For many people, smartphones, laptops, or desktop computers can meet any day-to-day “computing” needs. Whether sending emails, creating content, or just browsing the far reaches of the internet, any of these devices usually do the trick. However, some users need portability combined with an experience that is a bit larger than a smartphone. That’s where tablets come in.
Tablets have long been criticized for falling in this weird middle ground where users can’t quite figure out how they fit into their daily usage patterns. But they do serve well for folks with niche needs, and for those who prefer a comfortable, portable, or versatile experience. If you find yourself in the market for a tablet, there’s a handful of options that rise above as the best of the best.
Best Overall: Apple iPad (2017)
While Android tablets and Windows tablets have crowded the market, iPad arguably still has the largest appeal when it comes to tablets.
The Apple iPad (2017) is a great choice for those that want an iPad but don’t need all the bells and whistles the Pro model would net you.
Best build quality you can get: As with pretty much every Apple product, you can expect a superior build quality with the 2017 iPad. It’s thin, it’s light, and no detail has been forgotten. However, don’t mistake the good looks for durability. If you plan on letting your kids use the device, you’ll want to invest in a protective case.
Beautiful screen: In the latest refresh of the iPad, the screen received a boost in brightness of 25 percent from the previous generation. That might not sound like a lot, but its certainly enough to notice when compared side to side. This model retains the 9.7″ form factor with a retina display resolution of 2,048×1,536. Bottom line, this is an excellent device for bingeing Netflix or looking at pictures shot on your iPhone. But don’t take pictures with the iPad — just don’t do it.
Battery life: Apple claims the larger battery in this new model will get you about 10 hours of constant video playback, and multiple battery tests have proved that’s actually quite accurate. If you’ve used an iPad before, you also know that the standby time is even more impressive, draining only small amounts while it rests on your desk or in your bag.
Productivity isn’t in the name: While the iPad is a joy to use when you want to watch movies, entertain your kids, play games, or browse the internet, it certainly doesn’t shine when it comes to productivity. On the upside, you have iOS 11 which improves multitasking with the new persistent dock at the bottom of the screen. However, unless you want to spend an extra $300, you won’t be taking hand-written notes or using Apple’s proprietary keyboard.
Best Budget: Amazon Fire HD 8
Almost as popular as the iPad is Amazon’s line of Fire tablets. Initially released with a focus on reading, the Fire tablets have transcended into well-rounded devices that are great for anyone in the family. They’re incredibly affordable with the Fire HD 8 starting at only $79, yet they perform well for playing games, browsing, and, well, reading. If you’re looking for something easy to pick up that isn’t going break the bank, this might be for you.
Affordable: At only $79, the Fire HD 8 is a great tablet at an even better price. At this price point, the Fire HD 8 is a great device to give as a gift, or gift to yourself and not be struck with buyer’s remorse.
Great for Kids: Coming back to the price point, the Fire HD 8 is great for kids. Think about it. Kids are rough on devices, which means they are likely to break their shiny new tablet. Fortunately, for a lot of people, $79 isn’t too tough to replace should that happen. Amazon also has a great selection of kids apps available, and the smaller size makes the device easier for little hands to handle.
Battery Life: Given its smaller screen size, and modest computing power, the Fire HD 8 has great battery life. In fact, Amazon claims the tablet has up to 12 hours of mixed-use battery life.
Not the Most Powerful: Keeping the device at such a low price point means that sacrifices must be made. For basic day-to-day use, the Fire HD 8 will get the job done. Browsing Facebook, watching videos on Hulu, or reading books will all come with ease. However, if you’re looking for a device that is going to play intensive games, you might want to turn another rock.
Amazon Apps are Limited: Another downside to going with the Amazon ecosystem is that you’ll be limited in the number of apps you’ll have access to. Even though the Fire HD 8 runs a heavily-skinned version of Android, you won’t be venturing to the Google Play store for your apps. The library of apps has grown in the years that the Fire tablets have been around, but you still won’t find many popular apps, including Google’s entire suite of work apps — Drive, Docs, Sheets, etc.
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Most Versatile: Microsoft Surface Pro
Convenience is one of the most aspirational aspects of any piece of technology. And how convenient would it be if your tablet could also be your work machine? How convenient would it be to lay back on the couch and watch a movie on your tablet and seamlessly transition to editing photos and building presentations all on one device? Well, with the Surface Pro line of tablet/computer hybrids, these are very much real-world scenarios.
When Microsoft released the original Surface, it was met with harsh criticism and for good reason. You couldn’t download anything outside of the Windows app store, the battery life was poor, and overall the device just wasn’t ready. Fast forward to today, the Surface Pro is not only one of the best tablets around, it’s one of the best laptops around. It’s powerful, it’s capable, and it’s most of all versatile.
It's powerful, it's capable, and it's most of all versatile.
Extremely Versatile: The selling feature of the Microsoft Surface Pro is that you can transform it from a tablet to a laptop, by simply connecting the magnetic keyboard. Doing so takes the device into desktop mode, giving you access to a complete Windows interface. Disconnecting the keyboard will put you back into tablet mode which is ideal for when you’re lounging around.
Incredible Stylus Support: The Surface Pen that is included with the Surface Pro isn’t your average run of the mill stylus. Connected by bluetooth, and charging magnetically from the tablet itself, the Surface Pen has over 4,000 levels of pressure sensitivity, tilt support for shading, and a low response time to make drawing and writing feel natural.
Peripheral support: Since the Microsoft Surface doubles as a laptop when you need it to, it comes with enough ports, and the option to add on accessories to allow you to do much more with the device. Unlike pretty much any other tablet you can buy, the Surface can be connected to a secondary monitor, have external hard drives plugged in, a keyboard connected, etc. So, if you need it to be, this can be your tablet on the go, and your workstation when you’re at home.
Base model lacks power: In the latest update, Microsoft introduced the Intel Core m3 model of the Surface with only 4GB of ram and 128GB of storage. Five years or so ago, that wouldn’t have been half bad, but now in 2018, it’s not the most impressive set of specs. If you plan on doing any gaming, video editing, or other intensive tasks, you might want to look at upgrading to one of the more powerful models.
Killer features not by default: Unfortunately, what makes the Surface Pro a great tablet/laptop choice doesn’t come included in the box. Whereas the Surface Pen used to be part of the unboxing experience, you’ll now have to shell out an extra $100. On the upside, there are a handful of colors to choose from now. And, if you want to connect the Type Cover, that’ll be another $160.
No USB-C ports: Remember when everyone complained about USB-C ports? Well now we’re complaining about devices not having them, and the Microsoft Surface is included in that. So, with many peripherals moving in the direction of USB-C, it won’t be long before you’re having to pull out adapters to connect things like hard drives, monitors, etc.
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Best for Drawing: iPad Pro 10.5
Though the “regular” iPad took the slot for the best overall tablet, Apple’s iPad Pro 10.5″ also makes our list for the being the best tablet for drawing. When Apple introduced the iPad Pro at 12.9″, it was met with a little resistance as being just too damn big. Though it was great for people who bought it just for drawing, it was pretty hard to use a typical tablet. Enter the 10.5″ model.
At more than 2″ less screen, the 10.5″ model is much easier to handle, just as powerful, and a joy to use. Especially for creators who want to take their device on the go, this tablet is one that is worth considering. With the impressive stylus support and the ability to attach Apple’s proprietary keyboard, this is a real contender.
More powerful than the traditional iPad: For the additional $300, you not only get a bigger, better screen, but you also get the upgraded A10X chip. The A10X chip brings a very significant boost in processing power when compared to its non-pro sibling. Some benchmarks show its single-core at about 20 percent higher. What this means is that you’ll be able to take advantage of some of the more pro-grade apps, such as Adobe Lightroom, with ease. What’s more impressive is that the iPad Pro 10.5″ A10x chip actually outscores older MacBooks. If you’re looking for horsepower, look no further.
Apple Pencil: The iPad Pro’s performance also enables buttery smooth drawing, note taking and more with the Apple Pencil. Like the Surface Pro, the Apple Pencil doesn’t come in the box and will cost you a few extra bucks (more than a few), but it’s almost senseless to have one without the other. The Apple Pencil can detect various levels of pressure to influence how thick your lines are. You can also shade your drawings by tilting the Apple Pencil, and with the iPad Pro’s palm rejection technology, and 120hz refresh rate, drawing feels much more natural than other tablets that have traditional stylus support.
Improved iOS 11: Since the majority of people who are interested in this device are looking for it to become a productivity machine, you might be happy to know that iOS 11 was optimized for just that. No, you still can’t arrange your icons however you want or find mouse support, but there a few neat new features to consider. You’ll notice that iOS 11 on iPad now has a persistent dock at the bottom of the screen that contains icons for your most recent apps, as well as apps of your own choosing. Split screen mode and app switching have also been improved, all with intention of making this device better for multitasking.
Still a bit big: Let’s say you’re interested in the iPad Pro’s drawing capabilities, but you also want to use it lounge around and watch movies. Unfortunately, at 10.5″ the device is still unwieldy if you’re trying to one-hand it while scrolling through Facebook, reading an article flipping through recipes.
Charging the Apple Pencil is…weird: Unlike the Microsoft Surface’s pen, the Apple Pencil doesn’t attach to the tablet in any sort of way which also means there isn’t really any passive charging. So, how do you charge the Pencil? Well, you remove the magnetic pen tip to reveal a lighting plug which is then inserted into the tablet itself. Yes, that’s correct. You now have a pen sticking out of your iPad and you have to deal with that long enough for it to charge.
Best Android Tablet: Samsung Galaxy Tab S3
So far, we’ve shown you a Windows 2-in-1 with the Surface Pro, and an Apple hybrid (I guess) with the iPad Pro. But, what about Android? Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. Android has by far the most tablet selections on the market, but to be frank, most of them aren’t worth considering. However, if you’re willing to pay for it, Samsung has a great option for you.
The Samsung Galaxy Tab S3, like its smartphone counterparts, is built from the ground up with quality in mind. It has a beautiful design, capable internals, stylus support and an impressive screen. If you’re looking for an Android tablet that can be what you need it to be, when you need it to be, this is probably your best bet.
Solid build quality: Like you will find in Samsung’s latest smartphones, the Galaxy Tab S3 has a metal and glass build which feels incredible in the hand. Though it may collect fingerprints, the glossy glass back on the tablet gives the device a premium look and feel. At 9.7″ this tablet is also a bit easier to handle in one hand than both the Surface Pro and the iPad Pro.
The beloved S Pen: For those familiar with Samsung’s Note line of smartphones, you know what the S Pen is all about. However, with the Tab S3, the S Pen gets a bump in size, making it easier to wield, feeling much more like a normal pen. Samsung also likes to tout how fine the S Pen’s nib is, which measures in at only 0.7 mm. With the tip of the stylus being so small, accurate drawing and note taking are much more attainable. The S Pen also has the exact same pressure sensitivity as the Microsoft Surface pen at 4,096.
More speakers, more sound: One thing that none of the tablets on our list have is front-facing speakers. You might recall the partnership between Samsung and AKG when they released the Galaxy S8 smartphone. Well, that partnership has also found its way into the Tab S3 with its quad-speaker array — one speaker on each corner of the device. What’s more, the speaker output has the ability to automatically adapt to the position of which the tablet is being held so you get the best experience in portrait or landscape mode.
No Oreos for you: Unfortunately, the Galaxy Tab S3 is yet to receive the Android Oreo software update. While there really aren’t many UI differences that you would notice, since Samsung has its own skin on top anyway, there are some under-the-hood improvements that you will be missing out on with the lack of Oreo. That includes battery optimization and enhanced notification handling.
Keyboard isn’t quite there: Though the keyboard isn’t part of the tablet proper, it is a pretty crucial accessory if you want to get the most out of what has been designed to be a productivity device. Unfortunately, if you’re like others, you might be a bit underwhelmed with the keyboard once you have it attached. It’s a bit small, but that’s to be expected when typing with a tablet, I suppose. However, the tablet and keyboard combination also doesn’t offer any sort of adjustment when it comes to the angle at which the device sits. This isn’t the best for ergonomics, and it pretty much eliminates the possibility of typing with the tablet on your lap.
Best Tablets — Wrap Up
If you’re looking for a Netflix machine or a full-blown two-in-one workstation, there are certainly a number of options from which you can choose. You have your high-end with the Surface Pro, and your low-end with the Amazon Fire HD 8. What it really comes down to is what you value most in a tablet. Is it portability? Is it expandability or versatility? Or, is it sheer horsepower and the desire to create? Whatever it is, we hope our list here today will help you narrow down your selection.
Didn’t see what you would consider to be one of the best tablets? Let us know about it in the comments below!