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Android Tablets: Finally Ready?
Photograph by Robert Cardin
For a long time, you didn’t have much choice if you were in the market for a tablet--Apple’s iPad was the only good option. But that’s starting to change: Though the iPad 2 remains the top slate overall, the best choice for you may well be one that runs Google’s Android operating system.

It all depends on what you need from a tablet. Lots of An­­droid models beat the iPad 2 in specific respects. Some have longer battery life, for instance. Others make it easier to get work done. Some are simpler to use with a camera or TV. Others may come in a size that you find more convenient.

Of course, a tablet’s operating system is hugely important. iOS is consistent, polished, and dependable. If you buy Apple’s tablet, however, you also buy into Apple’s universe--and you can use only the apps that Apple okays.

Android gives you more freedom and control (although it doesn’t always work as smoothly). And Android offers several other benefits. For example, Android 3.x Honeycomb was made to take full advantage of larger tablet displays, and it does a better job than iOS 4.x or 5.x in effectively using the screen for notifications, email, Web browsing, and image viewing.

Android is dynamic and customizable. You can tailor the home screens’ look and function. Many apps have live widgets that let you preview email or weather from the home screen, without opening the app. Some tablets have custom apps with navigation shortcuts; Lenovo’s favorite-apps ring stands out, as does Sony’s customizable menu design. In contrast, iOS screens are static; the icons are just graphics that open apps.

You have more Android hardware choices, too. Tablets come in varied screen sizes: 7 inches, 8 inches, 8.9 inches, 9.4 inches, 10.1 inches. Some have screens of a higher resolution than the iPad 2’s display, some offer the option to add more storage with a memory card, and some boast integrated ports.

Android can’t compete with iOS, however, in the number of available apps. More than 100,000 apps are designed to run on the iPad, but at this point it’s unclear how many apps are made specifically for Android Honeycomb tablets. It’s difficult to know for sure because Google’s Android Market doesn’t make it easy to find apps created especially for tablets.

Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, coming to phones in the next few weeks and to tablets in early 2012, should encourage developers to create more apps that will work on Android tablets. Theoretically the new OS will let developers scale their apps from small screens to large, so one app can serve both phones and tablets. Don’t expect Android 4.0 to be an instant cure, however. It will be some time before you see a jump in the number of apps that properly employ tablets’ larger screens. And finding apps may continue to be a problem: Although Google says the Market returns results that are appropriate for the device you’re searching from, in our experience it’s no guarantee that a listed app will display or work well on a tablet.

Top 10 Tablets

We examined more than two dozen tablets for this roundup, working with each model extensively and running all of them through the PCWorld Labs suite of tablet tests. The iPad 2 is our top choice overall, primarily because of the strength of its app ecosystem and how it allows you to find apps. However, Android tablets­, led by the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, are hot on the trail of our leader, excelling in areas such as enhancing productivity and playing well with other devices. For more details, see our Top 10 Tablets ranked chart, and read on to see our picks for the top tablets in media handling, openness and expandability, battery life, productivity, and gaming.

Next page: Best tablets for media and expandability

At a Glance
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