Both the Wi-Fi-only and 3G-equipped iPad models topped the new ratings from Consumer Reports, which are available at consumerreports.org and in its May 2011 issue. The iPad 2 was pitted against a range of competitors, including the Motorola Xoom, which the consumer advocacy group found to be Apple's most formidable competitor.
The Xoom fell short, though, despite offering additional features like a built-in memory card reader and support for Adobe Flash. Also tested were tablets from Archos, Dell, Samsung and ViewSonic, and they were all evaluated based on 17 criteria that include touchscreen responsiveness, versatility, portability, screen glare, and ease of use.
"So far, Apple is leading the tablet market in both quality and price, which is unusual for a company whose products are usually premium priced," said Paul Reynolds, Electronics Editor at Consumer Reports. "However, it's likely we'll see more competitive pricing in tablets as other models begin to hit the market."
The 32GB, $730 Apple iPad 2 with Wi-Fi and 3G topped the ratings, scoring "Excellent" in nearly every category. Also tested was the first-generation iPad, available for $580, and even that outscored many of the other models tested, though it tied with the $800 Motorola Xoom.
The iPad has the greatest advantage over the competition in battery life, the testing found. The iPad 2 lasted 12.2 hours in Consumer Reports testing, while one of the lowest-scoring tablets, the $450 Dell Streak 7, lasted 3.8 hours.
In addition to the results of its tests, Consumer Reports also provided a list of recommendations for consumers who are considering a tablet purchase:
Many features are almost universal. Easy-to-use touch screens based on capacitive technology are now widely available. All the models Consumer Reports tested feature Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity, a front-facing webcam, and GPS capability. Android-based models can be expanded using built-in USB ports or slots for SD flash-memory cards, but the iPad 2 lacks both.
You get what you pay for. With prices for the best tablets still too high for many budgets, consumers may be tempted by lower-priced competitors. Don't be, says Consumer Reports, whose tests have found the performance of models costing $300 and under to be at best mediocre. Buying a tablet with a data plan may lower the initial cost of the device, but cancelling early may result in a stiff penalty. Otherwise, it might be cheaper to buy a 3G-capable model without a contract.
Future-proofing will pay off. Hardware specifications don't tell the whole story. Portability, storage capacity, and weight are important. But less obvious differences in software, connectivity, and upgradability are critical too. And with faster 4G data networks becoming more widely available, 4G capability (or at least the ability to upgrade to it) is also a plus.
Consumer Reports made waves after the launch of the iPhone 4 last year, when the organization said it could not recommend Apple's handset due to reception attenuation that can result from covering the bottom left corner of the device. That was a change from an earlier stance, when the group said it could find "no reason" not to buy the iPhone 4.
This year, Consumer Reports also claimed that the new CDMA Verizon iPhone 4 suffered the same issue with the metal band on the perimeter of the device, which serves as its antenna. Its testing found that holding the handset in a certain way would cause it to drop calls in weak signal conditions.