Not all that long ago, you couldn't imagine wanting a tablet computer. Your smartphone and laptop met all your computing requirements, or so you figured. And tablets were those awkward, stylus-driven computers that were pushed for years by Bill Gates at Microsoft, with very little to show for it.
Today, you're in crowded company if a tablet computer tops your holiday wish list. Nearly six in 10 shoppers surveyed by the PriceGrabber price-comparison site said they'd rather receive a tablet computer than a laptop. And 71% said that tablets would replace e-readers as gifts this year.
Forrester Research analyst Sarah Rotman Epps forecasts that tablets will reach 112.5 million U.S. consumers -- one-third of the U.S. adult population -- by 2016. The market was practically non-existent as recently as early 2010. That was right before everything changed with the arrival of the iPad, still the finest mainstream tablet out there.
The last two generations of full-size iPads boast knockout Retina display screens. More than 275,000 apps have been especially produced for Apple's slate, way more than the apps that have been optimized for any other platform. The iOS software behind Apple's tablet is generally friendlier than competitors' software.
But there's no shortage of rivals trying to dethrone the market champ, with most challengers relying on some variant of Google's Android operating system. Google's own Nexus 7 (made by Asus) and Nexus 10 (made by Samsung) models lead the Android brigade and run the current flavor of Android called Jelly Bean.
Specs-wise, the Nexus 10 boasts an even higher-resolution 10-inch display than the iPad, though you have a difficult time detecting much of a difference in a side-by-side comparison.
On the various Kindle Fires that Amazon sells and the Nook tablets sold by Barnes & Noble, Android is present but shoved in the background, barely recognizable, replaced by the companies' own user interfaces.
A fresh challenge is coming from another flank, the radically different Windows 8 operating system driven by Microsoft and its PC partners. Windows 8 is designed not only for multitouch tablets but traditional desktop PCs and laptops, a controversial and somewhat confusing decision by Microsoft that differs from the approach Apple is taking. Despite overlapping features, Apple is keeping the OS X operating system (for Macs) and iOS (for the iPad and iPhone) separate.
NPD data suggest a very slow start for Win 8 tablets, with market share of less than 1%.
The latest crop of tablets from all comers brings screen sizes typically in the 7- to 10-inch range, though you see some displays a bit smaller or larger. The trade-off to shoppers is obvious. Do you want more screen real estate? Or a lighter machine you might be able to stash in a pocket?
Apple's popular iPad has a 9.7-inch display; the recently added iPad Mini has a 7.9-inch screen. Meanwhile, smartphone screens are in some instances expanding so greatly that they are inhabiting territory occupied by smaller tablets. The Samsung Galaxy Note II, more phone than tablet despite the use of a souped-up S-Pen stylus, has been nicknamed a "phablet."
Prices are big and small, too, with most new tablets from well-known companies at a rough starting point of $200. Knockoffs from companies you've never heard of cost even less, though they usually aren't as snappy and their screens don't quite measure up. At the other extreme, the current top-of-the-line iPad commands $829.
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