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So you’re looking to buy a tablet. The good news is that this is the most exciting time yet for the form factor, with exciting and competitive products available or coming soon from Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple. The bad news, of course, is that all this choice makes buying decisions that much harder. Let’s take a closer look at each of the major players. Here’s our tablet buying guide for summer 2012.

iPad

No need to describe this one for you. For the time being, the iPad still dominate the tablet field. It commands the most apps and, in its newest generation, an absurdly high-resolution display. Bluetooth and software like Pages, GarageBand, and iMovie make it a device for both creation and consumption (though it’s still a bit awkward to pair with a keyboard). If you know someone with a tablet, it’s probably an iPad.

Here are the three most important questions, then: Do you enjoy or prefer iOS? Are you willing to pay at least $400? And do you want a 10-inch tablet? If you answered yes to all of these, you’re probably in the market for an iPad. One caveat, though: Bloomsberg and the Wall Street Journal are reporting that Apple is putting a new, smaller iPad into production, likely for release this fall. Most tech pundits predict that the product will feature a 7.8 inch screen to allow for easy scaling of apps, and that Apple will shoot for a price range between $200 and $300. If you’re intrigued by the thought of a smaller, cheaper iPad, and you’re not necessarily looking to buy something right this minute, it might be worth waiting a couple months.

 

Google Nexus 7

Google made waves in tech circles with the unveiling of the Nexus 7 at its I/O event. This 7-inch, $200 tablet features Jelly Bean, the newest and smoothest iteration of Android yet, and it’s pretty much fully-featured: GPS (with the ability to download Google Maps to the device), Bluetooth, and elegant design. The base model comes with 8 GB of storage, and for another fifty bucks you can upgrade to 16 GB.
It’s available now, and if you enjoy or prefer Android, this is probably your safest bet — since Google is selling these tablets at cost, you’re unlikely to see another similarly high-end device for this price in the near future. Moreover, Android’s getting more and more popular, premium apps such as Flipboard, Instapaper, and Temple Run. There’s no longer much reason to covet your iPad-owning neighbor’s app selection.

 

 

Amazon Kindle Fire

At this point, there’s virtually no reason to buy a Fire, even if you’re in love with the UI or the brand. Rumor has it that Amazon will announce a new model (or two) this summer, perhaps in the next few weeks, so even if you’re a Fire devotee, you’ll want to wait a bit. In the meantime, you won’t have any problem using the full Amazon infrastructure on a Nexus 7, including both Kindle books and Amazon-curated apps.

 

 

 

Microsoft Surface

In a lot of ways, this is the big question mark in the tablet market. Microsoft’s Surface makes a lot of bold moves — by running Windows 8, it’ll command a software library arguably much larger and more flexible, especially for creative work, than the iPad. Its magnetic foldout cover/keyboard may finally make the tablet a total laptop replacement. But without a firm release date, price point, or hands-on demonstration, waiting for the Surface could be a gamble. It looks like a truly exciting game-changer, but we might not see it until late 2012.

 

Overall Verdict

Everyone’s tablet needs/wants are a little different, but for the general buyer, I’d recommend waiting a couple weeks, both to see if Amazon makes any announcements and to see how customers receive the Nexus 7. Barring any nasty surprises (or competitive new products in the Kindle line), go with the Nexus.

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