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More choice, confusion with tablets

This holiday season is turning into a battle among tech giants for the hand-held computer that every geek, executive, student and child will carry around next year.

Analysts expect tablets to be a top gift this year, as the appeal of the devices grows to a wider audience looking to move up from e-readers or down from laptops. It will probably be a make-or-break few months for new market entrants, including Best Buy, Barnes & Noble and Google, as consumers wade through the myriad choices.

When Apple first introduced the iPad in 2010, it wasn’t clear whether tablets – occupying a strange space between the smartphone and the laptop – were here to stay. But analysts predict sales of at least 117 million tablets by the end of 2012, the majority of which are expected to occur during the final quarter.

Fifteen percent of tablet buyers told the Maritz Research firm that, if given the chance, they would buy a tablet before buying a computer, smartphone or even a television, making it a potential all-in-one replacement device.

“People coming in at this point are a wide cross section of society. They held back initially to see if it was a fad but are now seeing these devices everywhere they go,” said Rhoda Alexander, a tech analyst at IHS iSuppli.

The rising interest means there are tablets aimed at all segments of the market, from the businesslike Microsoft Surface with a full keyboard to the Toys R Us Tabeo, meant for children as young as 5.

Apple added two tablets to its lineup last month – a revamped full iPad and a more portable iPad mini. Google announced two new tablets last Monday, an updated version of its Nexus 7 and a larger, 10-inch tablet. Amazon has expanded its line of low-cost Kindle Fires, and retailers Barnes & Noble and Best Buy have their own offerings. That doesn’t include companies such as Samsung and Lenovo that are taking a second crack at the market.

This holiday season could establish a pecking order for the array of tablets cluttering the market and offer insight into what consumers value: price, functionality or app and entertainment options.

The $29 billion tablet market is attracting new competitors looking to offset flagging revenue in the personal computer industry, which is expected to shrink this year for the first time in a decade.

More tablet options will require some research.

“There’s going to be an awful lot of choices on the market; that’s great for consumers but could be confusing,” said Tom Mainelli, a tablet analyst for the research firm International Data Corp.

His advice? Go into your nearest store and get a feel for your top choices.