Where the Mini really wins is in third-party apps: it's the only small tablet that has access to Apple's App Store, with a superlative selection of high-quality apps. It's an excellent addition to the household that's already hooked on iPhones and full-size iPads. For those not wedded to the "Apple system," the other tablets merit a close look.

â¿¿ Amazon Kindle Fire HD (starts at $199 for 16 gigabytes of storage)

A year ago, the Kindle Fire was the plucky, cut-rate tablet, the Dodge Neon to the iPad's BMW. This year, the gap in quality and features has narrowed considerably. The Kindle Fire HD has a better screen than the iPad Mini, and now sports a front-facing camera. The original Kindle Fire had none.

In another nice touch, it has speakers on either side of the screen when it's held horizontally, making for much better stereo sound when you're playing a movie.

The selection of content is narrower than for the iPad, since it's heavily slanted toward Amazon's services. Likewise, the selection of third-party apps is smaller than on the iPad or Google's Nexus 7. But there are enough games to thrill a kid for hours, and like Barnes & Noble's Nook, the Kindle can be configured with a special "kid mode" that shields them from racier content â¿¿ and from messing up your settings.

The Kindle Fire is especially useful for members of Amazon's Prime shipping service, since they get access to free streaming movies. On the other hand, anyone could be annoyed by the ads that appear on the lock screen. Getting rid of them costs $15. There's no option for cellular broadband, so you're limited to Wi-Fi connections.

â¿¿ Barnes & Noble Nook HD (starts at $199 for 8 gigabytes of storage)

Barnes & Noble has paid a lot of attention to the screens on its Nooks. This year, it's clearly outdone the competition, with a screen that packs the pixels tighter than any other small tablet. It's very sharp and colorful, approaching the look of the Retina screen that graces the full-size iPad.

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