The market-leading iPad is facing rugged competiton on several fronts.
THE tablet computer has become a bit like the Melbourne Cup horse race that stops a nation - everybody is in with a chance. With the Christmas sales finish line clearly in sight, it's a rush to the cash register and the online cart for one of the year's most coveted gadgets.
The early leader is Apple, which has been a stayer since 2010 with the success of its iPad. But fierce competition has emerged from Google and Microsoft, which are wowing buyers with competitive pricing, different looks and feels, and alternative operating systems.
Our family tested some of the latest tablets, providing a diverse user perspective: mine, my husband's and our eight-year-old junior geek's, referred to as GH (geek husband), Me (me) and JG (junior geek) in these verdicts.
Asus Google Nexus 7 and Samsung Nexus 10
Never write off the search giant. Late to the game, the Nexus 7 has been attracting buyers since July with its $249 starting price, almost $100 less than an iPad mini. The tiny Google tablet fits easily into a handbag, ready to buy silence from restless cherubs at restaurants, or respite from the grunts and sniffles on the peak-hour express.
Its deeper, round-back design won't be to everyone's taste but it is fast (powered by a quad-core processor, compared with iPad mini's dual core), the sound is crisp and the screen is sharper than the mini's.
Its bigger relation, the Samsung Nexus 10, runs Android 4.2 Jelly Bean and has a screen edge over the iPad with the highest resolution in the category, at 300 pixels an inch, and a 16:10 screen ratio, which reduces letterboxing when watching videos.
The 10 also has a photo-sphere camera function, which lets you snap photos in every direction and merge them into a 360-degree scene - people are already uploading panoramas to Street View.
Google won't say how many of its 700,000 apps in the Play store are optimised for tablet, but it has put out a call for developers to start designing for Android, clearly keen to compete with Apple's 275,000 dedicated tablet apps.
If developers can be convinced to launch on Android first, Google is in with a real chance to swing the big Apple off its lofty limb.
GH: I like the solid feel - like a man-tablet. Best of this bunch and a great price.
Me: Winning price, great performance, but a bit chunky and would prefer a cellular version.
JG: Bit harder to use, can't find the buttons easily at first.
GH: Beats the iPad on all counts, just too bulky for everyday use.
Me: The best screen for movies, with 16:10 ratio, but not as bright as the iPad.
JG: Cool sound, lighter than the iPad, easy to grip.
Though Apple has quietly launched its fourth-generation iPad (sure to irk buyers who bought the 3 just eight months ago), all eyes and hands have been on the Apple tablet baby. ''Every inch an iPad'' is the mini's tagline, but it's missing that glorious Retina display that you'll find on the latest full-size iPad: you can't have 3.1 million pixels to ogle over for $329.
What you do get with the Mini is 7.9 inches, which can be held in one hand; 10 hours of battery life; and wi-fi speed that's twice as fast as the third-generation iPad.
The mini fits into a pocket without a cover but it's a tight squeeze. Another negative is that the icons are small.
What the mini has going for it is good looks - the sleek finish we've come to expect from the brand - and a set of new Apple Smart magnetic covers. A portion of the profits from the sales of these is donated to charity.
The new full-size iPad impresses with its speed and the glorious Retina display, where colours pop. The five-megapixel rear-facing camera is also a bonus, but how many of us would really use it? It's tricky to hold steady and attracts glares in a crowd, when the eight-megapixel iPhone 5 camera does such a better job.
GH: Premium price, superb build quality, but I'd scratch the hell out of it.
Me: Love the compact size and lightness for travel.
JG: Mini is easy to hold and good for games but video looks small.
GH: Bit on the heavy side for travel, but killer screen and apps are still first to market.
Me: Still wins for style and finish and great 4:3 screen ratio for web browsing.
JG: Has too much reflection on the screen, and white is for girls.
Only time will tell if Microsoft can cement itself in the post-PC era as more than a software company. Its Surface tablet running the funky Windows 8 touch tile interface has us intrigued.
Unfortunately, we weren't able to get our hands on a review unit. Publicity staff in the US told us there were ''no review units at this time'', four days after the product launch. Strange, when you've thrown millions of dollars at a global advertising campaign and are taking orders online. When local PR people took over they were still waiting for review units, clearly frustrated.
More jarring still is that Microsoft has elected to sell Surface exclusively online, which means you can't head to a local retailer and play with its vapour-deposited magnesium chassis.
JB Hi-Fi chief executive Terry Smart thinks shutting out retailers is a risky move and may hurt Surface sales. ''It's obviously disappointing, but it probably hurts Microsoft more,'' Smart says.
Online retailer Kogan was the first local website to sell the Surface, taking orders on November 14. Chief executive Ruslan Kogan thinks web-only is the sales strategy of the future. ''The bottom line is, the customer gets a cheaper price,'' Kogan says.
He says most customers will research online and buy without having seen the physical product. ''You can't sit there in a store testing battery life, so you make the informed decision online.''
There is one other big player here, and that's Amazon with its Kindle Fire HD, a tablet version of its e-reader. Amazon has sold 7 million Fire HDs, but the product hasn't been released in Australia owing to content restrictions; you need to be in the US to buy, download or stream movies and TV shows on the Fire.
Advice to Amazon: there may only be 22 million Aussies, but we love our tech and we'd like it on time. Very sad news to hear Santa's sleigh got stuck in Seattle.