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Beyond the iPad: Rivals offer attractive alternatives

For the first time, the phrase "tablet worth buying" isn't automatically synonymous with "iPad." • Unlike years past, when anything without the Apple label might have been met with a fallen face, this holiday season presents the gift-buyer with a real choice of sizes and prices.

Nexus 7

After two years of struggling to establish Android as a direct iPad competitor, Google this year tried a different tack. Working with Asus, it launched the Nexus 7, a more compact, Google-branded device.

Starting at $199, the Wi-Fi-only Nexus 7 features a bright and beautiful 7-inch display and swift performance. It also introduced "Jelly Bean," the latest, smoothest version of Android, which will eventually find its way onto phones and other tablets as well. The device's main drawback is the limited selection of content in some of the Google Play online stores.

Kindle Fire HD

Lack of content isn't anything that afflicts Amazon.com's 7-inch Kindle Fire HD. Indeed, it functions best as a front end to Amazon's enormous stockpiles of e-books, videos and music. And the same $199 that buys you eight gigabytes on the Nexus 7 gets you 16 on the Kindle Fire HD.

At the same time, it's heavier and slower than the Nexus 7, and although it runs a version of Android, it doesn't have access to the vast universe of Android apps. But if you've got a confirmed Amazon-lover on your list — especially one who already belongs to Amazon Prime and can take advantage of features like the Kindle Lending Library — this may be the tablet that warms her heart.

Amazon also offers a bigger, 8.9-inch version of the Fire HD starting at $299.

Xperia Tablet S

My current favorite may be Sony's Xperia Tablet S ($400-$600). The first version, released last year, won points for its unique teardrop design and built-in features that turned it into a super-duper TV remote — but lost them with cheap construction, poorly placed controls and connectors, and sluggish performance.

The new version addresses many of those shortcomings. It still can't touch the iPad in terms of battery life or richness of the app ecosystem. But it may be the best bet for the dedicated Apple-basher — there are a lot of them out there — on your list.

Kindle Paperwhite

While multifunction color tablets get all the attention these days, there's still a role for the humble monochrome e-reader among, you know, readers. The class of the field here is Amazon's new Kindle Paperwhite ($119-$199), which uses a built-in light, improved contrast and higher resolution to create a more book-like experience, even in a dark room.

The Kindle Paperwhite gives you access to the best selection of e-books, extras like the Lending Library for Prime members and eight weeks of battery life between charges.

Beyond the iPad: Rivals offer attractive alternatives 11/18/12 [Last modified: Sunday, November 18, 2012 7:25pm]

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