Laptop or Tablet? A Practical Buyer's Guide

Keyboard, touchscreen, or both? We'll help you make the tough decisions.

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When Apple released the iPad in 2010, it did more than create a new market: It threatened an existing one. Laptops were no longer the only option for portable computing. Instead, a slew of 7- and 10-inch tablets appeared to challenge laptops for mobile productivity and entertainment superiority.

We're certainly not complaining—the more tech, the merrier, right? The biggest downside to the tablet invasion, though, is how it's made holiday shopping more difficult. Pre-2010, you could buy a laptop for someone, confident in the knowledge that they'd be ecstatic about it. Nowadays, they might've preferred a tablet—who can tell?

You can, with our help. You probably have a workaholic, student, or gamer in your life that needs a new... let's say, "computing device." The question is easy: laptop or tablet? We'll give you some answers.

The Workaholic

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The Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus (MSRP $1,399.99)

Is your husband the type of guy who brings his work home with him? Maybe your wife needs constant access to her company's virtual server. It's all good—you knew this getting into the relationship, right?

Regardless, you want that special someone to work in comfort and style. And if your gift makes responding to work emails easier, maybe your significant other will have more time for you.

Preferred device: Laptop. Sure, a tablet works for reading emails, but if you have to type long emails with precision, a laptop is the only way to go.

Our pick: If you want a laptop that's powerful enough for most consumers, yet handsome and portable as well, look no further than Samsung's ATIV Book 9 Plus. Highlights include a super high-res screen (3200 x 1800 pixels), one of the best keyboards we've used, and a responsive touchpad. Even better is this laptop's sleek metallic design, which breeds envy in your friends and loved ones—even MacBook owners! The Intel i5 variant retails for $1,399.99—not cheap, but it's a gift that can be enjoyed for years. Double check Santa's nice list first.

The Traveller

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The Kindle Fire HDX 7" (MSRP $229)

Is there someone in your life that spends more time at airports than is generally considered healthy? Instead of getting this friend the latest spy watch from SkyMall, you could help alleviate his or her tedium on those seemingly endless flights. Isn't that priceless?

Preferred device: Tablet. These touchscreen computers are made for content consumption, which is precisely what your friend will do while flying to France, Spain, or another exotic country that you wish you were going to. Also, since the FAA will now allow electronic devices to stay on for the entire flight, it's the perfect time to gift a tablet.

Our pick: Is there an easier way to buy content than with a Kindle Fire? Amazon's latest, the Kindle Fire HDX, comes in two models: 8.9-inch and 7-inch versions. While we found both models to offer speedy performance and excellent screens, the smaller device is the show-stealer thanks to it's temptingly low MSRP of $229. With Amazon's enormous catalog of books and movies—and even some games—your favorite jet-setter won't want to leave the plane.

(Just kidding, they'll still want to leave the plane.)

The Artist

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The Sony VAIO Duo 13 (MSRP $1,399.99)

One does not simply become an artist—one is born an artist. Or something like that.

The artists that we're talking about want to create. Whether that kind of creation takes the form of something visual or audible, it matters not. Unfortunately, art made on a computer is expensive and requires plenty of horsepower. Oh, and it also requires the proper device. That's were we come in.

Preferred device: Hybrid. If you want to give the artist in your life the most options, why not give him or her a bigger canvas? The canvas in question is a laptop/tablet hybrid. Sometimes a touchscreen is the best option, while a keyboard and mouse work best for other endeavors.

Our pick: Power and flexibility come together like Voltron in the Sony VAIO Duo 13. This hybrid looks like a thick tablet in one position, and then transforms into a sleek touchscreen laptop thanks to a handy sliding mechanism. Sony even bundles a super-useful stylus that allows you to treat the screen like it was paper. Or you could use the touchscreen with music software like Ableton to tap some beats.

The base model of Sony's fancy hybrid retails for $1,399.99, but prices go up when you add more processing power and RAM.

The College Student

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The Apple MacBook Air (MSRP $1,099)

Christmas is a special time of year for college students. It means finals are over for the semester. It means living with your parents and eating home-cooked meals for a week or two. And it means having your mom do your laundry. Your late 20s are going to be miserable.

Loving parents can send their babies back to school with a new computer. After all, nothing will give your pride and joy a bigger smile than a brand new laptop or tablet. But what's the right choice?

Preferred device: Laptop. You do want your offspring to bring home some As on their report card, right? Do report cards even exist anymore? Regardless, a laptop is perfect for writing papers and looking at YouTube videos, but mostly the former.

Our pick: Nothing says "get good grades" like a new MacBook Air, and this year's update features a college student's best friend: unparalleled battery life. We tested it for around 13 hours with casual use, which is simply unheard of in the laptop world. At just a hair under $1,100 for the base 13-inch model, Apple's latest ultra-slim design is a somewhat grandiose Christmas present. The look on your son or daughter's face when they receive this will totally make every penny worth it, though.

The Gamer

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The MSI GX70 (MSRP $1,199.99)

Avid gamers do things on their own terms. You can find these people playing round after round of DOTA 2 instead of cramming for finals, or playing the latest Final Fantasy port on their smartphone while taking public transportation. True gamers aren't bothered by trivial things like "homework" or "a train packed with sweaty people." Unfortunately, there's more than one way to skin a cat. Or play a game. It's an expression—just bear with me.

Preferred device: Both. While certain laptops allow gamers to play the most graphically-intensive PC games, you can still play engrossing games on a tablet. For the hardcore video game enthusiast, a dedicated gaming laptop is probably the best choice. For gamers with a busy lifestyle and a preference for touch-friendly games, a tablet works wonderfully.

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The Apple iPad Air

Our picks: If you elect to buy your favorite gamer a laptop, there are many choices. We reviewed MSI's GX70 laptop earlier this year, and walked away pretty impressed. It's thicker than two MacBook Airs, and the touchpad is laughably small, but these things don't matter to gamers. You won't be playing Battlefield 4 at Starbucks, nor will you ever play without a mouse. You do get a crazy powerful video card and blazing-fast 2.5GHz quad-core processor, though—more than enough for Crysis 3.

For the gamer on the go, you can't beat Apple's iPad Air. We awarded it our Best Tablet of the Year, and for good reason. Apple's latest tablet has plenty of horsepower, an incredibly high-resolution screen, and great battery life—perfect for playing hours upon hours of Infinity Blade.

MSI's GX70 currently retails for $1,199.99, while the iPad Air can be had for $499.

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