Mr. Losik’s 2013 Holiday Tablet Buying Guide Part 1: Sorting Through the Options

Screen Shot 2013-11-21 at 6.32.17 AMNever before have families had so many options available when it comes to holiday tablet buying. All kinds of Android based devices are trying to give Apple and its new line of iPads a run for their money.  This holiday gift guide is aimed not at naming a best tablet but highlighting what makes each unique and sharing some recommendations for kids.

This is Part 1, a kind of a “getting acquainted” post. Check out Part 2 to find the bargains. For each grouping, I have listed some places for you to start scouting where potential deals may lie. My biggest piece of advice is shop early. Last year my wife and I found out just  how scarce some of these devices can be once Christmas starts getting nearer.

Apple has been the king of the tablet market ever since the first iPad was introduced by Steve Jobs in 2010. The iPad has become so ubiquitous it’s hard to believe it has only been part of our lives for three years. Aside from now coming in three sizes, the device really hasn’t changed a lot except the front and back facing cameras that were added to the 2nd generation model.  This feature took away a lot of the criticism that the iPad was only a device for consuming content and not making and sharing content.

The iPad 2 is really on its 4th makeover but remains Apple’s model closest to the original introduced in 2010. Apple offers it only now in a 16 GB model that retails for $399. iPad 2 is the largest of the iPads at a pound and a third, measuring 9 ½ by 7 ⅓ inches.

The iPad Air is new this year and is slightly smaller than iPad 2. It is the same height but roughly ¾ of an inch skinnier. There is a noticeable weight difference as the Air comes in a ⅓ of a pound lighter. The Air comes with Apple’s stunning Retina Display which packs in double the resolution that the 2 does. The device also features a faster processing chip and has upgraded to a 1.2 MP camera and shoots 720p high definition video. With the upgrades iPad Air also comes with a $100 higher price tag at $499 for a 16 GB model.

The iPad Mini was introduced last Fall and was virtually impossible to find in stock last Christmas season. Weighing in at just under 11 ounces, measuring 7.8 x 5.3 inches, and being only slightly over ¼ inch thick the Mini really is a marvel to hold. My fifth grade daughter has had hers for almost a year and loves the size. It seems to be the perfect bridge between the iPod Touch and the full iPad 2. She watches Netflix, produces slideshows in Keynote, and plays with a number of apps so the screen size doesn’t hinder use at all. The Mini has the same resolution as the iPad 2, comes in one 16 GB model and is Apple’s least expensive iPad on the market at $299.

Joining the iPad Air as one of Apple’s newest products comes the iPad Mini with Retina Display. Almost, identical to the iPad Mini, this one doubles the screen resolution and has the same processor and camera upgrades that the iPad Air has. The iPad Mini with Retina Display starts at $399 for the 16 GB  model.

 

What these do best: Since 2011, the iPad and its brothers and sisters below have set the bar for tablet-based creativity. Bolstering their lead in the creativity race, Apple announced in October that until further notice, all new iOS devices (iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPads) would come with iMovie, Garage Band, iPhoto, Pages, Numbers,  and Keynote free. These are  powerful apps that used to run $5 each. iMovie is great for assembling short clips or for going cinematic with its easy to use trailer-making feature. Garage Band is a fabulous music creation app. Pages will not only allow students to word process, but produce electronic books as well. Keynote is great for slide show presentations, but its image editing and layout design make it what I call the Swiss Army knife of iOS creativity.

Mr. Losik’s recommendation for kids: As a dad, I have been thrilled with the amount of use and durability my daughter’s iPad Mini has delivered over the course of the last year. It has been great in the car, used to help her learn new concepts, and provided endless creative expression. At $299 the non-retina display Mini  is a tremendous value. I really don’t think that on a device this size that the resolution is going to make that big of an impact…at least not a $100 difference.

Where to get them: Apple.com, Apple Store in Woodland Mall, Walmart, Walmart.com, Best Buy (Check BestBuy.com for store availabilty.)

Android Tablets

The remaining tablets all run on Google’s Android operating system. I had been a dyed in the wool Apple iOS user until last year when I tried my first Android device and was pleasantly surprised. Probably the coolest thing I found is that since the operating system is built by Google then lots of applications I use daily like Google Drive work seamlessly with the Android mobile devices. Connecting to external storage like usb drives is also an option Apple products don’t offer. I was always skeptical of the Android side of things because of the idea that there was a significant shortage of apps compared to what is available on the iOS side. Yes, there are fewer but there are still plenty of great Android apps, especially for learning. Google recently launched an initiative in education and that is driving more and more developers to create educational titles for Android and there are plenty available.

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Samsung is definitely one of the top forces in the Android-based tablet market and offers several models to consider. Unlike Apple that essentially offers the same product just in varying sizes or with a few upgrades , Samsung’s tablets differ in size and a number of features.

The Galaxy Tab 3 7.0 is Samsung’s mid-size option that like the iPad Mini bridges the gap between smartphone and full-size tablet. It comes in as the buying guide’s least expensive option at $159. This tablet measures 7.4 inches tall and is 4.37 inches wide. It weighs about 10 ¾ ounces and is about ⅜ inch thick. The Tab 3 7.0 only comes with 8 GB of internal storage but like many Android tablets, it has an SD card slot which lets you easily and quite cheaply expand your memory. To bring the device up to the “standard” 16 GB only costs about $10 for an 8 GB card. The Tab 3 7.0 has cameras comparable to the iPad Air and iPad Mini with Retina Display. What is interesting is that Apple actually uses chips built by Samsung in their iPads. The one in the Tab 3 7.0 is just a little zippier and comparable to the upgraded chip in the Retina Mini and Air.

Also available is a version for young kids called the Tab 3 7.0 Kids, Yellow with Blue Carrying Case. For $50 more than original 7.0 ($209), the kids version uses a simplified interface, offers more parental controls, and comes equipped in a hard-sided case with handle.

The Galaxy Tab 3 8.0 is available for $249. As the name implies, it has an 8” screen. This model comes with 16 GB of internal memory and a little bit faster processor than the 7.0.

The Galaxy Tab 3 10.1 bumps the Tab line out to full size with  16 GB of space and a price tag of $299. Its processor bumps up to almost 1 ½ times faster than the iPad 2. Its screen resolution though is still a little less than the Apple offerings. Like the other Tab 3’s, the inclusion of an SD slot is nice for expanding memory but also for transferring files between the device and a computer or an additional camera.

Samsung spent a lot of money on last year’s Super Bowl ad proclaiming “The Next Big Thing is Here.” when it launched its “Note” line of tablets. The company offers an 8 inch 16 GB model called the Galaxy Note 8.0 for $349. The “Big Thing” about the Note series is that it comes with the “integrated S pen” and “Office Suite”. The pen combines with handwriting detection software so you can just write in cursive and the device will digitize it to text. The Office Suite aids in getting documents and spreadsheets done on a tablet. The rear facing camera goes to 5 MP on the Note and it has twice the working memory or RAM of the Tab series allowing for more multitasking.

The Galaxy Note 10.1 is the full size version of the Note and packs a $599 price tag. It has all of the features of the 8.0 but with the 10 inch screen. The 10.1 also lets you have multiple windows open side-by-side, something few tablets offer. This model also delivers more creativity software like Adobe Photoshop Touch and takes advantage of the S-Pen’s pressure sensitvity. Painting and drawing on this tablet resembles painting and drawing with real brushes and pencils because of that feature. Its 16 GB internal memory can also be expanded to 64 through the SD slot. This tablet provides the highest definition and best sound quality and actually comes with $50 free dollars worth of Movies and TV shows. Buyers also get a $25 credit at the Google Play Store for buying additional apps.

What these do best: Samsung makes solid products that can handle the Android platform very well. There are plenty of games and apps available for learning and all of these will handle games and entertainment options like Netflix well. The prices for the Tab series are pretty hard to beat, especially if you are considering buying your child their first tablet. The S-Pen with the Note took some criticism as being too much like the circa 2004 Palm handhelds, but it really provides a unique tool for creating visual art and annotating photos or drawings. The iPad will still handle video production better, but there is plenty of creativity to be expressed with either the 8 or 10 inch Note.

Mr. Losik’s recommendation for kids: As I just mentioned, the price on the Tab 3 7.0 can’t be beaten, especially if this is a first tablet. Personally I would shy away from the Kid version of the Tab 3 7.0. It can be really limiting. I would buy the original version and then just take a little time to help your really young ones navigate. They can handle it. An additional feature to mention of the Note 10.1 is that it has Android 4.3 as its operating system. This version allows for multiple sign-ins so each member of the family can have his or her own account and everything is walled-off from all of the other users. There are many pluses to this feature.

Where to get them: Samsung.com, Walmart.com is currently offering refurbished units for $159., Best Buy, RadioShack.com

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Google Nexus 10

According to Google its Nexus 7 “features the world’s sharpest 7″ tablet screen”. Starting at $229 for 16GB, the tablet is actually made by Asus and features some pretty impressive specs. Its processor is going to run faster than the iPad options and right in the middle of the pack with the Samsung models. Being from Google, the Nexus doesn’t build in lots of extra features like the Note. Instead, the devices lead the Android pack with the latest updates and really let the operating system speak for itself. The cameras are fairly stout with a 5 megapixel one built into the back and a decent one in the front for selfies and Skype.

The Nexus 10 follows the same streamlined approach and comes with a similar stunning display that the 7 does. Actually manufactured by Samsung, 16 GB models are $399. Most of the user experience is quite similar to 7, but this device has one of the most powerful processors available in any tablet. Its front facing camera is almost at 2 megapixels, so those 400 selfies your kid is sure to take with this will look extra special.

What these do best: All Android devices will play nicely with other services Google offers but the Nexus line really seems to do them a little better. Plus, the Nexus will always get the updates from Google fastest. The way system updates on the Android side work is that Google creates the new version and then ships it out to other manufacturers like Samsung or Sony. Those companies then adapt the system by placing their own “wrap” or tailored user interface on it. Updates can take up to six months for some tablets and many times companies will decide not to make the updates available on certain models. With a Nexus, there is no interfering wrap and users can utilize the system as it was designed. Multiple sign-ins are now part of any device that is running version 4.2.2 or higher.

Mr. Losik’s recommendation for kids: The following commercial about says it all for the Nexus.

I am also a big fan of the one where the little girl is dreaming of being an astronaut with Curious George. In my classes I teach the kids that technology is really “learning superpowers” and if the real-life user experience is anything like the ads then this can be a great device for learning. I have always been a big fan of Google’s less-is-more approach and the Nexus tablets just kind of get out of your way. The Nexus won’t be able to do as much on the creativity side as the Note or the iPad Mini, but at $70 cheaper than the Mini it is a trade-off to definitely consider.

Where to get them: Google Play Store, Walmart, Gamestop, and lots of other online spots.

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Xperia Tablet Z from Sony

The Sony Xperia Tablet Z is the Android tablet I use the most. The third generation tablet from the legendary Japanese electronics maker starts at $499 for the 16 GB model. The Z is a full-size 10 inch tablet that boasts being the thinnest full-size tablet, even beating the iPad Air. Several ounces lighter than some of the other comparables, the Z is also a little more rectangular, lending an ultralight widescreen television feel to it. Being from Sony, the screen resolution and sound are spectacular and it has a processor strong enough at 1.5 GHz to push all of it. Supporting multiple users is a helpful perk for families, but the fact that the Z is water resistant to 1 meter might be the most practical. The 8 megapixel camera is another one of those high quality components that comes from it being a Sony. Sony doesn’t put a lot into its wrap so the experience is fairly close to the Nexus.

What it does best: This is an absolutely gorgeous piece of hardware and the fact that you could conceivably watch Netflix while washing your car can’t be overlooked either, but what I love about this device is the resources available from Sony’s commitment to improving life in classrooms.

Jamie Marsh was working on the tablet team at the company’s American headquarters in San Diego when he got to thinking that it would be great if kids could use the devices to help them in school. That initial thought led to the development of the Sony Education Ambassador program which is a small group of educators from around the country who work with Sony on finding real, working solutions for getting these tablets into more students’ hands. I was lucky enough to be invited as an inaugural ambassador. Besides sharing strategies and insight with the company, we blog and contribute resources at EducationAmbassador.com, a free site where any educator or parent can go to find apps and techniques for utilizing the Z or any other Android device in education.

Mr. Losik’s recommendation for kids: The Xperia Tablet Z can be a great all-around family tablet. It even has a universal remote built-in so you can check your fantasy football scores and flip between the games on the TV all with the same device. Initially designed with entertainment in mind by Sony, the tablet works great for watching movies, playing games, oh and also practicing math. You can even take a few pictures in the pool with it. At $499, the tablet isn’t cheap so if you are buying for individual kids, the price tag might get in the way. If it is being shared by the whole family, it is worth considering and offers a little something for everyone.

Where to get it: Sony Store (currently on sale for $449, free shipping, $170 worth of music, movies, and games free), BestBuy.com (also on sale for $449, check for store pick-up), BuyDig.com (offering $449 price plus a 16 GB memory card, neoprene sleeve, ear buds, and stylus bundle)
A few final thoughts: There are many, many options available and I didn’t even tackle the Microsoft Surface 2 that runs the latest version of Windows that is another option. Be a careful shopper as you wade through all of these devices and beware of going too far “off-brand”. I guarantee on Thanksgiving morning the paper will advertise an ultra-cheap Android tablet “doorbuster”. Just because it runs Android doesn’t mean it will run it well or for very long. The adage of “you get what you pay for” is often true on the “too good to be true” deals. I have a lot of confidence in the products I described above and would have few worries about their performance or durability. To wrap things up I will list all of the tablets one more time in order of price.

Samsung Tab 3 7.0 $159
Samsung Tab 3 7.0 Kids edition with carrying case $209
Nexus 7 $229
Samsung Tab 3 8.0 $249
iPad Mini $299
Samsung Tab 3 10.1 $299
Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0 $349
iPad Mini with Retina Display $399
iPad 2 $399
Sony Xperia Tablet Z $449
iPad Air $499
Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 $599

Look for Part 2 early next week. Happy shopping!

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