The Consumer Electronics Association has verified that tablets are hot this year, appearing as No. 2 on the most-wanted list for the holidays, and trailing only behind clothing. With so many desiring a coveted tablet, but unsure as to what they need, we've compiled a simple guide to getting all the best goodies in time for the big season.
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History of the Tablet
While it may seem that the tablet first appeared with the striking popularity of the iPad series, these clever little gadgets have a rather involved history that goes back to early 2000. Microsoft's attempt to make the personal tablet computer a household staple fell short of expectations, leaving an aching hole in the heart of users who craved a truly light and portable computing experience. When Apple released its iPad in April 2010, the world was more than ready to embrace the technology. Since then, several other brands have ramped up efforts to compete in the arena, bringing big players such as Motorola, Toshiba and even the most recent Kindle into the fray. With the sudden competition, consumers may feel overwhelmed with the options and opportunities to get just the right amount of tablet for their dollar. (For related reading, see How Tablets And E-Readers Can Save You Money.)

Current Tablets
While there are almost as many "tablets" as there are consumer electronics brands (even the kiddie computer company Leapfrog has introduced their own "LeapPad" for tots), not all are created equal. Tablets on the market as of today include:

  • Apple's iPad, forerunner of tablets, runs on iOS 5 and gets applications through the massive iTunes storefront.
  • Samsung's Galaxy Tab and Motorola Xoom get their functionality from Google's Android 3.0 operating system.
  • The Asus Eee Slate boasts Microsoft Windows 7, and its applications can be found via Microsoft and the Asus @Vibe online store.
  • The ViewPad 10 from ViewSonic corners those in the "indecisive" market as the first contender to accommodate both Windows and the Android operating systems.

Several small or "plain label" companies have released their own version of the tablet, as well. These can likely be found in big box stores, online wholesalers and Black Friday sale ads, as the holidays get closer; quality and system features will vary wildly for each.

Up-and-Coming Tablets
While there will be others rounding the corner, no tablet has generated more pre-sale excitement than the Amazon offering of the Kindle Fire, a $200 response to the growing need for a more affordable alternative to the iPad. The Fire, which has a Nov. 15 release, is gaining traction for its connection to Amazon's growing library of multimedia products – including over "18 million movies, TV shows, songs, magazines and books." Amazon has been, in essence, building 2011's entire business model around seamless integration of the new Fire, having added all kinds of Fire-friendly perks into their Prime Membership package. Customers who buy a Fire and already have Prime status can enjoy free streaming videos and a Kindle owner's "Lending Library" upon activation of their new tablet. (If you're interested in investing in companies that create tablets and e-readers, see A Primer On Investing In The Tech Industry.)

Common Features of the Tablet
Operating systems and app store functionality aside, the unique features of tablets are what attract loyal customers. For those who aren't certain as to their tablet needs, there are a few questions you can ask yourself before browsing the market, including: Do you prefer a larger screen? Will it matter if your tablet has a built-in keyboard? What battery life are you expecting? Is Adobe Flash a must-have for browsing and applications?

Perhaps the most crucial factor in deciding which tablet you'll buy is the choice between getting a wi-fi compatible product over one that runs on a 3G network. Many consumers appreciate the flexibility that a 3G network provides (even far away from a wireless hub), while others find the required data plan service charges - $30 or more a month - to not be worth the added range of connectivity.

Pricing Changes
Most tablets don't have much room for negotiation on their prices – especially the iPad, which follows strict pricing models from Apple corporate. While you may be able to take advantage of a small discount around the major holiday (usually within the 5-10% range), your best bet for "getting a good deal" will come with the add-ons that retailers can throw at you when you buy a tablet. Valuable perks to look for when buying include accessories, extended warranties and even gift cards for future purchases from the retailer.

The Bottom Line
The holidays will bring about even more buzz on how the tablet is a "must-have" item for the season. Practicing due diligence by reading product reviews, trying in-store demos and asking lots of questions could, perhaps, be the key to getting just the right tablet for your needs.

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