Consumer Reports bought the 10 most-promising tablet computers, tested them extensively, and gave the Apple iPad 2 the highest rating. It also concluded that the Motorola Xoom is the iPad 2's chief rival as it has a 10-inch screen but adds conveniences that the iPad lacks, including a built-in memory card reader and Flash support.

Consumer Reports evaluated tablets from Archos, Apple, Dell, Motorola, Samsung, and ViewSonic, against 17 criteria, including touch-screen responsiveness, versatility, portability, screen glare, and ease of use. The 32GB iPad 2 with Wi-Fi plus 3G ($730) scored Excellent in nearly every category. The first-generation iPad ($580), also outscored many of the other models tested but tied with the Motorola Xoom ($800). The largest performance gap was in battery life, which was measured by playing the same video clip continually on each tablet and timing how long it played until the battery ran down. The top-scoring iPad 2 lasted 12.2 hours, but the lowest-rated tablet, the Archos 70 Internet Tablet ($270), lasted just 3.8 hours.

Before choosing a tablet, Consumer Reports recommends that consumers consider the following:

  • 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.

Apple announced the iPad 2 last month. Less than two weeks ago, it released the device in 25 more countries. While competitors are eager to take on the company, Cupertino is making sure to be a moving target.

"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," Paul Reynolds, Electronics Editor at Consumer Reports, said in a statement. "However, it's likely we'll see more competitive pricing in tablets as other models begin to hit the market."