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In Pictures: Holiday 2012 tablet buying guide - top picks

The tablet market is awash with iOS, Android and Windows 8 models that come in different sizes and with different features, specs and prices. How do you decide? Start with our Holiday 2012 Tablet Buying Guide, which highlights the top picks in 13 categories.

  • Buying a tablet used to be so simple—you bought an iPad. Now the market is flush with iOS, Android and Windows 8 models with different sizes, features, specs and prices. How to decide? Start with our Holiday 2012 Tablet Buying Guide. We checked reviews and specs to pick winners among 12 current-generation tablets in 13 categories.

  • Best Value: Tie: Google Nexus 7 and Amazon Kindle Fire HD You get a lot from Google's Nexus 7 and Amazon's Kindle Fire HD. Both start at $199 for 16GB of storage, have seven-inch screens with 1280x800 resolution and run for about 10 hours on a charge. How to choose? If you want a more pure Android experience, go with Nexus 7; Amazon' offers a curated but more limited Android app selection. If you're deeply tied to Amazon content, and you want a tablet with great audio, Kindle Fire is the tablet for you. (Note: The $199 Kindle Fire comes with ads. For $15 more, they're gone.)

  • Fastest Speed: Apple iPad (4th generation) As with battery life (more on that later), tablet vendors make their own performance claims, which may or may not reflect reality, and reviewers test speed differently. Overall, though, Apple's current iPad tends to get the highest marks for performance, thanks to the tablet's zippy A6X dual-core processor and quad-core graphics. The Asus Transformer Pad Infinity TF7000 often ranks as the fastest Android tablet, but it doesn't quite match the current iPad's mojo.

  • Best Battery Life: Apple iPad and iPad mini Gauging battery life for tablets, laptops and other devices is a crapshoot. Tablet makers often inflate battery life claims, while reviewers use differing techniques to test battery longevity, making apples-to-apples comparisons difficult. That said, Apple's iPad has always had a strong history of long battery life, with some reviewers finding that the full-sized and mini iPads exceed Apple's 10-hour claim. Worth noting, however, are Macworld tests showing that the fourth-generation iPad battery doesn't last as long as the second- and third-generation iPad models.

  • Lightest Tablet: Apple iPad mini Apple's iPad mini weighs only 0.68 pounds (Wi-Fi only) and 0.69 pounds for the Wi-Fi and cellular model, making it (just barely) the lightest of the 12 tablets surveyed for this guide. Coming in at nearly a photo finish is Google's Nexus 7 at 0.749 pounds (Wi-Fi only) and 0.765 pounds (Wi-Fi and cellular). In terms of overall dimensions, the iPad mini is slightly larger but thinner (7.87 inches high x 5.3 inches wide x 0.28 inches deep) than Google's Nexus 7 (7.81 inches high x 4.7 inches wide x 0.41 inches deep).

  • Best Display: Apple iPad (4th generation) The fourth-generation iPad's Apple Retina display makes high-definition videos, pictures, Web pages and text pop. That translates to 2048x1536 resolution, with 264 pixels per inch on a 9.7-inch screen. The Asus Transformer Pad Infinity TF7000 is a close second among many reviewers and is by far the best Android tablet screen currently available. PC World says the difference between the iPad and Asus screens is not "overwhelmingly obvious." Meanwhile, the Google Nexus 10 also comes close to the iPad's display quality. It "packs in even more dots per inch than the iPad's Retina display, although you can't really see a difference," writes David Pogue of The New York Times.

  • Best Audio: Amazon Kindle Fire HD and Kindle Fire HD 8.9 All too often, audio seems to be an afterthought for tablet makers. The new Kindle Fire HD and Kindle Fire HD 8.9 tablets, however, include Dolby Digital Technology and dual stereo speakers, which is music to many reviewers' ears. "We were pleasantly surprised not only by the volume, but the quality," says LAPTOP magazine. The Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 also gets props for its powerful, front-facing speakers.

  • Best Cameras: Asus Transformer Pad Infinity TF7000 Device-makers normally save their best cameras for smartphones, assuming (rightly so) that most people rarely use a tablet's rear-facing camera for pictures or video recording. To buck that trend, look no further than the Asus Transformer Pad Infinity TF7000. The Android tablet has a rear-facing 8-megapixel camera with a flash; one CNET review says it's "the best rear camera on an Android tablet." Apple's fourth-generation iPad, by comparison, has a 5-megapixel rear-facing camera without flash. Front-facing tablet cameras are probably used more often but are typically lower quality—you'd think tablet makers would reverse the two. Among front-facing tablet cameras, the Asus tablet takes 2-megapixel pictures, more than most other tablets.

  • Best for Gamers: Tie: iPad (4th generation) and Asus Transformer Pad Infinity TF7000 Either of these full-sized tablets will rock a gamer's world, as both are fast and have great displays. Know that the iPad tends to get the best games before Android, however. If you prefer a small tablet for gaming, reviewers tend to give a thumbs-up to the iPad mini and Google Nexus 7.

  • Best for Ebooks: Apple iPad mini Apple's iPad mini is nearly ideal for ebook reading because of its small size, light weight, and access to the most ebooks via Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Google and Apple. The downside: At $329 and up, the iPad mini is expensive.

  • Best App Selection: Apple iPad and iPad mini As of this writing, there are more than 700,000 apps in the Apple App Store, with about 275,000 optimized for iPads. While there are also about 700,000 apps in the Google Play Store, Google hasn't specified how many are specifically optimized for tablets, and plenty of popular iPad-optimized apps—such as Twitter, Pandora, LinkedIn and Dropbox—haven't been designed yet for larger Android screens. Most Android apps run on both smartphones and tablets, but only those optimized for tablets look good on the bigger screens.

  • Best for Microsoft Office: Microsoft Surface RT There are Microsoft Office-compatible suites and standalone apps for both iOS and Android. Meanwhile, Office for iOS is coming in early 2013, but early reports suggest Office on iOS lacks key features. Nothing so far beats Office 2013 Home & Student edition on Microsoft's Surface RT tablet—especially when coupled with Microsoft's $130 Type Cover keyboard. Some caveats apply. This version of Office lacks Outlook, but the Surface RT tablet includes mail, contact and calendaring apps. Also, the current Surface tab runs Windows RT, which isn't the full Windows 8 OS. Though Microsoft will release a Windows 8 Pro version in early 2013, other manufacturers are already coming out with tablet/laptop hybrids running Windows 8.

  • Best Keyboard: Type Cover for Microsoft Surface Every tablet has a virtual onscreen keyboard for typing, and they're all useful for short periods. But for any prolonged typing—such as in a Word document—you'll want a physical keyboard. The best one is by far Microsoft's Type Cover, an optional purchase for its Surface tablet. It's a thin keyboard that also serves as the Surface's cover, yet it feels like a real keyboard. There's even a built-in trackpad. Microsoft also sells its Touch Cover ($120) for Surface tablets. It comes in various colors and has a trackpad, but it isn't as comfortable for sustained typing, and there have been reports that the Touch Cover isn't terribly durable.

  • Best Accessories: Apple iPad The iPad has ruled the tablet world for nearly three years, so it has the largest ecosystem of cases, keyboards, bags, stereo docks and so on from which to choose. It's worth noting, though, that the fourth-generation iPad and iPad mini use Apple's new, smaller Lightning connector. It's incompatible with the vast majority of iPad docking accessories available, though Apple's pricey ($29) Lightning to 30-pin Adapter bridges the divide.

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