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Love or hate them, tablets are here to stay. In just two (very) short years, they have come to be a popular household item, one that both children and parents are fighting over. They've stolen a chunk of market share and potential buyers from the PC market and have enticed thousands to leave their computers at home in favor of the smaller, lighter and highly functional tablet.

But when you walk by the serpentine of tablets encroaching on the laptop section at your local electronics store, the sheer amount of options can be daunting. And narrowing your choices down can be difficult. Should you buy Apple's ever-popular iPad? Should you opt for an Android-powered slate instead? Or should you just scrounge up the extra dough to purchase an ultrabook?

To date, I've owned somewhere around 20 different tablets, ranging from the webOS-powered HP TouchPad, the original iPad and the Motorola XOOM to some of the latest slabs like the new iPad and ASUS Eee Pad Transformer Prime. I also made the rounds with the Amazon Kindle Fire. In my time with them, if there is one thing I have learned, it's that tablets are not for everyone. But they fit perfectly into the lives of millions. So if you're in the market for one, which should you buy?

 

Work

When I lined up to buy my first iPad, my main goal was to leave the laptop at home ... for good. While I left my laptop at home many times through the following weeks, I quickly learned that it wasn't quite up to snuff. The iPad worked well in most cases and could enable me to do a large amount of my work on the go. But there was always a point where I would have to switch to a laptop to finish the job.

Fast forward two years and not much has changed. Sure, the software has matured and capabilities have been added here and there. But, for the most part, iPads still lack the level of functionality most people will need out of them to work on the go. And Android tablets are about on the same level.

Editing word documents, spreadsheets, pictures and other document types is possible, but in no way is it efficient or user-friendly. When leaving the mouse and keyboard behind, you sacrifice a great deal of functionality. But as the Transformer Prime and its keyboard dock proves, it's not all about the hardware. Tablets still run on mobile software and lack the breadth of full-fledged operating systems.

Of course, "work" is subjective and the amount of work you can do from a tablet is variable per your line of ... work. For me, tablets – both iPads and Android slabs – are great for my writing. I type the initial drafts of nearly every article I write on a tablet before switching over to the MacBook for adding pictures, fine tuning and publishing.

For me, it boils down to available applications. iOS has more in terms of quantity and higher quality apps. Android has more in terms of interoperability – syncing and exchanging of information between various services and apps.

 

Email

Technically, email could be grouped with work, but it deserves its own section as it's a big one with tablets. I exclusively handle all of my email via mobile – either smartphone or tablet.

For basic reading and responding, Mail on the iPad works well. When adding a new account, you are met with the ability to add an iCloud account, Microsoft Exchange, AOL, Yahoo!, Gmail, Hotmail or MobileMe account. (There's also the catch-all "other" section.) Depending on the service, you get contact and calendar sync, and your mail will come by either pull or push. When viewing emails, you get a two-pane view that shows your inbox and the currently opened message.

That said, it's barebones. You cannot add a picture to an email from within the email compose page. You have to navigate to the Photo app, where you can add up to six images. If you add one image and decide to add another afterward, you will have to start from scratch.

While you don't have the same limitations with pictures and attachments on an Android tablet, the functions of its generic Email client are not all that much better. But where Android tablets really shine is with Gmail. (Of course.) You have collapsable threaded messages, can select multiple emails for sorting, filing, deleting, etc., and can attach virtually anything to an email. (Best of all, you can drag and drop selected emails to the desired folder, which makes it quick and easy to use.)

If you're a heavy Gmail user, the Android tablet should get your vote. That is, unless you can find a third-party application (like Sparrow) that adds numerous features to email on the iPad.

 

Play

This part is a toss-up. The games available for the iPad far outpace those that are available on Android tablets. Bigger titles, like Rockstar's mobile-optimized version of Grand Theft Auto III or Rovio's Angry Birds, can be found in both application stores. But a majority of the up-and-coming or indie game developers break into the mobile space on iOS first.

That said, a number of Android tablets have Bluetooth controller support (for PS3 controllers) and all Android tablets have USB controller support. Pair that with a PS2 or N64 emulator, and you can have hours of fun playing your favorite games of the past. The overall gaming experience on the iPad is better, solely for the larger selection of games. But Android tablets shine in areas where the iPad fall short (i.e.: streaming a game to your television on the iPad requires Apple TV or an adapter, whereas an Android tablet might only require a micro HDMI cable).

Games aside, most high-profile media streaming services are available on both. Spotify, Hulu, Netflix, Rdio, Pandora, etc. You name it and it's probably available on both. But newer content almost always finds its way to the iPad first.

If you want dibs on new games and content, your best bet is to stick with an iPad, though that might change if Android can snag more market share in the space.

 

Web browsing

Again, a toss-up.

Browsing from Safari on the iPad is quick and polished. Pinch zooming and scrolling, as you would expect, are buttery smooth and there's hardly ever a stutter. The problem with Safari, however, is how closed off it is from other applications. While the Twitter integration with iOS 5 allows you to tweet a Web page, I can't send the page to Facebook from within Safari. I can add pages to my Reading List, but I can't share them with the cross-platform bookmarking service Pocket. And the iPad has the tendency to display mobile elements (like Facebook comments on our site) instead of their desktop counterparts. There is no way to change the User Agent String to have every page default to the desktop site.

(Some of these features can be found in third-party applications like Skyfire Browser or Dolphin Browser for iPad.)

On Android, however, all of this is available in the stock browser. I can share pages with Pocket, Twitter, Facebook, Evernote ... you name it. I can manually change the User Agent String or simply refer to the Request Desktop Site feature in Settings. My bookmarks are synchronized with my Chrome account. There is also text reflow, where the text size and alignment adjusts to the level of zoom. And best of all, Chrome for Android beta was released just months ago, and will eventually be integrated into the native Android experience. I can view my opened tabs on my other Android devices or any computers that I'm signed into Chrome on.

All of this, though, comes at the sacrifice of polish and smoothness. To me, the added features are worth a little stuttering and choppiness in scrolling. I prefer Web browsing from my Prime over the iPad. It goes without saying, though, that browsing the Web from any mobile device comes with its fair share of quirks.

 

So which should you buy?

Like most things when it comes to mobile devices, there is no cut and dry answer. But these takeaways should help narrow things down.

Buy an Android tablet if you:

  • Strive for added functionality and interoperability
  • Want a larger price range to consider
  • Are invested in Google Apps and services

Stick to the iPad if you:

  • Prefer a beautifully simple, polished experience
  • Love immediate access to new services, applications and games
  • Actively use iTunes and iCloud

Buy a small laptop or ultrabook instead if you:

  • Need portability and unhindered functionality
  • Do extensive document, photo or video editing
  • Don't need the extra portability

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