The biggest holiday question this year will be “what tablet should I buy for [insert name]?” And that’s a tough question, perhaps the hardest one out of any gift you can give this year. While others, including smartphones, are fairly straight forward with a few excellent devices, tablets as a whole are undergoing an incredible change that is making a smart buying decision really hard.

What should users get? Stick with the iPad, the most popular tablet in the world? Or maybe get a smaller, iPad mini? What size is best, 7″ or 10″? Is Android a better choice than the iPad? What about Windows 8 tablets? These are not only reasonable questions, but thoughtful ones too. I don’t envy holiday shoppers when it comes to tablet devices, but I will explain the main differences between the three operating systems in short to help you make the right choice.

Ecosystem vs Environment

The question of what tablet is the best is really the question of what you want. Do you want a tablet that can do anything? Do you want it for mostly reading, browsing the web, and maybe some light work? Or do you want it for tons and tons of apps. If you don’t know, then you have a serious quandary on your hands. Take a look at the simple chart to get a better sense of this problem.

And even though we scored everything above, the differences aren’t so great. Sure, if you’re a student comparing grades it may seem worlds apart, but every single tablet offers something unique that no other tablet type does. The iPad has the largest app ecosystem, with over 250,000 iPad-specific apps, as well as access to over 600,000 iOS apps (iPhone apps). Android is the most open OS, is great for media playback, and has just as many apps as iOS (though most aren’t tablet-specific). It also has the highest number of available tablets in all shapes and sizes, brands, and types. Windows 8 tablets offer best-in-class web browsing on a tablet as well as the best productivity you can find on any tablet, with Office 2013 built right into the tablet. And Amazon’s Kindle tablets are excellent for all media thanks to the excellent Amazon Prime service and audio books.

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s take a look at the best tablets you can buy today.

10-inch Tablets (full-size)

ASUS Transformer Pad Infinity TF700T

If there’s any full-size tablet that you should seriously consider bringing home with you, it’s one of two ASUS tablets: the Transformer Pad Infinity TF700T or the VivoTab RT TF600. Both seem expensive at $500/$600 w/keyboard, but both also include excellent displays and are equally good at two very specific things. The former is ASUS’ flagship Android-based tablet, and aside from the latest but problematic Nexus 10, the TF700T is the most powerful Android tablet on the market. It’s the best tablet for Android gaming, has a wonderfully bright and beautiful 1200p display, and is brilliant for media playback and general use. In my review I said it’s the best Android tablet on the market, and after several months that remains true. Nothing is quite as good as the Infinity.

The Transformer Pad Infinity offers best-in-class media playback thanks to not only a ton of (cheap) memory but the fastest GPU and RAM available on a tablet combined with one of the best displays on the market. If you’re a hardcore Android user who wants the absolute best, most powerful tablet on the market, the TF700T has been and will continue to be the most powerful Android tablet for quite a while. Nothing still, not even the Nexus 10 with its ARM A15 processor, matches the raw performance of the TF700T for gaming and general use. It’s one of the few tablets that can run both 720p and 1080p video files without stutter. And these aren’t traditional MP4 videos, I mean MKV or higher-bitrate videos. 1080p video is definitely extreme (after all, tablet space is a precious commodity not to be wasted), but the capability is still, months after the tablet released, unheard of. If any tablet deserves a crown, the TF700T is it.

iPad (4th generation)

The iPad is the king of tablets. Even though it’s lost market share and is expected to only have 50% of the tablet market by the end of this year, it is still the top-selling and best overall tablet you can buy. That’s for three main reasons: best apps, excellent hardware, and balanced design and functionality. The iPad has been as successful as it is not only because it was the first tablet of it’s kind, but because it has and remains to be the best overall tablet available. This latest iPad not only includes the latest A6X processor for top-of-the-line performance across the board, from web browsing to gaming, it has one of the best high-resolution displays you can find anywhere and manages to last around ten hours per charge.

In many ways the iPad is the ultimate tablet. It largest app ecosystem, the best screen, and the most powerful. Now with the new Lightning connector, you can’t go wrong with the iPad. It’s the gift that will last for years to come.

ASUS VivoTab RT TF600

2012 really is the year of Asian computer companies. ASUS, Lenovo, and Acer have really done an amazing job across the board, and ASUS takes the cake when it comes to the company’s latest tablets. The VivoTab RT is the first Windows 8 RT tablet from ASUS and it is really great. It’s great because Windows RT is a really great tablet OS which, while lacking in available apps, is the closest you can get to a full laptop without buying a laptop. A full touchscreen plus the Windows 7 desktop, the full Internet Explorer 10 browser (which is really pretty good), and the additional keyboard case make the VivoTab RT one of the best tablets you can buy.

Why? It has an excellent screen just like the Transformer Pad Infinity (at a lower 1366×768 resolution) which produces brilliant colors and contrast. The battery, which I’m still testing, lasts up to a week under extended use with the keyboard case, meaning several hours of use each day. I very seriously would replace a laptop and tablet together for this single device, which with the keyboard costs just $600. Having full access to Windows 8, even if you never really open or use any of the applications available for the OS, is incredibly useful on a tablet. Enough to make this the most unexpected but perhaps best tablet gift.

7-inch Tablets (media tablets)

iPad mini

At first, I wasn’t very keen on the iPad mini. In fact, in many ways the internal components that Apple utilizes for the smaller iPad still frustrate me. Why spend the last two years touting high-resolution displays only to release the latest tablet without an HD display?

But the reality is that as great as the iPad is, it is a very large tablet. Not everyone wants or needs a 10″ tablet. Such a large design isn’t easy for holding one-handed, especially for web-browsing and reading. The smaller size is great for both one- and two-handed use thanks to a lighter, thinner frame, which is a pleasure to hold. After only a few days of use the first thought that came to mind is “why bother with a full-size iPad?” The answer is obvious: gaming and power. But if you don’t need those, don’t want to spend the money, and want a smaller device that’s better for travel and everyday use, the iPad mini is pretty spectacular. It’s a bit expensive at $330, but it’s by far the best entry into the iOS ecosystem for a tablet of this size.

Kindle Fire (2012)

You might be asking yourself why this is the Kindle Fire and not the Fire HD. The answer is simple: both are identical except for a few minor component differences, and the Fire is $160. Even if you aren’t sure, that’s the best price you are going to get on a brand-new tablet today, especially a Kindle.

The best thing about the Fire is that it has full access to the Amazon Instant video store, including Amazon Prime videos. The fact of the matter is that thanks to the Amazon Instant app on iOS, so does the iPad (but not the iPhone), but the difference is clear as day: either pay at least $330 for an iPad to stream your Prime videos to a tablet, or pay half that for same functionality on a thicker, heavier but widescreen tablet.

The screen isn’t as good, and the resolution is slightly worse, but for media the Kindle Fire is better thanks to the widescreen display. Video isn’t letterboxed nearly as much as it is on any iPad, and the picture clarity is very good, even if video is upscaled or downscaled. The inclusion of Amazon’s bookstore plus’s audio books built right into the tablet, along with functionality for kids use, an easy-to-use interface, and that low price make the Kindle Fire a best buy for the holidays.

Kindle Fire HD

If you’re interested in more HD media, the Fire HD is a better choice than the standard Fire. It improves upon three major factors over the Fire: a better screen resolution (1280×720 vs 1024×600), better Wi-Fi reception (2.4GHz, 5GHz, and MIMO), and stereo speakers. The Fire HD doesn’t have better battery life and isn’t faster than the Fire (in fact, in my use the Fire has better performance than the Fire HD), but these three major improvements over the Fire are worth purchasing the Fire HD over the standard tablet.

But which should you take? Considering the price difference is only $40, money really shouldn’t be an issue, though both are safe buys, especially if you have an Amazon Prime account (or are including that as the gift, another great idea!). I would highly recommend the Fire HD if you tend to be on low quality Wi-Fi networks and/or want the HD display. Most content on Amazon Prime isn’t HD video, so it really isn’t and likely won’t be necessary for at least a year, but it certainly does make HD video look crisp on the very nice IPS display. The stereo speakers are a big deal if you plan on watching without headphones. The Fire HD is one of the few tablets with decent stereo speakers, though they face outwards, so a case or cupping your hands is necessary to get the most out of audio.

Nexus 7

At first I wasn’t going to recommend the Nexus 7. After all, it only scored 3.5/5 stars, notably because of the mediocre display and 8/16GB of memory. Sure, the price is extremely low at $200/$250, but it really isn’t worth it for no space. But then Google went ahead and upgraded the capacities, and also made an LTE-ready model, so now users can get the incredible power of a gaming-ready tablet in a media tablet without compromise.

Does doubling the space really make the Nexus 7 a good holiday gift? Absolutely. It would have before, though the recipient would very likely use up the available space on day one with the 8GB model, and within the first week with the 16GB model. Now with up to 32GB of space, that won’t be a problem…and if you’re buying the tablet for grandma, you can still spend the same $200 and load it up with whatever you like. Like a family photo album 13GB large and Skype. You know, so she can call you anytime for a video chat.

James Pikover

Spawned in the horrendous heat of a Los Angeles winter, James was born with an incessant need to press buttons. Whether it was the car radio, doorbells on Halloween or lights, James pushed, pressed and prodded every button. No elevator was left unscathed, no building intercom was left un-rung, and no person he’s known has been left un-annoyed.