called Surface, is gorgeous. These 10.8-inch tablets are big and very well built. And Microsoft is innovating in new ways by adding a built-in kickstand to prop-up the tablet and a super-slim cover with an integrated touch-keyboard. Pretty nifty. But the Surface has some software problems. Windows RT being a brand new platform it’s nearly devoid of apps — no Facebook, Angry Birds or Instagram. Not to mention, the OS itself appears to be a work-in-progress with a lack of polish and missing features we’ve come to rely on. My advice: Wait a year before diving into Surface. It may become a strong business tablet, but it’s too early to commit.

Apple iPad: $329 to $829, apple.com/ipad
Apple’s tablets are the best-built devices you’ll find, but you pay a premium for that quality. With an enclosure made of aluminum, not plastic, these devices will hold up to rigorous use. Not only is Apple’s iOS App Store jam-packed with 275,000 applications made specifically for iPad’s larger screen, their media ecosystem is enormous. And from a business perspective, iPads can securely access corporate files, edit Microsoft Office documents, implement digital forms and provide your sole link back to the office.

The iPad lineup is comprised of two models: the full-size 9.7-inch iPad; and a new smaller, thinner 7.9-inch iPad mini. Both offer an identical feature-set, the only difference being the screen size and resolution.

All in all, the iPad continues to remain the measuring stick by which all others are judged. As Microsoft and Google continue their innovation this may not last forever. But for the 2012 shopping season, the iPad is still the most versatile, media-capable, business- ready device on the market.

If consuming media is your thing, pick up a Kindle Fire HD. If you want a full-tablet experience at a low price, the Nexus 7 is hard to beat. But if you’re looking for the all-around champ, great at every task with top-shelf hardware and software design, go mini or go maxi, but the iPad is the only way to go.

David A. Milazzo is the founder and principal of Macroscopic, an Apple enterprise technology consultancy. Macroscopic develops OS X, OS X Server and iOS technology solutions for businesses, schools, agencies and independent professionals throughout the United States. You can follow Milazzo’s musings on technology via Twitter @davidmilazzo or “like” Macroscopic on Facebook. macroscopic.net

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