NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Sure, the Apple ( AAPL - Get Report) iPad paved the way for tablets to finally find a mainstream audience. Today there are a plethora of choices -- some not so good, some even better than you'd think. How does one choose the best fit? As back-to-school lists emerge, let our handy guide help you figure this out.

Still on an Allowance: In the sub-$100 tablet market, pickings are slim for a sturdy tablet that is not an actual child's toy. But the $69 Nextbook 7-inch Tablet, available at Wal-Mart ( WMT - Get Report), delivers the basics, mostly because it has a small 7-inch screen and last year's Android operating system. It does include 8 GB of built-in storage and a Micro SD slot, if you need more. There is also a very low-resolution front-facing Web cam.

Most importantly, it offers pure access to Google ( GOOG) Play and the 800,000-plus Android apps, which some popular tablets like the Kindle Fire lock out. There is Gmail, Google Maps and access to nearly 50,000 educational apps, including OfficeSuite Viewer, to create documents and take notes during class. Such small tablets are really more of an accessory (as opposed to being a sole computer on which a student can rely), but this affordable tablet is a good start.

Start-Up Tablet: The ASUS MeMO Pad HD 7 is also a smallish tablet with just a 7-inch screen. But that keeps costs down, making this Android tablet affordable enough to become a useful sidekick to a student's regular computing needs. For its $149 price, it's impressive that ASUS includes front and rear cameras, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, and 16 GBs of storage plus a Micro SD slot, if you need more space.

Tablet Novice: Toshiba's Excite Pure steps up to a 10-inch screen without the price tag that larger tablets tend to carry. The Android tablet has several expansion features -- a Micro-HDMI port, Micro SD card slot and USB ports -- laptop users will feel comforted. While screen resolution could be crisper and it comes with just 16 GBs, the Excite is just $299.

Early Adopter Mobile Geek: Samsung's slim ATIV Tab 3 claims to be the "world's thinnest Windows 8 tablet," measuring in at 0.3 inches thick and weighing 1.28 pounds. So, yes, it's slightly more svelte than the latest iPad. But the more amazing thing is how much Samsung stuck into this skinny tablet. An Intel ( INTC - Get Report) Atom chip helps extend battery life for 10 hours. Plus, it runs the full version of Windows 8 and includes Office Home & Student.

Another nifty feature, if you also own a Samsung Galaxy smartphone, is the SideSync technology. By connecting the two devices wirelessly or wired via a USB cable, you can turn the phone into a second screen and watch the cursor move from tablet to phone. This lets you visually see movement of files between the two devices, and lets you type up text messages on a larger screen. For those perks, expect to pay more. It's available to pre-order on Amazon for around $600.

No Time to Think, Money No Issue: Now in its fourth generation (with the next rumored before Christmas), the iPad gets credit for convincing consumers to adopt tablets. Kids today are still enjoying the original, which, if still intact, has likely been handed down by parents who bought themselves a spiffier one. But beyond its immense popularity and upper-end price, Apple's tablet is the core of a fruitful ecosystem, making it one of the best tablets for school.

There are roughly 75,000 education apps in Apple's App store, according to the company. Plus there's iTunes U, which integrates iPad with actual school courses. And don't forget the numerous heavy-duty cases for accident-prone students. Of course, the starter iPad, with just 16 GB of storage, will set you back $499. Loaded is $929.

No Time to Think, Money Is an Issue: The best iPad alternative is ... another iPad, the Mini. Announced last fall, it has more or less the same features plus access to the same apps. But it's thinner and lighter, weighing a fraction of a pound for the 7.9-inch touch screen. Resolution is lower than the current iPad, though at 1024x768, it's the same as the iPad 2. That brings down the price, which starts at $329. Speaking of the iPad 2, you can also still get one of those for $399. (Buy it from an authorized Apple store to get a $50 gift card to the App Store.)

Budget-Minded Geek: If you want the oomph but are on a budget, Google's latest Nexus 7, freshly available this month, trounces the iPad mini in screen resolution, memory (2 GB RAM) and chip -- with its faster quad-core Qualcomm ( QCOM - Get Report) Snapdragon S4 Pro processor. It's a tad smaller than the mini, with a 7-inch screen, and available education apps aren't as excessive (AppBrain puts Android education apps at around 50,000). But at $269, the 32-GB Nexus 7 (and $229 for the 16-GB version) is a sweet deal for tech-minded students on a budget.

Windows Loyalist: Microsoft ( MSFT) has offered variations of a tablet computer for more than a decade. But its latest iteration, Surface, debuted last year with the sleekest, iPad-esque design yet. If you lean toward Windows, the Surface RT may fit best since it is really a full-functioning laptop sans keyboard (the very-thin keyboard/cover pictured with the Surface is an extra $120).

The 1.5-pound Surface RT includes the student-version of Microsoft Office and Windows RT, which is sort of a mobile version of Windows 8. The biggest knock against it may be the lack of mobile apps. After all, this isn't an iPad or Android tablet so you've got to wait for developers to extend their mobile apps to work with Windows. But for $349, you'll get a sleek computer with 10.6-inch touchscreen, 32 GB of storage, front and rear cameras, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth and the usual ports.

Windows Lovers Who Admire iPads: The 10.1-inch ASUS Vivo Tab Smart is about as thin and light as the iPad, but it runs Windows 8. You'll get more storage space (64 GB) and memory (2 GB) and it's adequate for typical chores like word processing, video chats and Internet. But it also runs on the less-powerful Intel Atom chip. That tradeoff keeps costs down, putting this Windows tablet at $399.

However, if you do get this model, you should really splurge and get the svelte keyboard/cover, which uniquely props up the tablet for movie-watching mode. The ASUS also has a skinny keyboard, called the ASUS TranSleeve Keyboard, which is sold separately. It is around $100 to $130 (depending on the store).

The Flexible Flip-Flopper: Love Android and its mobile apps but not ready to give up the comfort of Windows? The new Samsung ATIV Q has both. Offering full versions of Windows 8 and Android, the ATIV Q is also one of those laptop-turned-tablet tablets. With a 13.3-inch touch display, the ATIV has a hinged keyboard hiding behind the screen, long battery life (it has Intel's new Haswell chip) and an amazingly high-resolution screen of 3200 by 1800 pixels. But it also has an inconvenience of a laptop: At 2.8 pounds, it's almost twice as heavy as the iPad. The bigger drawback, at least for now, is that it's only available in Europe. Whether it is coming to the U.S., the company won't say.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

Tamara Chuang is an outside contributor to TheStreet. Her opinions are her own. Email her at and follow her on Twitter @gadgetress.

Tamara Chuang is an outside contributor to TheStreet. Her opinions are her own.