It's not quite accurate to say that only two categories of tablet exist: the iPad and Everything That's Not the iPad. But that description isn't far off. • Apple's $499-and-up touch-screen device continues to define this category, more than half a year after its arrival in stores. If you've ever used an iPhone or an iPod Touch, you know how to use this thing. If not, the odds are good that a friend can teach you in a few minutes. The iPad also benefits from an enormous and growing selection of applications written for its 9.7-inch screen.
Of the six iPad configurations, the entry-level, WiFi-only, 16-gigabyte model remains the best choice in most cases. The extra memory of pricier versions won't matter to most users, while the 3G iPad's mobile-broadband access will be almost as irrelevant to users who only take it from their home to a friend's house or to a WiFi-equipped coffee shop.
But Apple's tablet misses some marks of its own. Without a camera, it's shut out of FaceTime video calls with iPhone, iPod Touch and Mac users. Its need to be connected to a computer for setup and operating-system updates makes it unusable as somebody's only way to access the Web. More than six months after its launch, it can't be long before a new version arrives. And even $499 can be a lot of money.
If not the iPad, what else?
Samsung's Galaxy Tab would be the obvious choice for iPad refuse-niks. But this smaller, lighter Android device doesn't have an equally shrunken price — largely because it's sold only in 3G versions customized for the major wireless carriers. So either you sign up for a two-year wireless-data contract (which only lowers the Tab's price to $399.99 at best) or you pay "unsubsidized" prices of $599.99 or $649.99.
The Galaxy Tab does include front and back videocameras, a browser that can play Adobe Flash content (sometimes after a pause or a stutter) and access to the Android Market (though some apps fail to fill the screen and most aren't customized for that larger space). But its video-calling software comes nowhere near the ease of Apple's FaceTime. And Samsung earns an extra foul for shipping this thing with a proprietary data/power USB connector — who does this company think it is, Apple?
After that, the market gets fragmented.
For now, the most interesting iPad alternative looks to be Barnes & Noble's NookColor. Although the bookstore chain pitches the $249 WiFi tablet as an e-book reader, it also can serve as a good Web-access tool. Its 7-inch color LCD doesn't exhibit the Tab's distracting pauses to redraw text after scrolling in, and its simplicity means there's less to learn overall.
You read books and magazines on this thing, browse the Web, run some simple apps, carry around photos and music and a movie or two on its 8 GB of internal storage. (The NookColor runs a pruned version of Android without access to the Android Market, though B&N plans to offer its own catalog of simpler programs.) That's it.
For half the price of an iPad, it seems a reasonable trade-off — even if you never buy an e-book from B&N's store.
At any electronics store, you'll probably also see Android tablets from companies you have never heard of. Tread carefully. The prices and features can look appealing, but many of them run slowly and ship with outdated versions of Android. Some don't include the Android Market, either. If you can't confirm a device has at least the 2.1 version of Android and the Market, avoid it.
The cheapest tablets aren't usually thought of as computers: e-book readers like Amazon's Kindle (still the best of them, though it's due for an update). Some e-readers advertise Web access, but don't kid yourself: Browsing the Web on their sluggish, gray-scale displays is nowhere near as good as even the worst no-name Android tablets.
Between the uncertain timing of an update to the iPad and the arrival of a tablet-optimized 3.0 version of Android and upcoming alternatives, there are good reasons to wait a few months. That gift card you got for Christmas should still be good.