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In the market for a tablet? Your first choice should be the iPad Air. It has the best overall performance, the deepest software catalog, and a fantastic ecosystem supporting access to an incredible number of apps, games, music, and video. However, if you like the idea of a high-performing tablet, but you're not one for adding more cash to Apple's already substantial coffers, the Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 might be up your alley. With its incredibly high-resolution screen, fast Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor, Amazon's robust ecosystem and huge catalog of movies and TV shows, it succeeds in offering a viable alternative to the iPad. If price is a concern, or you simply want a smaller tablet, the $229 Nexus 7 is powerful, comfortable, and along with the provides one of the best Android tablet experiences yet. Check out the rest of the top tablets for more options.

Three rules for buying a tablet

1. Know your needs

There are plenty of important questions you should ask yourself before you plop down cash for a tablet, but the most important is, "What are you planning to use it for?"

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Are you looking to replace your PC, or do you simply want a device to indulge your movies and TV-watching impulses while traveling? Either way, the specific needs you have for a tablet will factor heavily into your choice. Will you require constant Internet access? Is the ability to expand your storage capacity important to you? What about HDMI? IR blasters? GPS?

2. Price doesn't tell the whole story

Just because a tablet is expensive doesn't mean you're getting a quality product worthy of your dollar. Conversely, not all cheap tablets are worthless throwaway devices with screens designed to induce glaucoma.

There's usually a good reason behind the price of each tablet. By taking a loss up front, Amazon can offer its powerful Kindle Fire HDX 7 tablets at affordable prices. Also, despite the fact that the iPad Air has no native HDMI or storage expansion support, Apple's flagship can justify its $500 starting price, thanks to its fast performance, incredible app support, refined interface, and robust ecosystem.

Look beyond the price.

3. The manufacturer matters

Choose your tablet manufacturer wisely. Computers aren't perfect, and tablets in particular can be even less perfect. If there are problems, you'll want to make sure you've chosen a vendor that will address said issues with frequent and effective patches. Also, if you'd rather avoid headaches, you might want to choose a manufacturer whose tablets aren't known for requiring frequent and effective patches.

Josh Miller/CNET

If you're planning to buy an Android tablet, choose a vendor that has a reputation for updating to the latest version of Android in a timely manner. Google tablets get the fastest updates, but Asus is usually quick on its feet; some other vendors, not so much.

Research a particular manufacturer's reputation for supporting its tablets before you buy.

Tablet sizes

7 to 8.3 inches (small)

These are tablets with screen sizes measuring 7 to 8 inches diagonally across the screen. Tablets of this size are usually lower priced and typically underpowered compared with larger tablets. However, small tablets are much more portable and usually fit more easily into purses and small bags. Some can even fit into pockets, depending on their width.

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Since they can easily be held in one hand, 7-inchers make much better e-reader alternatives compared with larger tablets, especially if you like to read in bed.

For people with smaller hands, limited space, or if you simply don't want to carry around something larger and potentially heavy, 7-inch tablets are the best entry points into the market.

8.9 to 10.1 inches (medium)

This is the category most mainstream tablets fall into. Medium-size tablets offer larger screens and higher resolutions than their 7-inch counterparts. Larger screens are better suited to movie watching, and certain games will benefit from the increased real estate as well.

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Medium-size tablets for the most part sport faster processors, and because of their larger screens, they provide a unique experience that isn't quite matched on smaller tablets. Games feel more interactive; movies and TV shows more immersive.

Though I'd much rather read a book on a 7-incher, for movies and games, medium is where it's at.

Over 10.1 inches (large)

There are currently very few tablet-only devices that meet this criteria, but a few Windows 8.1 hybrids do. Hybrids are both tablets (portable, touch screens) and PCs (full Windows 8.1 compatibility, faster processors). These tablets usually start at just under $1,000, like the Microsoft Surface Pro 2 and top out at around $1,500. I'm looking at you, Razer Edge .

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Key considerations

Processor

Apple A7
You'll only find the A7 on the iPad Air and the iPad Mini Retina right now and while it doesn't seem like a huge step above the A6X, at the very least it gives the iOS tablets performance parity with the latest Windows RT, Android, and Amazon tablets. The A7 (in tandem with Apple's heavily optimized operating system) drives the iPad's apps to load faster than on their Android brethren.

Nvidia Tegra
Nvidia's Tegra 4 has finally hit the market. Both Nvidia's own Shield portable gaming system, the Microsoft Surface 2 and the HP Slatebook x2 serve as the first official devices to house the new processor. Thanks to its four high-performing CPU cores and 72 (!) GPU cores, Tegra 4 has proven an impressive processor for gaming.

Nvidia's former flagship mobile processor, the Tegra 3, has unfortunately already seen its best days and as of now serves only as an average-performing budget processor. It's still capable for most needs; however, don't expect the latest games to look very impressive on it.

Nvidia

Samsung Exynos
Samsung's proprietary Exynos processors usually don't disappoint in the speed department; but, battery life hasn't typically set the world afire. Which, depending on your interpretation of that last sentence, is probably a good thing, however negatively I meant it.

The latest is its Octa 5, and instead of just throwing in a bunch of cores to inflate the chip's performance, Samsung has instead attempted to establish new levels of power/performance efficiency. In other words, Samsung wants to make your tablet's battery last longer without gimping the device's speed. The company also appears committed to making sure the chip doesn't fall behind the competition. The Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 Edition is one of the few tablets to house the chip.

Qualcomm
Qualcomm Snapdragon
The Snapdragon 800 seems like it's in every new tablet, including both the Kindle Fire HDX 7 and 8.9, as well as the Nokia Lumia 2520. The 800 is no joke when it comes to games and overall system performance

Screen quality

You say you want a sharp, bright screen with fantastic viewing angles? Such qualities are dictated by the screen's resolution and panel type. Currently, the highest-resolution of any tablet screen is 2,560x1,600 pixels, with the iPad Air and iPad Mini Retina directly behind it at 2,048,x1,536 pixels. The higher the resolution, the sharper the images look on the screen.

James Martin/CNET

Panel type will determine whether images maintain their quality when viewed from off angles or how bright the screen can get. A tablet's panel type will also dictate how vibrant and accurate colors are.

When choosing a tablet, make sure the panel is an in-plane switching (IPS) or plane line switching (PLS) screen. Anything less and the difference in quality will be readily apparent.

Operating system and software platform

iOS
Since its inception in the first iPhone, iOS has been the software powering Apple mobile devices. iOS thrives thanks to a deep media ecosystem that allows for sharing across devices, a gargantuan app catalog, and its very simple, user-friendly interface.

Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET

Android
Though it doesn't offer as many apps as iOS, Android has definitely made strides of late with its media ecosystem. Movies, TV shows, magazines, and games, in particular, have seen vast improvements in quantity and quality of selections. Also, expect a more customizable OS than any other. Android's freshest version, 4.4, is set to appear on tablets other than Google's soon.

Windows 8.1 and Windows RT 8.1
The new Windows interface has a learning curve that will discourage some people; however, if you're willing to put some time into it, once you get the hang of things, it proves an elegant and powerful tablet UI solution. Its built-in music-streaming service is great and has rich support for movies and TV shows. Its apps selection has improved since launch, but compared with the competition, it's still lacking.

Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET

Amazon's Fire OS
Running only on Kindle Fire tablets, the carousel-based interface sorts your content by category and has the deepest support for books of any tablet. Amazon Prime members benefit from free streaming of its entire video catalog as well as access to its lending library of books. Don't expect nearly as many apps as Android and iOS have at their disposal, however.

The two new Fire HDX tablets also have access to near instant customer service via video chat, thanks to Amazon's ambitious new feature called Mayday.

Storage options

Content is an integral part of the tablet experience. Whether it's movies, music, games, or books, for many people, content is the only reason to own one of these slates.

My point is, you're going to need a place to store said content. Capacities typically start off at 8GB and are doubled from there, increasing from $50 to $100 each time storage is doubled.

Josh Miller/CNET

Some tablets include storage expansion options like microSD cards, which can allow you to increase your storage capacity at a fraction of the cost (32GB microSD cards go for around $20). Others include a limited amount of free cloud storage with purchase. Also, be aware that the tablet's OS can sometimes take up a good 20 percent of its capacity. So, 8GB of storage is never really 8GB of storage.

Design

Tablets are extremely tactile devices, and you'll want to make sure yours feels great in your hands. Weight and dimensions play a large part in this, but also balance. Two different tablets can share the same weight, yet one somehow feels lighter. Thanks to care being taken to evenly distribute its internal components from the very beginning of the design stage, well-designed tablets can feel better in your hands. If you can touch a tablet before you buy, you'll greatly increase the likelihood of making an informed purchasing decision.

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Also, make sure there are no jagged edges or sharp corners that tend to dig into your palm while holding the tablet. For smaller tablets, you may want to confirm that the tablet will fit into your pocket, purse, or fanny pack or that its light enough for your kids to handle without fear of them dropping it.