How to decide between full-sized tablets: iPad, Nexus 10, Kindle HD, Surface RT, and Nook HD+

As tablets mature, consumers have a wide range of excellent devices to choose from. But how do you pick just one? ZDNet's DIY-IT editor David Gewirtz helps you decide and even includes a handy decision tree chart.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

All projects: DIY-IT Project Guide
This project: How to decide: tech buying guides for DIYers and small business

Last week, I published a "how to decide" guide for smaller, 7-inch tablets. Since then, many of you have requested I do the full-size tablet equivalent. This time, we're going to look at bigger tablets, ranging from just under 9-inches up to a little over 10-inches.

See Also: How to decide: should you buy an iPad mini, a Kindle Fire HD, or a Nexus 7?

Helpful tip: If you don't have time to read this whole article, there's an easy-to-follow chart on the last page. That said, there's a lot that will help you choose in the rest of this piece.

Ground rules

As with all my "how to decide" guides, it's important to remind you that this isn't a review. Instead, it's a guide to help you understand just how to think about these different devices and choose the one that's best suited for your needs. I will rate certain aspects of each device, but it's up to you to put the pieces together and see what's best.

With this group of devices, that's particularly true. There are some vast differences in usage models for some of the devices, and in other ways, many of them are quite similar.

One other note: this is a complex topic with a lot of moving parts. If I get further information on any of these devices, or as readers report in with their experiences, I'll update this article. So be sure to do a quick read-through, looking for UPDATE notes, just before you buy.

General differences

When I talked about the smaller models, I explained that there were really two key decision criteria: price and ecosystem. You needed to decide how much you wanted to spend, and whether you're more interested in playing in the Android, Apple, or Amazon ecosystem.

The price issue is certainly true of the larger tablets. The least expensive full-sized tablet starts at $269, and there are variants and configurations that will take you up to about $1,000 if you add a lot of RAM or a cellular or keyboard option.

When it comes to ecosystem, I'm also looking at larger tablets from Barnes & Noble, so there's the B&N ecosystem, as well as Microsoft, which opens the entire can of RT/Windows 8 worms (which I'll discuss later).

One thing that should be noted is that I'm discussing what are essentially reference models for some of these tablets. If you like Android, most of what I discuss will apply pretty nearly as well for a Samsung device as for the Nexus 10. Likewise, if you're (for some reason) excited by Windows 8 RT, you can get a Surface RT from Microsoft, or a similar device from many of the usual PC vendor suspects.

Size and weight

There is something of a size and weight difference between these various tablets:

Device Height Width Thickness Weight
iPad 4th generation 9.5 inches 7.31 inches .37 inches 1.44 lbs
Nexus 10 10.39 inches 6.99 inches .35 inches 1.33 lbs
Kindle Fire HD 8.9" 9.4 inches 6.3 inches .35 inches 1.25 lbs
Surface RT 10.81 inches 6.77 inches .37 inches 1.50 lbs
Nook HD+ 9.46 inches 6.41 inches .45 inches 1.13 lbs

If you look at this chart, you may realize it really tells us a lot about the devices. Perhaps the weirdest thing is that the device called the Kindle Fire HD 8.9" (that's the official name of the product) is, in fact, 9.4 inches tall. There's not a single published spec on the Kindle Fire HD 8.9" that's 8.9 inches. It's just weird.

If you're buying a tablet, you should take into account how heavy one is. I don't like taking my iPad to bed, for instance, because it's just too heavy to hold in my hand and read comfortably before going to sleep. I much prefer reading on my far lighter iPhone.

If you're interested in losing weight, the Nook HD+ is almost a quarter of a pound lighter than most of the other devices, while the Surface RT weighs the most, but just slightly more than the iPad. Also, note that the iPad with cellular option is just very slightly heavier than what's listed above.

Of course, all the 7-inch devices weigh a lot less, but I'm not comparing 7-inch devices to their larger brethren in this article. Just keep in mind that if you're truly most interested in reducing weight, a 7-incher might be an option.

Another interesting observation is that some of the larger tablet devices are taller and thinner than the others. The shortest, squattest of them all is the iPad, which still does not support a 16x9 wide-screen aspect ratio.

The aspect ratio issue is particularly important if you mostly plan to watch movies on the device. If you intend to hold the device in portrait mode (tall), then a narrower screen is easier to hold, but Web pages might be more difficult to read.

Looking at this set of specs, there's nothing wildly unusual that calls out one device over all the others for a total win, but I do give the Kindle and the Nook points for being the lightest.

Next up, pricing...

All projects: DIY-IT Project Guide
This project: How to decide: tech buying guides for DIYers and small business


Because most of these devices come with a wide variety of options, I'm not going to try to completely match up all the prices. Instead, since most people I've talked with are concerned with how much the base model costs, I'll share those prices with you here. Just know that if you add cellular or RAM, or a fancy keyboard, pricing will go up.

  • iPad 2 (still for sale): $399 (16GB)
  • iPad (fourth generation): $499 (16GB)
  • Nexus 10: $399 (16GB)
  • Kindle Fire HD 8.9": $299 (16GB with ads, $314 without ads)
  • Surface RT: $499 (32GB, only about 16GB usable)
  • Nook HD+: $269 (16GB), $299 (32GB)

Special mention needs to go here for the Nook HD+. It's nearly half the price of the current-generation iPad, and even almost $130 less than the old iPad or the Android-based Nexus 10. Even with 32GB of RAM, the Nook HD+ is still much less expensive than its nearest rival.

If you want a full-size tablet and money is the most important thing, the Nook HD+ is, by far, the winner.

While we're talking winners and losers, it's important to note that if you want your Kindle Fire to come without ads, you have to pay an extra $15 to avoid having Amazon market to you. Personally, the "special offer" Kindles annoy the heck out of me. But I have friends who have told me that (a) the ads aren't obtrusive and don't show up while reading, and (b) they often like the ads because they're good deals.

Go figure. Consumers.

Here's a fun fact: while the Surface RT appears to have more RAM for the buck, the 32GB Microsoft lists in its specs (as compared to the other devices' entry point at 16GB) is somewhat misleading.

As ZDNet reports, Microsoft Surface RT 32GB tablet reserves nearly half its storage for Windows, Office apps. Apparently, in one of those "only in America" stories, some lawyer quickly decided Microsoft would be a worthwhile whale, and rather than just returning the device for a refund, is suing the company over his diminished capacity -- RAM, that is. Special. Gotta love lawyers.

So how should you think about pricing when making a buying decision? Here's what I would recommend:

  • If price is really important to you, make the decision based on the best price, which means a Nook HD+.
  • If a few hundred bucks one way or the other doesn't matter all that much to you, make your decision based on the device's ecosystem. If you want an iPad, you're probably going to get an iPad, regardless of the fact that the Nexus 10 is a hundred bucks less.
  • The buying decision for the Surface RT is in its own special category, which I'll discuss next.

The strange case of the Surface RT

The Microsoft Surface RT is a strange little beast. It's Windows, but it's not. It's got a full copy of Office, but it doesn't, and with weird restrictions.

I'll be honest. In most cases, I don't recommend buying the Surface RT. I've written extensively about it, and if you're seriously interested in the Surface RT, I recommend you read the following articles, along with those I've linked to in those articles.

See Also: Three days in the life of a once and former Microsoft Surface RT user

See Also: Microsoft says returns okay on opened Surface RT product packaging

See Also: 5 big things that baffle me about Microsoft Surface RT

Here's the TL;DR version: The Surface RT comes with a Windows 8 desktop, but you can't load and run any desktop applications on it. None. You can run Windows Store applications, but they're more apps than full Windows applications, and there aren't that many...yet.

Oh, and while the Surface RT comes with Office, it's missing Outlook and you have to go out and spend extra if you want to use Office for business use.

While I've heard many students like the Surface RT because it has a full copy of Word, I'd caution against buying it for educational use. Flash only works on approved sites (although you can, apparently, hack that). QuickTime isn't fully supported (so dashboards like Angel and Blackboard will complain), and you can't run any of those weird little educational applications teachers are so fond of telling you to run in Windows.

Worse, the Surface RT may be having some reliability and hardware issues, including brand-new keyboards splitting at the seams.

Here's one more thing you need to know about Surface: the Surface brand will have two types of machines. The RT (for runtime) is based on the Arm processor and is quite limited when it comes to the Windows desktop. Sometime next year, a 2-pound device will come out that runs full Windows 8. That device, called the Surface Pro, is quite interesting, but none of us have gotten our hands on it.

If you want a full Windows 8 tablet, wait for that.

Next up, apps and ecosystems...

All projects: DIY-IT Project Guide
This project: How to decide: tech buying guides for DIYers and small business

Apps and ecosystems

I pretty much covered the differences between the Android, Amazon, and Apple ecosystems in my previous article, so rather than repeating what I said, just go read the first two pages of it. Go ahead, I'll wait. Just click in, read those pages, and hit "Back" on your browser.

Welcome back. I'll assume you now know that Android is a little more open but slightly riskier, Apple's iOS is a bit more closed but somewhat more secure, and Amazon lives somewhere in-between, but it's mostly about access to the Amazon ecosystem.

The Nook uses the Barnes & Noble ecosystem (such as it is), rather than the Amazon one, and is really best if you're reading books purchased from B&N (although there's also a Kindle app on the Nook).

UPDATE: Apparently, there is not a Kindle app for the Nook, which makes this a far less compelling device.

Finally, the Surface RT uses the new Windows Store user interface, and while there are relatively few apps available, I'm sure there will soon be quite a few more, simply because developing for this interface uses many of the Windows development tools developers are so very familiar with.

My recommendation is this: if you're all about apps, you probably should buy the Nexus or the iPad. If you're about saving money, buy the Nook. And if you mostly want to consume Amazon content, buy the Kindle.

UPDATE: Apparently not. Too bad: Just a quick note about Kindle and Nook: there's a Nook app for the Kindle and a Kindle app for the Nook. Nice. So you're not particularly tied to the bookseller if you buy books from one or the other supplier. This is really smart and is something Apple should consider for iBooks. I like Kindle books (a lot), but because Nook books can be read on everything as well, they're a nice option.

While there are pleasantly functional Office clones that run on each of the tablets, they're not real Office and do have limitations. Get the Surface RT if you need a super-light machine that runs true Microsoft Word and Excel. Those are the RT's killer apps.

Sharing the tablet

Here's something new that I wish we'd seen a few years ago. Now, many families are multi-tablet homes, especially since many of us have upgraded, adding a second or third tablet.

In any case, the Nook HD+, the Surface RT, and the Nexus 10 (along with the Nexus 7, although I didn't mention it in the last article) support user profiles. What this means is that -- just like Windows and the Mac -- you can log into your own, personalized tablet UI and others in your family can log into theirs.

That means you can share a tablet in front of the TV, for example. Mom would have her apps and bookmarks and such, all arranged just so. Dad would have his. And even little Jane would have hers, with parental controls suitably employed.

Obviously, the big player missing out on user profiles is Apple. There's no such thing in iOS. Will there be? Who knows. It's Apple, after all. I wouldn't count on it.

Bottom line: if you want to be able to share your device and have it customized for each user, consider the Nexus, the Nook, and the Surface.

Cellular availability

Not all these devices have a cellular communications option. If you want to take your device on the road, and be able to go online where you don't have WiFi, a cellular communications option will be your friend -- sort of.

I paid an extra $130 for the Verizon 4G option on my third-generation iPad. Unfortunately, Verizon has almost non-existant service here at home, and there's no 4G service for probably fifty miles. So while I have the option, it won't work because the local infrastructure won't support it.

While all cellular programs have two cost components: the extra cost for the cellular circuitry and a monthly fee, Amazon has a unique $49 for the first year service program, detailed here:

See Also: More details on Amazon's Fire HD $49 4G-for-a-year program

The iPad and Kindle Fire HD 8.9" devices are your only options. The Nexus 10, the Nook HD+, and the Surface RT don't have the option to add cellular service.

Next up, iPad considerations and your tablet purchasing decision tree...

All projects: DIY-IT Project Guide
This project: How to decide: tech buying guides for DIYers and small business

iPad considerations

I have to admit, I was annoyed when -- after spending close to $850 for my iPad 3 with 4G and 64GB of RAM -- Apple introduced a model twice as fast six months later.

See Also: I'm furious I bought an iPad 3. Are you?

Despite the article name, I wasn't exactly furious, but I was annoyed. That was a lot of money to spend and I felt a bit snookered when clearly Apple knew a new version would be coming very shortly -- far faster than their usual one-year cycle.

Right now, the iPad is in its fourth generation iteration. It is an excellent machine, with what's widely considered to be the best display on tablets and, with the new processor, one of the fastest tablets as well.

See Also: Display shootout: Microsoft Surface RT vs. iPads vs. Android Tablets

However, it's the only tablet that still uses the old-fashioned 4x3 aspect ratio for its display. We might have thought Apple would just stay with that form factor, but now that we've seen the iPhone 5, with its modern wide screen form, we can be pretty sure that the next iPad will also have a wide screen.

Apple traditionally announces new devices in March as well as September, and even though they've essentially just upgraded their entire line, it's likely that one or more of their devices will be switched out again in March. I'm betting on a new iPad mini and a wide screen form factor iPad, so if you buy now, you might be annoyed, too.

There's one other issue: the new iPad 4th generation model uses the new Lightning connector. Nearly all older iOS devices use the older connector, so most of the add-on hardware goodies made before this summer won't work with it. However, now that Apple has made it very clear that Lightning is the future, you're likely to see more and more gadgets that work with the new adapter. Just be aware that the universal appeal of the old adapter goes away with this new iPad.

Finally, Apple is still selling its iPad 2, which is considerably slower and lacks the Retina display. While you can get the iPad 2 for $399 instead of $499, some of the latest iOS features aren't supported on it, and it is quite likely to lose support very soon.

If you only have $399 to spend, I'd look for a used iPad 3 or get the Nexus 10, rather than a pretty much already obsolete iPad 2.

Full-size tablet decision tree

Here's a chart that should help you decide:

Chart by David Gewirtz for ZDNet DIY-IT

I've been asked a few times what my personal recommendation is to new buyers. Again, please remember that each individual's needs are different, but here's my typical answer: 

  • Most people can't go wrong getting an iPad. The ecosystem is extremely robust, there are a ton of apps, and support resources abound.
  • If you're buying a Kindle, I'd recommend the smaller Kindle Fire HD, simply because reading is often more comfortable on it. If you plan to read outside, you might just want to spend a mere $119 and get the Kindle Paperwhite. Personally, I read Kindle documents on my iPhone.
  • If you want a tablet and can't afford to spend much at all, the Nook HD+ is a fine, if somewhat limited solution. If you choose this, be aware you can't read Kindle books on it.
  • If you know and love Android (or you want to run apps that Apple would never sanction), go for the Nexus 10. I have a Nexus 7 and it rocks.
  • I can't at this time really recommend the Surface RT. I think it's far to limited for what many people will want, and the app infrastructure isn't robust. But wait a year and I'll bet this will be a good choice.
  • If you really only have a few hundred dollars to spend, consider getting the new $199 Acer Chromebook. It's not a tablet (and I have had regular reliability problems with Acer), but at $199, it's one heck of a good deal for getting online and getting stuff done. 

There you go. Oh, I've also been asked what tablets I use. I have an iPad third generation which I use mainly in the studio. My wife has an original, first generation iPad which she uses everywhere (to read on the treadmill, to watch sewing tutorials on YouTube in her craft room, to watch or read videogame walkthrus while she's using the Playstation 3, etc.). I have a Nexus 7 which I tend to take into the throne room and read news stories on Flipboard. My wife has an original Kindle Fire HD, which she loves to use for reading her Kindle books in bed with the lights out.

The tech industry has reached a point in the evolution of tablets where most of these offerings are quite good. So, now, really, your choice is more about what you'd prefer to do with them than specific hardware features.

Good luck in your buying choices and let me know in the TalkBacks below what you've decided to get and how you like it.


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