MONEY best of 2014

7 Ways Tech Made Your Life Better in 2014

A new reason to ditch your cellphone contract, safer credit cards, and five more bright ideas that can help you save money in the year ahead.

Every year, there are innovators who come up with fresh solutions to nagging problems. Companies roll out new products or services, or improve on old ones. Researchers propose better theories to explain the world. Or stuff that’s been flying under the radar finally captivates a wide audience. For MONEY’s annual Best New Ideas list, our writers searched the world of money for the most compelling products, strategies, and insights of 2014. To make the list, these ideas—which cover the world of investing, retirement, health care, college, and more—have to be more than novel. They have to help you save money, make money, or improve the way you spend it, like these seven tech innovations.

  • Best Side Effect of the Hacking Mess

    Chip and Pin credit card transformed into a lock
    Image Source—Alamy

    Safer Credit Cards…Finally

    Chip-and-PIN credit cards include a special chip that makes them harder for hackers to replicate. Though you’re legally protected from having to pay most charges when a card number is stolen, more-secure plastic can save you a lot of hassle. Card companies had been slow to roll out chip-and-PIN—until millions of credit card numbers were stolen from major retailers such as Target and Home Depot. “The frequency and size of the breaches absolutely are driving more rapid adoption of the technology,” says Paul Kleinschnitz of First Data, a payment technology firm. Here are two more things to know about the new cards:

    They don’t eliminate all your risk. Chip-and-PIN makes it harder to create fake plastic but doesn’t stop numbers from being used at online stores. So you should still check your statement regularly for weird charges. Chip-and-PIN is already common in Europe; the new cards work in automated machines there that don’t accept old-fashioned plastic.

  • Best Smartphone Savings

    No-Contract Plans

    Old way: Commit to a contract and pay $200 for a smartphone that really costs $650. Of course, you still pay for the phone as part of your monthly bill.

    New way: Wireless companies are making it easier to separate the cost of the phone and the price of service.

    You can shop for a new plan with your old phone. Low-cost players and now the big carriers offer no-contract plans, which may be $100 cheaper per month for a family. Check with carriers for phone compatibility; look up network quality in your area at rootmetrics.com.

    Or get a new phone. You can buy a phone outright or on installment, and combine that with a no-contract plan. Sometimes, but not always, the total price beats the comparable contract option, so run the numbers. If you do go contract, mark your calendar: After 24 months, switch to no-contract if you don’t care to upgrade.

  • Best Reason to Rent, Not Own, Your eBooks

    Amazon Kindle

    All-You-Can Read Subscriptions

    As with music, books are moving toward an all-you-can read subscription model.

    The Services: The service you pick will hinge on the device you prefer to read with. Scribd ($8.99 per month) lets you read an unlimited number of books, and it quintupled its library this year to 500,000, with 30,000 audiobooks. The service now includes many titles from the big publishers Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins. Works on: iOS, Android, Kindle Fire (but not e-ink readers), Nook tablets.

    Though Scribd is the better service overall, it doesn’t work on Kindle e-ink readers. If you’re devoted to that device, Amazon has its own options. With an Amazon Prime subscription, you can choose from thousands of titles to read for no extra charge (one per month). Kindle Unlimited ($9.99) is like Scribd, but customers and reviewers say it’s hard to find books from the “Big Five” publishers. Works on: iOS, Android, Kindle Fire, and Kindle readers.

    The Gadget: Phone and tablet apps are fine for many readers, but e-ink devices provide a more booklike experience. The new Kindle Voyage has a screen that’s 39% brighter than its predecessor.

  • Best Reason to Rent, Not Buy, Your Music

    Streaming Services

    Why buy songs that you’re rarely going to listen to in a few months? What if you could listen to just about anything—except for a few famous holdouts, like Taylor Swift and the Beatles—for less than the price of one CD per month? (Remember those?) A smart new pricing plan could make 2015 the year you make the switch from buying music to legally streaming it.

    The Service: Spotify lets you listen to any song you want in its vast catalogue. A free version, with ads, works on desktops or allows you to play artists or albums on Shuffle on your phone. Paying up for Spotify Premium ($9.99 a month) gets you no ads and total control on any device. Spotify has rolled out a family plan that lets you add new users for $4.99 each; that way two people in your family can play their own tunes at the same time. Works On: iOs, Android, desktop

    The Gadgets to Listen On: Docking stations are easy to use, with no setup or wires required. The $130 iHome iDL48 works with most iPads and iPhones. A portable speaker lets you get your music off your little earbuds and carry it to any room. The reliable Jawbone Mini Jambox ($130) connects to smartphones, tablets, and most computers through Bluetooth. If your existing stereo has an auxiliary input, an easy fix (in you’re not a hi-fi purist) is to run a cable from the headphone or line-out jack on phone, tablet or PC. Cords are $5 to $10 at Monoprice or Amazon.

  • Best Retro Tech

    2015 Ford Focus
    2015 Ford Focus

    Dashboard Knobs are Back!

    For years cars have become more tech-laden, with systems to let you make phone calls, find local pizza joints, or answer email. Which is nice, unless you prefer to keep your focus on driving. Interiors became a maze of numeric keypads and other control points. Ford says its research shows drivers don’t use or want all that tech. Now it’s retro time. For the 2015 model year Ford Focus, the automaker has eliminated many buttons, and added old-fashioned knobs to systems such as heat and A/C. In the next Fusion, the company is even getting rid of touch screens. — Bill Saporito, Time assistant managing editor, car reviewer at Money.com

  • Best Online Security Fix

    Two-Factor Verification

    Worrying about bank and brokerage hacks is understandable. But money can be replaced—and you have legal protections. What you should worry about is a hacker mining your more vulnerable iCloud photos, Facebook page, or email account and impersonating you. Two-factor verification, a login protocol, makes it vastly harder for hackers to steal your digital life. Here’s what you need to do to set it up:

    Select “login approval” or “two-factor verification” under settings at sites you want to protect. The first time you visit that site on a new computer, you will have to enter a code that’s texted to your phone. (You only need to enter this code the first time you log in from a new computer.) In case you lose your phone, you can print out backup codes, which work once. Once you’ve done this, a hacker would need to guess your password and have physical access to your computer in order to steal your data.

  • Best Apps to Get Before You Travel

    Chi Birmingham

    Taxi Apps

    It’s not always easy to scare up a cab in an unfamiliar city. (Where are the best streets to try to hail one? Should I find a taxi stand? Call ahead?) But smartphones are making it much easier to get around. The Uber app can summon a for-hire private car in numerous cities in 45 countries (though the service has recently come under fire in a few cities). In some big towns, like New York, it will also hail a traditional taxi. Curb and Flywheel also grab regular cabs—check first if they work in the town you are visiting. Want help navigating subways and metros? Hopstop has stop-by-stop directions and travel times, as do the transit directions on the Google Maps app.

TIME Tablets

This Is the Best Tablet You Can Buy Right Now

Apple Unveils New iPad Models
An attendee inspects new iPad Air 2 during an Apple special event on October 16, 2014 in Cupertino, California. Justin Sullivan—Getty Images

It's Apple's iPad Air 2. Here's why.

This post was done in partnership with The Wirecutter, a list of the best technology to buy. Read the full article below at TheWirecutter.com

the wirecutter logo

The new iPad Air 2 is the best overall tablet for most people. Apple’s new iPads are always better than last year’s, and the things that have made all the iPads strong tablets — like unbeatable app choices — are still present in this generation of the tablet. But with the latest update, the iPad Air 2 is thinner, lighter, and faster than the previous version, plus it gained fingerprint identification features, making it an even better user experience. And right now, the iPad (and iOS ecosystem) still offer the best overall customer experience when compared against Android.

Who Should Buy This?

If you bought the 2013 Air and are a heavy user and content-creator, the faster processor and expanded RAM of the iPad Air 2 will help with performance. If you bought the Air and use it for email, web browsing, and lighter tasks, you can hold off. If you have the original iPad Mini, then the Air 2 will be barely larger, but much faster with better Wi-Fi and Apple’s fingerprint authentication feature, TouchID.


Why we like this above all else

The 2014 update has hardware that makes it faster, thinner, and more versatile than last year’s model or the new iPad mini 3. The iPad Air now has fingerprint authentication, and is thin and light enough to hold one-handed as you would a paperback. It has the best selection of tablet-dedicated apps thanks to iOS. If you’re not particularly into Android or tinkering with your setup, there isn’t a better choice.

Why the iPad Air 2 over the updated iPad mini 3? The iPad Air 2 has a higher-quality camera that can do panoramas and burst mode, and it has the 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard which allows for faster file transfers and improved range. The iPad mini 3 did not receive the faster processor that was added to the iPad Air 2. For $100 more, you get a lot more features, faster overall performance, and a larger, nicer screen with the Air 2.

But what about other, non-Apple tablets? For service and support, it’s difficult to beat Apple today. Their Apple Stores and Genius Bars are equipped to handle almost all tablet repairs on the same day. Our own experiences with the Genius Bar have seen my iPhone screen and a MacBook Air battery replaced within 30 minutes. Other companies might have as long a warranty, but they cannot do the instant turnaround that Apple can.

Most importantly, though, is Apple’s iOS ecosystem. Though the Android (Google Play) ecosystem is catching up, Apple continues to offer the largest selection of high-quality, dedicated tablet apps. While the selection of tablet-designed apps is constantly growing, that ecosystem and extremely clean user experience is still behind what iOS offers to its users.

Flaws (but not dealbreakers)

The iPad Air 2 is more expensive than its closest competition. The closest non-iPad competition is probably the $400 16GB Nexus 9. The iPad Air 2 starts at $500 for the Wi-Fi 16GB version, but 16GB is barely enough for most people and makes installing updates harder down the road, so you should probably get the the 64GB version at $600. Siri is still not as good as some Android voice control systems, and Google Now (which gives you an overview of your day and things you care about) is great if you use Android. But these are just nits to pick.

In Closing

The iPad Air 2 is the best tablet because choosing it means you’re not compromising on anything. The hardware is fast, thin, and light, it has a great, upgraded camera with useful video capabilities, TouchID, and the best tablet software ecosystem on the market today.

This guide may have been updated. To see the current recommendation please go to The Wirecutter.com

TIME Gadgets

This Is the Best E-Book Reader You Can Buy

Amazon Kindle Paperwhite
Amazon Kindle Paperwhite Amazon

It's the $120 Amazon Kindle Paperwhite

the wirecutter logo

This post was done in partnership with The Wirecutter, a list of the best technology to buy. Read the full article below at TheWirecutter.com

The $120 Amazon Kindle Paperwhite is our favorite e-book reader because it has a backlight for reading in the dark and Amazon’s amazing book selection, which is unsurpassed by the competition.

How we decided

There are other good e-readers out there, like the Kobo and the Nook GlowLight. They all share similar specs, but comparing hardware misses the bigger picture.

We prefer Amazon because it has the biggest and best selection of e-books and the best prices. Its also a company you can bank on to keep the updates coming while you port your ever-growing library of books to better and better hardware through the ages. If you look at it like that, you’re not really buying an e-book reader. You’re buying a cheap window to see into a vast library that you will keep for the rest of your life.

Our pick

The Paperwhite has not changed drastically in the last two years, but that’s okay, because Amazon has had a good thing going for a while. If you have the 2013 edition, you can easily stick with that model and not feel like you’re missing out on too much. If you have a Kindle older than that, you might want to upgrade.

The current Paperwhite model’s battery can run for up to eight weeks at a time, even with the screen light running. In summer 2014, Amazon doubled the Paperwhite’s internal storage from 2GB to 4GB, making room for more than 1,000 e-books. It has a bright front-lit screen, a black on white e-ink display that’s crisp and makes text very easy to read even outdoors, and a processor that makes page turning smooth.

The Paperwhite supports illustrated children’s e-books and has some baked-in parental controls. Amazon Prime members can access the Lending Library, and any Kindle owner can sign up for Kindle Unlimited, a $10-per-month subscription that provides access to 600,000 e-books and audiobooks.

The Kindle Paperwhite is priced squarely in the middle of all Amazon’s e-readers, starting at $120 for the Wi-Fi only version with ads. The ad-free version is $140, while the 3G-enabled Paperwhite is $189 with ads and $209 without them. (The ads don’t pop up during reading, but for $20 more, I’d opt out.) We prefer the Paperwhite over the basic $80 Amazon Kindle because it can store more books and runs for longer on a single charge.

The Upgrade

The Kindle Voyage is an even better e-reader than the Paperwhite, with a 300 DPI e-Ink screen, a backlight that adjusts brightness automatically, and a touchscreen with a body you can squeeze to turn pages. But at $200, it doesn’t offer enough over the Paperwhite to justify spending an additional $80 for most people. The pixel density of the Voyage is double that of the Paperwhite, but text on the Paperwhite is already easy to read and the difference won’t be noticeable to most people. The adaptive backlight is nice, but the standard backlight on the Paperwhite is fine. The Voyage’s squeeze action to change pages is better, but most people will probably be fine with the controls on the Paperwhite.

It might be worth upgrading to the Voyage if you read a lot of graphic novels or comics, because the higher resolution display of the Voyage does make those easier to read.

In closing

Amazon’s e-book selection and certainty of upgrades makes it the best investment for an e-book collection. If you really love reading books and can afford to spend $200, then the Voyage is a wonderful e-reader. But at $120, the Paperwhite is a very solid e-reader, and a great choice for most people.

This guide may have been updated. To see the current recommendation, please go to The Wirecutter.com

TIME Internet

‘Women Laughing Alone With Tablets’ Is the New ‘Women Laughing Alone With Salad’

Behold: the latest inexplicable stock image phenomenon

A few years ago, we were introduced to Women Laughing Alone With Salad: a gallery (and then meme) that pointed out the weirdly high number of stock images of, well, women laughing alone with salad.

Well, as On the Media has noticed, there’s a new trend that could soon take over the Internet. Women are still laughing, and they’re still alone, but this time, they get to hold tablets instead of salad bowls. Progress?

No seriously though, there are a lot of stock images of women laughing alone with tablets. Behold:

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It’s actually pretty fun to imagine that these women are using their tablets to look at (and laugh at) stock images of women laughing alone with tablets. Meta.

TIME Gadgets

Amazon’s Kindle and Fire Tablets Totally Killed It on Black Friday

US-IT-AMAZON-KINDLE
Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, introduces new Kindle Fire HD Family during the Amazon press conference on September 06, 2012 in Santa Monica, California. Joe Klamar—AFP/Getty Images

The company's mum on the Fire Phone, though

Amazon was seeing green on Black Friday.

Black Friday sales of the company’s Fire tablets were three times what they were last year, Amazon said Monday, while Kindle e-readers were up four times last year’s numbers. Those numbers, however, only take into account sales on Amazon’s own site.

“This holiday there are going to be a lot of customers opening up new Amazon devices,” said Amazon SVP of Devices Dave Limp in a statement. “We’re energized by the year over year growth of tablet and e-reader Black Friday sales on Amazon.com, plus the success of the new product categories we’ve launched this year.”

Amazon’s Black Friday Kindle sales were likely spurred by the company’s move to slash prices. The Kindle, Kindle Paperwhite, Fire HD 6 and Fire HD 7 all saw discounts of $20-30 for the weekend. Amazon also cut the price of its Fire Phone to $199 for an unlocked unit, but the company hasn’t disclosed if that discount sparked sales of an otherwise lagging device.

Amazon also offered a new sale for Monday only: Its Fire TV set-top box will cost $69, down from its normal price of $100.

TIME Tablets

Nokia’s New Tablet Looks Exactly Like an iPad Mini

The surprise new tablet pits Nokia against Microsoft

Nokia is returning to consumer electronics with an Android-powered tablet that looks an awful lot like Apple’s iPad mini.

The Finnish company’s N1 has the same 7.9-inch screen size and the same 2048 x 1536 resolution as the iPad mini, as well as nearly identical placement of the camera, buttons and headphone jack, the Verge reports. It has made some improvements, too: at 318 grams and 6.9mm thin, the N1 is thinner and lighter than the Apple equivalent.

The tablet will go on sale at the beginning of 2015 in China, ahead of other countries, the BBC reports.

Other N1 specs include a 2.4GHz quad-core Intel Atom Z3580 processor, 2GB of RAM and 32GB of storage. It has a 5-megapixel version at the front, and an 8-megapixel camera at the rear.

Microsoft completed its takeover of Nokia’s former mobile-devices business in April. Nokia’s entry into the tablet space pits the two companies against each other. Microsoft sells its own Nokia-labelled kit, including the Lumia 2520 Windows RT-powered tablet.

Nokia licensed its design and brand to Taiwanese manufacturer Foxconn in order to make the product, effectively outsourcing production and supply chain management.

TIME apps

The 50 Absolute Best iPad Apps

TIME's list of essential software every iPad owner should download.

TIME Tablets

Why I Just Bought iPads for My Retired Parents

Inside A SoftBank Store As Apple Inc. New iPads Go On Sale
A store employee points at a 'Maps' icon on an Apple Inc. new iPad Air 2 tablet displayed at a SoftBank Corp. store in the Ginza district of Tokyo, Japan, on Friday, Oct. 24, 2014. Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Older computer users just don't need PCs any longer

More and more these days, the phone calls I receive from Mom or Dad have nothing to do with the grandkids or my writing career or our plans to visit Florida.

They’re calling for tech support.

“The printer won’t print!”

“Why am I getting this strange message on my screen?”

“AOL is acting funny.” (Yeah, AOL. I know.)

In recent years I’ve dealt with a Geek Squad’s worth of parental computer meltdowns. Some minor (outdated printer drivers, missing file attachments), some major (Ebola-grade viruses), but all of them frustrating for everyone. For my part, I feel badly that my retired parents — who, seriously, shouldn’t have to wait 10 minutes for the laptop to boot — have to deal with this seemingly endless hassle-fest. I’m a tech expert, a tech blogger, for pete’s sake. Can’t I just wave a magic wand and make them go away? (The hassles, not the parents!)

I just did. Amazing son that I am, I just bought them each an iPad Air and Bluetooth keyboard case. (Note to Mom and Dad: Thanks for college. We’re square now.)

Why the shift from a desktop computer? My parents have used some form of Windows-powered computer for the better part of 20 years — though I never did introduce them to Windows 8. Like a lot of seniors I know, they’re already nervous about “pressing the wrong button” on the computer. A change as drastic as Windows 8’s new, Start Button-less interface would require a lot of re-learning and, let’s face it, cause a serious uptick in the number of tech-support calls I got from Mom and Dad.

My point is, my parents were at least conversant with Windows, if not tolerant of its perpetual annoyances. But I’d had enough of those problems. And so I gave some strategic thought to what they — what any seniors — really need from a computer. A Web browser, of course. E-mail. Facebook. Dad likes to manage his banking; Mom takes notes for lectures and book groups.

Light bulb! These two don’t need computers at all. They need tablets, which can handle these and other computing basics without breaking a sweat (or contracting a virus). Just add a keyboard for tapping out documents and e-mail, and presto: tons of basic-computing problems disappear.

Tablets take zero seconds to boot or shut down. Literally zero. You press a button, it’s ready for action. Press again, the screen goes dark. (Okay, technically it’s going in and out of sleep mode, but you rarely need to actually power down a tablet. And even if you do, it powers up again fairly quickly.) As for apps, tap one and it loads, bam. Seriously, spend a week with a tablet, then try going back to your PC. You’ll wonder how you ever tolerated such lethargy.

Driver updates? No such thing on a tablet. Virus threats? Non-existent. (Just make sure to educate parents on the dangers of phishing, a security threat that strikes via e-mail.) Crashes and lockups? No software is perfect, but no Android or iOS tablet ever suffered a Blue Screen of Death.

Meanwhile, Apple offers word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation apps free of charge to iPad users, while Google makes its Docs, Sheets, and Slides apps free for the Android crowd. Even Microsoft’s Office apps have gone mostly free for iOS, with Android versions coming soon. When you go tablet, your software costs drop considerably. And no more anti-virus subscription, either! (See above.)

Granted, tablets aren’t perfect PC surrogates. They have comparatively small screens, so they’re less than ideal for the visually challenged. Printing remains an obstacle, at least for some documents, as my Dad recently discovered when trying to print a Delta boarding pass. And even with a keyboard, productive word processing seems elusive — in part due to the smaller workspace, in part because there’s no mouse.

These are, thankfully, surmountable issues. Some Android tablets can already work with a mouse, but more tablet makers would be wise to consider these hiccups in developing future models. In the meantime, there are plenty of perfectly good tablet options for seniors. My top pick is what I already got for the folks: Apple’s iPad Air. It’s the no-brainer choice for anyone who also uses an iPhone, but the real advantage is the huge selection of keyboard cases — one for nearly every budget and typing preference.

There are similar senior-friendly benefits to be found in the likes of Amazon’s Kindle Fire HD (or HDX) 8.9, Google’s Nexus 9, and Samsung’s Galaxy Note 10.1, though you’ll want to investigate keyboard options before pulling the trigger. Any Bluetooth keyboard will work, but if you want something that doubles as a case or cover, you may find fewer options.

Why no Microsoft Surface or other Windows-powered model? Simple: You’re still dealing with the frustrations of Windows, to say nothing of the steep-ish learning curve of Windows 8. Microsoft’s return-to-form Windows 10, due in 2015, should lessen that curve, but does a grandparent even need a desktop operating system anymore? I think not. Most seniors just want to read and send e-mail, enjoy the Web, and maybe watch some videos of the grandkids. Windows (and, for that matter, Mac OS X) is overkill for that stuff, while a tablet delivers speed, simplicity, and security. Even a big phablet like the iPhone 6 Plus or Galaxy Note 4 might offer seniors a respite from the plodding, unpredictable PC, as they afford most of the same capabilities as a tablet and a reasonably roomy screen.

Me, I’m looking forward to more meaningful conversations with Mom and Dad, and fewer about troublesome printers.

TIME FindTheBest

5 Reasons People Aren’t Buying Tablets Anymore

Tablet ipad
Getty Images

First, some perspective: the tablet industry is still huge. Gartner predicts that over 250 million tablets will ship worldwide by the end of 2014, an impressive figure for any consumer electronics device not named “smartphone.”

But there’s reason for tablet makers to be worried. Sales are “crashing” at Best Buy and iPad sales are down year-over-year, a disappointing reversal after three years of explosive growth.

Whether it’s a sign of doom or just a “speed bump,” something, on some level, is wrong. Let’s break down five possible explanations:

1. Nobody knows what tablets are for

Is the tablet a leisure device? A personal assistant? A workstation? It’s difficult to say. For marketers, the latest craze is productivity. The Surface 3 can replace your laptop. The iPad is for climatologists and marine biologists. The Samsung Galaxy Pro is for taking business notes and organizing files. But does anyone actually want all this stuff in a tablet?

Probably not. Nearly all of the best-selling tablets on Amazon are small-screen, budget options, with productivity features ratcheted down…or even stripped out. And the proudly efficient Surface is still a billion-dollar bust. Despite all the ads, spreadsheets and styluses, tablet owners still seem to prefer browsing Pinterest to building PowerPoints.

Put it all together, and first-time tablet buyers are simply going to be confused. They probably don’t care much about efficiency, but every manufacturer is spending millions convincing them to get a tablet for expense reports and file management. What a mess.

2. Phablets, not tablets, are the sweet spot

The first iPad (2010) fit neatly between contemporary devices: it was more roomy than phones, but not as clunky as laptops—the perfect product for reading books or surfing the web after work. What’s more, phones above 4.5-inches were virtually non-existent, making a tablet’s 7- to 10-inch screen a big selling point.

Jump ahead to 2014, and the average phone is faster, smarter and most importantly, bigger. Over 80% of 2014’s new phones have screens over 4.5 inches, and the flagship models tend to be the biggest of all. The tablet’s biggest differentiator has faded, while the phablet has grabbed more market share and garnered increasingly glowing reviews. It’s just not worth snapping up a new Nexus tablet when your LG G3 is almost as big and twice as convenient.

3. Old models are good enough

When it comes to upgrading your tablet, what’s the better analogy: the smartphone or the TV? Three years ago, the phone was the obvious answer. After all, tablets looked and operated a lot like the smaller device, sharing the same apps, layouts and operating systems. Surely customers would upgrade their tablets once every two years or so, just like their Galaxies, iPhones and Nokias.

Given the benefit of time, however, the picture has become more clear. Consumers drop their phones regularly; tablets sit safely on the bedside table. Smartphone batteries go through hundreds of recharge cycles per year; tablet batteries go through only dozens. Users fill their phones with photos, apps and bloatware; tablet owners add only the occasional movie or game. At the 24-month mark, smartphone are chipped, cracked, bursting with data and barely able to hold a charge. Meanwhile, tablets often look like they just came out of the box. Like a TV, there’s no real incentive to get a new model until something truly special comes along.

 

As a result, the refresh cycle for a tablet is much closer to that of a television than a smartphone: four or more years for most customers. If you’re not a tech geek or millionaire, you’re not buying a tablet every other year…which means declining sales for tablet makers.

4. The apps aren’t good enough

The tablet’s saving grace was supposed to be the apps: games, photo editors and productivity suites designed for tablets—and only for tablets—from the ground up. Even if the phone would become the dominant device, customers wouldn’t be able to resist the perks of having bigger, tablet-exclusive applications.

Unfortunately, almost all the best apps are already available on phones, and in some cases, only on phones. Developers have discovered that the only way to compete with such low prices (say, $0.99 or $1.99) is to produce at a mass volume, and the only device capable of selling in mass volume is the smartphone. A few noble development teams have continued to support advanced tablet versions out of principle, but increasingly, it’s a bad business decision. So we end up with blurry, up-scaled interfaces or basic layouts optimized for phones and hastily ported to tablets. It’s a lost opportunity.

5. Lack of competition for Apple

Every year, the smartphone industry only seems to get more competitive, with Apple holding onto the high-end, Samsung clinging to the middle and upstarts like Xiaomi snapping up customers in the budget market. Even if you’re willing to say that Google is winning by market share, or Apple by profits, you have to admit that it’s still a fierce battle, with dozens of flagship phones contending for the crown.

With tablets, however, Apple is still winning handily, shipping 75% more devices than its closest competitor (Samsung) and hogging all the profits. The iPad remains king, despite an ongoing assault of giant Galaxy Pros and Microsoft Surface ads. In order for the industry to avoid stagnation, Apple’s rivals need to make the iPad maker less comfortable. Judging from the iPad Mini 3 non-update, however, they’ve got a ways to go. They’d better hurry, though: the tablet market just might depend upon it.

This article was written for TIME by Ben Taylor of FindTheBest.

More from FindTheBest:

Read next: Apple’s New iPads Are Great, But Not Essential

TIME Ask TIME Tech

Ask TIME Tech: Best iPad for the Money Right Now?

iPads
The iPad Mini 3 (left) and the iPad Air 2 (right) Asahi Shimbun / Getty Images

A rundown of all the available models, highlighting the differences in search of the best value

Question: I need a new iPad, but I’m not sure which one I should get. Is the iPad Air 2 worth it or is one of the other models a better deal? I don’t really care if it’s a full-size iPad or one of the smaller ones. And I’m okay with spending $500, but if I don’t have to, obviously I would like to save some money. What are the main differences between all of them?

Short Answer: Last year’s iPad Mini 2 is a good deal at $299.

Long Answer: Someone who says “I need a new iPad” is apparently a rarity nowadays, with Apple having trouble convincing people to upgrade their tablets regularly. I’m part of the problem: I’ve been using an iPad 3 for the past million years and it still suits me fine.

Here’s a video comparison of all the currently-available iPads, which contains much of the advice you’ll otherwise read below:

iPad Air 2 ($499+)

If you have $500 to spend on an iPad, the new iPad Air 2 won’t disappoint. Of all the available models — there are now five: the iPad Air 2, the iPad Air, the iPad Mini 3, the iPad Mini 2 and the iPad Mini — the iPad Air 2 has the newest processor, which might help you squeeze an extra year out of it over one of the other models.

Don’t get too distracted by the iPad Air 2’s other specs, though. It’s thinner than the first iPad Air, yes, but we’re talking half of a tenth of an inch. It’s lighter, sure, but we’re talking 0.04 pounds for the Wi-Fi model. The big news here is the processor. The iPad Air 2 is also rumored to sport two gigabytes of RAM versus one gigabyte for all the other models, which should increase performance.

The iPad Air 2 has the fingerprint sensor that debuted with the iPhone 5S, which makes unlocking your iPad quick (assuming you lock it with a passcode) and lets you buy stuff from iTunes without typing in your password. You’ll also be able to log into certain third-party apps with your fingerprint as well.

Finally, the iPad Air 2 uses newer, thinner screen technology that makes colors pop a bit more. Apple added an anti-reflective coating as well. The front-facing camera is a little better than the previous model’s, and the Wi-Fi chip uses newer technology that allows it to connect to certain networks faster. Oh, and you can get it in gold (gold is best) and in a 128-gigabyte storage configuration.

iPad Air 2 ($499+) vs iPad Air ($399+)

iPad Air 2 v iPad Air
Apple

Step “down” to last year’s iPad Air, and you lose the gold option. You get a less efficient processor. The screen is still the same resolution, but there’s no antireflective coating. It’s marginally, marginally, marginally less thin and light. The front-facing camera is five megapixels instead of eight. There’s no fingerprint sensor. It doesn’t connect to certain superfast Wi-Fi networks as fast as the iPad Air 2 does. It might not have as much RAM.

On paper, Apple makes a somewhat convincing case for going with the iPad Air 2 over the iPad Air. In reality, what you’re giving up in order to save $100 might not be all that important. The iPad Air is still plenty fast, plenty thin and plenty light.

iPad Air ($399+) vs iPad Mini 3 ($399+)

iPad Air v iPad Mini 3
Apple

Now we’re going to basically step laterally to the iPad Mini 3, Apple’s newest iPad Mini model. Aside from it being smaller than the iPad Air models, under the hood, the iPad Mini 3 is almost identical to the iPad Air — all the way down to the $399 starting price. You do get the fingerprint sensor with the iPad Mini 3, the gold color option and the 128-gigabyte storage option. The processor, cameras, connections and just about everything else are the same.

iPad Mini 3 ($399+) vs iPad Mini 2 ($299+)

iPad Mini 3 v iPad Mini 2
Apple

Here’s where things get interesting. The iPad Mini 3 and the iPad Mini 2 share pretty much the exact same innards, except that the iPad Mini 3 has the fingerprint reader, the gold color option and the 128-gigabyte storage option. For $299, the iPad Mini 2 is on par with both the iPad Mini 3 and the iPad Air, which makes the iPad Mini 2 a great deal relative to the other available iPads. As long as you don’t care about the fingerprint reader, you’re okay with the space gray or silver options, and you don’t have enormous storage requirements, the iPad Mini 2 is arguably the best bang for your buck.

iPad Mini 2 ($299+) vs iPad Mini ($249+)

iPad Mini 2 v iPad Mini
Apple

Don’t fall for this one. You might save $50 by going with the original iPad Mini, but it’s got a much slower processor than all the other iPads and its screen is much lower-resolution. If ever you had a reason to cough up an extra $50, this is it. The iPad Mini at $250 allows Apple to offer an iPad that can kinda-sorta compete with low-cost Android tablets, except that any $250 Android tablet would almost certainly feature much more potent specs. This is half a marketing play by Apple (“iPad starts at $250!”) and half a chance to clear out leftover inventory of a two-year-old tablet.

If you’re looking for even more info, Apple has a handy iPad comparison page for your perusal.

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