By Rich Jaroslovsky
SAN FRANCISCO — At long last, the phrase "tablet worth buying" isn't automatically synonymous with "iPad."
Unlike years past, this holiday season presents the gift buyer with a real choice of sizes, prices and capabilities.
Not that the iPad itself is any less desirable. The latest edition of the iconic 9.7-inch tablet ($499-$829) features Apple's gorgeous Retina display and the new, smaller Lightning connector introduced on the iPhone 5. In addition, models with cellular connections run over the ultrafast 4G LTE networks.
Plus, of course, there's the new, 7.9-inch iPad mini. The screen isn't as nice as big brother's, but it's incredibly thin (barely a quarter of an inch) and light (11 ounces), and has access to the iPad's 275,000 applications and huge collection of movies, music and other content.
And at prices ranging from $329 for a Wi-Fi-only model with 16 gigabytes of storage to $659 with LTE and 64 gigabytes, it's also the most affordable iPad.
Meanwhile, after two years of struggling to establish Android tablets as direct competition for the big iPad, Google this year tried a different, and more successful, tack. Working with Asus, it launched the compact Nexus 7.
Starting at $199, the Wi-Fi-only Nexus 7 features a bright, seven-inch display and swift performance. Newly upgraded to 16 gigabytes of storage, its big drawback is the limited selection of content in some of the Google Play online stores.
Lack of content isn't anything that afflicts Amazon.com's seven-inch Kindle Fire HD, which also starts at $199. Indeed, it functions best as a gateway to Amazon's enormous stock of e- books, videos and music.
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.
An alternative is Barnes & Noble's new Nook HD. It lacks some of the Kindle's extras, like a front-facing camera. But it's got a better screen and no ads — unlike the Kindle, where you have to pay an extra $15 to escape what it euphemistically calls "special offers."
Amazon and B&N have also introduced bigger, 9-inch models — $269 for the Nook, $299 for the Kindle ($499 with a discounted LTE plan from AT&T). While they're positioning themselves mostly against the full-sized iPad, they also face competition from a legion of devices running off-the-shelf versions of Android.
Flush from its Nexus 7 success, Google has launched the Nexus 10, a Samsung-manufactured 10.1-inch tablet with a truly iPad-worthy screen and a starting price, $399, that's $100 cheaper than the comparable Apple device.
The Nexus 10's big drawback is a lack of apps designed specifically to take advantage of its size and capabilities. Blown-up smartphone apps are annoying enough on the Nexus 7; here, they can be downright exasperating.
The market is also full of Android tablets from manufacturers including Samsung, Asus and the now-Google-owned Motorola. While many are largely interchangeable, Sony's Xperia Tablet S ($400-$600) sets itself apart.
Last year's version of the Xperia had an eccentric teardrop shape, cheap construction, poorly placed controls and connectors and sluggish performance. This year, the design has been toned down, controls are more user-friendly and a new processor from Nvidia helps move things along.
It also includes a passel of special Sony apps, some really good — like the one that turns it into a super-duper universal TV remote — and others not so much.
You could probably start an argument about whether the Microsoft Surface ($499-$699) even belongs in a roundup about tablets. Yes, it weighs about the same as an iPad, has a touch screen and runs apps under a colorful new operating system called Windows RT.
But underneath all that beats the heart of a Windows personal computer, especially when you add its optional, $130 Type Cover keyboard and use its built-in versions of Microsoft Word, Excel and Powerpoint. Maybe it's best thought of as a stripped-down PC with extra tablet features thrown in.
Finally, while multifunction color tablets get all the attention these days, there's still a place for the humble monochrome e-reader among, well, 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. Splurge for the $179 ($199 without ads) model, with its free lifetime 3G service, and your recipients will silently thank you every time they're stuck on an airport tarmac.