The iPad may have launched in 2010, but 2011 was a big year for tablets. Almost every major smartphone and PC manufacturer has joined the tablet party Apple started, beginning with the Motorola Xoom way back in February. To combat Apple on new territory, most companies turned to Google and its fledgling tablet OS, Android 3.0 (Honeycomb). Results were mixed, with some great and innovative devices coming out, padded by more iPad clones than you can shake a stick at. Until late 2011, no manufacturer seemed to be capable of beating Apple’s $500 price by a significant enough margin to make much headway. If you’re going to choose an iPad knockoff, it better be a lot cheaper. That’s where Amazon came in. Despite most people suspecting the death of the e-reader in the face of the iPad, Kindle sales continued to surge, prompting Amazon to launch its own tablet, the Kindle Fire for a new low price of $200.
Some of this year’s biggest losers were tablets as well. RIM’s BlackBerry PlayBook tablet and HP’s TouchPad tablet both attempted to enter the market but were greeted with little interest from buyers. HP didn’t take the rejection well, momentarily announcing a complete shut down of WebOS and a potential sell-off of its entire PC division (its CEO was fired and this decision was reversed). Both companies didn’t see any traction with their tablets until they were discounted to rock-bottom prices of $100-$200. But that’s enough about them. Let’s get on to this year’s big winners.
Make sure to check the rest of our Best of 2011 Awards to see all of this year’s winners.
Apple iPad 2, $500 and up
The iPad 2 is the standard for all things tablet. Microsoft may have invented the tablet PC years ago, but Apple reinvented it as a relevant compliment to a PC and smartphone. The iPad 2 is still arguably the best tablet on the market, with a superthin aluminum frame, 9.7-inch screen with a paper-like aspect ratio of 4:3. And because Apple required all developers to make custom apps for the iPad, the market is full of apps that are custom built for Apple’s tablet. Android users currently aren’t so lucky. The iPad also still has that responsiveness and ease of use that Android Honeycomb doesn’t quite have. We’ve seen and heard about many older Americans who generally avoid PCs being delighted with the iPad and using it for all sorts of things. If you want a solid buy that you know you’ll enjoy, the iPad 2 is the best bet.
Read our full Apple iPad 2 Review.
Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9, $450 and up
Samsung has made a good living by mimicking Apple (proof), and its Galaxy Tab series tries its best to be every bit as good as the iPad is. Out of the three Galaxy Tab sizes, we like the 8.9-inch screen the best. While most Android tablets sport small 7-inch screens or large 10.1-inch screens, the 8.9-inch size is a great middle ground. We found that the Galaxy Tab 8.9 was small enough (and thin enough) for easy thumb typing but large enough to use full-screen applications and do full web browsing. While we don’t always love how manufacturers customize Android, Samsung’s TouchWiz interface is a nice improvement over the stock Android Honeycomb tablet experience. If you have the money and don’t want an iPad, the Tab 8.9 is a great option.
Read our full Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 Review.
Amazon Kindle Fire, $200
Amazon dropped a bomb when it announced the Kindle Fire. The hardware isn’t impressive, lacking cameras, hosting minimal RAM, and sporting a rather dull design borrowed from the BlackBerry PlayBook, but the price tag makes up for it. At a scant $200, the Kindle Fire is the first tablet that almost anyone can justify buying. More impressive is Amazon’s interface, which takes Android and completely reworks it into a unique Amazon experience. Unlike other tablets, Amazon’s interface is simple and explains exactly what the Kindle Fire is good for: news, books, music, video, docs, apps, and web browsing. If you’re an Android enthusiast, the Kindle Fire may not be for you, as it only connects up to Amazon’s own app and content stores, but we happen to like a lot of what Amazon offers. It’s a bit clunky and not the best tablet you’ll ever own, but the Kindle Fire is a solid choice for those on a budget.
Read our full Amazon Kindle Fire review.
Almost every tablet manufacturer this year opted to mimic the iPad. Asus was different. With its Eee Pad tablets, the PC manufacturer tried something new. The Eee Pad Transformer is a thin, capable Android tablet that docks into a keyboard, turning the Android tablet into an effective netbook. Better, the dock has a battery in it too, boosting battery life to an astounding 18+ hours. The Transformer Prime, just launched in December, is an upgraded version of this tablet, with a thinner profile, more RAM, and a quad-core processor, meaning it really can act as a netbook. Other tablets by Asus, like the Eee Pad Slider and another tablet that you can dock a phone into, are innovative and interesting. The market has responded too. While other tablet manufacturers saw consumer interest fade over the course of the year, the Transformer continued to sell out, exceeding demand. +1 for a good idea, Asus. We look forward to seeing what the company has in store for 2012.
Amazon Kindle Touch, $100
The Kindle is the most popular E-reader on the market and for good reason: it’s arguably the best. Amazon’s e-book store is substantial and the new $100 price and addition of touch makes this e-reader affordable for almost anyone. Like the Nook Simple Touch (see below), the Kindle Touch uses an infra-red sensor net to detect touch while retaining the incredible battery life afforded by the e-ink screen. Two-month battery life ain’t bad. The new Kindle Touch can also hold about 3,000 books and has a new “X-Ray” feature that lets you look up things on Wikipedia or search through the book.
While people like to credit Amazon a lot, Barnes & Noble has been leading the e-book field for some time. The Nook Color was basically an early Kindle Fire and the Nook Simple Touch came out months before Amazon’s touch-based Kindle. There isn’t a huge difference between the Nook Touch and Kindle Touch. They’re both solid e-readers and their book libraries are both fairly vast. The difference is that if you live by a B&N store, you can read books inside the store and get free technical support anytime you wish, a luxury Amazon fans do not have. We haven’t done a side-by-side comparison, but the Nook Simple Touch screen seems a bit more responsive than the Kindle Touch. The price is the same as Amazon’s tablet, there are no ads on the Nook (there are on Kindles), and the battery life is equally, if not more awesome than the Kindle. Do not feel ashamed picking a Nook.
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