This holiday season, tablets are the hottest gizmo, hands down.
Apple's iPad dominates the field for now, though Android-powered versions are catching up fast, and Amazon is in the game, too, with a very-low-priced Kindle Fire.
With one of the biggest shopping days of the year just around the corner, we've started a "Countdown to Black Friday." Every day, you'll find five helpful tips on a topic related to Black Friday on TBO.com, from top toys to electronics buying guidelines to suiting up for battle on the big day.
Today, here are the five things you need to know before making a purchase.
1. Consider how you plan to use a tablet.
There are tablets like the entry-level Kindle and some no-name brands that basically just display book text and cost less than $100. Then there are tablets like the $200 Nook that are full E-book readers but can also surf the web and have some apps. Then there are the full-powered tablets like the Apple iPad, Samsung Galaxy and Motorola Xoom that can cost $500 to $800, but are basically portable HDTVs and computers.
We advise asking friends which kinds they like, and beg to borrow one for a day. But keep in mind, tablets are flexible and you may soon want to do more than just read Harry Potter.
2. The market leader is from Apple.
Though there were a few tablets before, Apple's iPad essentially invented the tablet category and Apple now sells tens of millions of tablets a year, primarily because they're so easy to use, work with Apple's iTunes media marketplace, and can run any of 140,000-plus apps.
Prices range from $499 for a Wi-Fi only version with 16 gigabytes of space, to the top-of-the-line version with 3G cellular and 64 gigs of space for $829. (A movie takes 2 to 4 gigs of space.)
Because Apple stores are often mobbed, we suggest either buying online or at retailers like BestBuy or Target that have selection in stock and give out bonus gift cards to buyers.
3. Buy a screen protector.
Really, please, get a screen guard. First, because it only takes one scratch to ruin a screen, and the kids will probably steal yours to play Angry Birds while drinking juice and munching Jolly Ranchers.
Prices roughly parallel the cost of screens for cell phones — $10 to $30. Major makers include Moshi, ArmorSuit, Halo and Zagg. Ask the store clerks to show you how they feel, as some are more rubbery, and others are more slick and show finger grease. (Usually someone working in the store has one on their phone to try.) Personally, we like the $30 Moshi iVisor, matte-finish version that doesn't require a special solution to stick, and can peel back off. Keep in mind, if you buy a protector at BestBuy, AT&T, Verizon or elsewhere, they'll put the screen on for you.
4. Lots of other tablets available this season.
The Kindle Fire is far more than a text reader and debuted Nov. 14 with loads of multimedia power and access to all of Amazon's digital library for an insanely cheap price of $199 on pre-order.
There's also Barnes & Noble Nook for $249, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 that runs on Verizon's super-fast 4G cellular system and starts at $649, the Motorola Xoom that starts at $499, and others from Vizio, Acer, Dell, HTC, Sony and Toshiba just to name a few.
Nearly all non-Apple tablets run a form of Google's Droid operating system, so don't expect them to get along with Apple's iTunes store.
Whichever tablet you buy, those that have a cellular link will require a cellular account – which means another monthly payment – so avoid downloading anything outside a Wi-Fi zone or you'll rack up data fees.
5. Expect to covet apps. Tablets have near magical apps that you will find addictive. For instance the live ESPN app, the touch-sensitive version of Dracula that plays creepy sound effects while you read, and the TourWrist app that lets you explore 360-degree photos of places in the world and spin around to see different views. If you're not interested in those, try any of the 100,000-plus others.
Most apps are free for one reason: They show advertising, typically in small banner ads that rotate from one to another. To avoid ads, you often buy an upgraded version for a few dollars. But beware, more games have so-called "in-game" purchases of things like extra-cool flaming swords for your avatar, or extra sound effects for your virtual DJ booth.
The most expensive apps tend to be from media companies to show live entertainment, such as the app from ESPN or Major League Baseball.
Check back every day through Nov. 25 on TBO.com to follow our "Countdown to Black Friday" features. Tomorrow we tell you what you need to know about 3-D TVs.