The New iPad, Current and Upcoming Alternatives

It’s no secret that tablet makers are finding it difficult to compete with Apple in this still-emerging market. In fact, the iPad is selling so well that it surpassed the number of PCs shipped by any individual PC maker in the last quarter of 2011 – a telling figure that gives some weight to all talk of post-PCs. .

Granted, Android tablets have managed to cut into Apple’s market share, but so far there isn’t a single device that can match, or even come close to, the iPad in sales and popularity. We were relying on ‘Ice Cream Sandwich’ to drive sales of Android tablets, but about five months into the launch of the OS and very few tablets have received updates.

Amazon’s Kindle Fire, which costs half as much as Apple’s iPad 2, is the closest Android-based contender, with an estimated 6 million units shipped in Q4. Meanwhile, other alternative platforms crashed and burned down.

Despite this grim picture, there are good options out there that for one reason or another have not received as much attention from buyers. We’ve compiled a comparison table of what we consider to be the best tablets currently available or announced yet. We’ve also included metascores from our product finder engine and review links to help you dig deeper and narrow down your next purchase.

At $400, the iPad 2 is one of the best tablet options out there and its soon-to-be successor will help Apple secure its reign for some time. The third-generation, “new” iPad hits store shelves on March 16 for the usual $500 starting price, packs a speedy dual-core A5X SoC and sports a stunning 9.7-inch display of 2,048 x 1,536 resolution.

The new iPad also features upgraded cameras, optional 4G LTE radio, is compatible with Verizon or AT&T in the US, while maintaining the promise of 10 hours of battery life. Overall a solid upgrade.

Competing in the same price range from the Android camp is the Excite 10 LE, which is probably the sleekest-looking tablet we’ve seen. Toshiba did away with full-size ports and a removable battery to get the 7.7mm thickness, but it still offers microUSB, microHDMI, and microSD card slots. The 10.1-inch slate is powered by a 1.2-GHz Ti OMAP 4430 processor that runs Android 3.2, with an update to ICS planned for this spring.

Samsung’s Galaxy Tab 10.1 and 8.9 hold fort at the $400 price point, which is just under $500 to compete with the flood of Android tablets. Both models are scheduled to receive an update to ICS sometime during the second quarter of 2012, when the new Galaxy Note is also due out. Otherwise the Sony Tablet S, which has received high marks for its unconventional yet ergonomic design, is also available for ~$400.

Asus’ Transformer Prime is only available in 32GB and 64GB variants, starting at around $500 (used to be a hundred bucks more just a week ago). The Taiwanese firm is touting it as a premium tablet, with plenty of power from Nvidia’s Tegra 3 chip and some neat add-ons like a keyboard dock – if you’re willing to part with another $150 . Transformers Prime has received a lot of praise, but that enthusiasm hasn’t been supported by huge sales volume.

Despite this, Asus plans to launch the powerful tablet in the coming months. The upcoming Transformer Infinity will go ahead with a high-resolution 1920 x 1200 pixel 10.1-inch Full HD display and optional 4G, while the PadFone will essentially combine a smartphone and tablet in one package.

Finally, we have the Kindle Fire. Amazon is one of the few players that bet on a low-cost tablet coupled with a number of tightly integrated services. It’s far from the most powerful device, but as we’ve already learned, tablets are about the whole experience and the specs are only part of the picture.

This strategy — combined with Amazon’s sales platform and expertise — has resulted in the best-selling non-iPad tablet. There’s no doubt that Amazon will be coming out with a second generation Kindle Fire this year, but nothing concrete has happened yet.

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