The Apple iPad line runs Apple's iOS operating system, the same one used by the iPhone. It provides a seamless user experience, albeit one that's less customizable than what's possible under Android or Windows. The iTunes store still offers the largest library of apps, and that advantage is even more pronounced when it comes to apps optimized to run on a tablet's larger (compared to a smartphone) screen.
While the tablet landscape is segmented by operating system, Android tablets are segmented further still. That's because Android is a more open operating system, with manufacturers able to modify it to a great degree to fit their devices and to add (or subtract) features. Some manufacturers take things to an extreme, creating custom interfaces that are barely recognizable as Android, and relying on their own app store rather than Google Play. The Amazon Fire tablets are perhaps the best-known example of these. These app stores are smaller than Google play, which itself still trails Apple's iTunes in terms of the sheer number of available apps, but the gap is small, and except for some specialized apps, it's getting tougher and tougher to find a mainstream or even offbeat app that doesn't come in flavors that run on both Apple and Android devices. Android tablets generally cost less than comparable Apple iPads -- just $200 for our full-size, Best Reviewed Android tablet, for example.
Parents looking for a good tablet for a child are faced with a dilemma -- finding one that delivers a satisfying experience without exposing young ones to the seamier side of the Internet. Many "kids'" tablets run a heavily modified version of Android to create a child-safe "walled garden" to play in. In theory, this prevents any exposure to parts of the Internet that parents deem to be undesirable, though sometimes at the expense of performance and value. Another alternative is a standard tablet, but one that offers robust parental controls.
While Apple and Android tablets can be used for productivity, if a tablet for work is a top priority, a Windows tablet can make sense. These run more powerful processors (usually the Intel Atom) and can run any program that runs under Windows. There's a Windows app store as well, but the selection pales compared to what you'll find for Apple or Android.
Tablets come in a host of screen sizes, from around 7 inches to more than 20 inches. They can be broken down by size, with those that are roughly 9 inches or more considered large tablets, and those below that considered small. The very largest tablets are intended for use on a coffee table or conference table for collaborative work or play. More commonly, tablets in the 9- to 10-inch range are ideally sized for consuming media, such as high-definition movies, while sitting on a sofa or in an easy chair. Smaller tablets are usually less expensive than their large-screen counterparts and are perfectly sized to be used when held in one hand -- more comfortable for reading in bed, and more practical for strap-hanging commuters.
So which tablet is best for you? To help answer that question, we look at the best available advice from expert reviewers such as CNET, PCMag.com, Laptop Magazine and many more. We then cross-check those reviews with feedback from tablet users. To find the best choices, we rate tablets in important categories including performance, ease of use and features to find the ones most likely to please and to determine which models more often disappoint. The result is our Best Reviewed recommendations, along with some other tablets that are very much worth considering.
The Apple iPad Pro simply blows away all other tablets in tests. Laptop magazine joins the chorus of reviewers that say, in short, that it's "the best tablet money can buy." Specifically, testers (and owners) love the Apple iPad Pro 9.7 (Est. $600 and up). "A near-perfect balance of tablet power and portability," CNET calls it. Although some may prefer the bigger screen, 12.9-inch Apple iPad Pro 12.9 (Est. $800 and up), experts recommend the easier-to-tote 9.7-inch version for most people.
Physically, the iPad Pro 9.7 is identical to the wafer-thin Apple iPad Air 2 (Est. $400 and up) -- only with a better screen, better sound, better camera and faster processor, all without sacrificing a single drop of battery life (expect up to 10 hours). The iPad Pro models work with the Apple Pencil (Est. $100), too, which other iPads don't.
But be that as it may, if the iPad Pro is too pricey, one of Apple's cheaper iPads remains very much worth considering. In expert testing, they still deliver a better experience than most Android tablets.
For half the price of the iPad Pro 9.7, the iPad Air 2 "is more than good enough for most people," TheSweethome.com says. If you need something smaller, experts recommend the 7.9-inch Apple iPad Mini 4 (Est. $400 and up).
Apple backs its iPads with a one-year warranty, and iPads break down less often than any other tablet. Only 6 percent needed repair within the first two years, according to a leading consumer organization's survey of more than 85,000 tablet owners.
There is one caveat to the above comments. At press time there were unconfirmed rumors that Apple would be releasing updated iPad models in the spring of 2017. See "What's to come" in our buying guide for more details.
Reviewers almost unanimously agree: If you want the best premium tablet experience, and have the budget to back that up, the Apple iPad is the way to go. However, if you prefer an Android tablet, reviews say the Nvidia Shield K1 (Est. $200) is your best bet.
The K1 "is the tablet to buy if you're looking for the near-perfect balance of value, power, features and looks," TechRadar.com says. It's a PCMag.com Editors' Choice, a customer favorite at BestBuy.com, and experts' favorite Android tablet at TheWirecutter.com and AnandTech.com (although both of those last two sites still prefer the iPad overall).
Originally designed for gaming, the K1 turns out to be the best Android tablet for just about everyone. Unlike most other Android tablets, the K1 runs a clean version of Android (minus the bloatware and clunky "extras" that other manufacturers layer on), and Nvidia updates it often. Testers enjoy brisk web browsing and stutter-free movies on the K1's 8-inch screen. Gaming works extremely well: The K1 can stream games (and even stream them to your TV), or you can run a game on your Nvidia graphics-equipped PC and stream it to the tablet. You'd never know the K1 was a gaming tablet just by looking at it, though -- it's a simple, subdued, slightly thick black slate.
By contrast, the flashier Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 8 (Est. $350) does "its best impression of an iPad," TechRadar.com says. It flaunts a super-slim body and a "luscious -- yes, luscious" 8-inch screen, PCMag.com says. There's even a big-screen version, the Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 9.7 (Est. $500), that looks an awful lot like an iPad Air.
Owners like the Galaxy Tab S2: It gets strong ratings at both BestBuy.com and Amazon.com. But the Tab S2 still lags behind the aging iPad Air 2 in both speed and battery life, according to a November 2016 TechRadar.com test of the latest version (with Snapdragon 652 processor). Meanwhile, the Nvidia Shield K1 goes "blazing past" the Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 in PCMag.com's performance tests. "It mimics the iPad Air 2," TechRadar.com sums up the Samsung Galaxy Tab S2, "but not in enough areas." Both the Nvidia and Samsung tablets carry one-year warranties.
You can find tons of cheap, $100-or-less tablets for sale. Unfortunately, most are frustratingly bad. The Amazon Fire HD 8 (Est. $70 and up) is one of the very, very few exceptions. "A cheap tablet that's actually good," CNET cheers. It's sturdy, fast, easy to use -- but there's a catch, and it's a big one.
Amazon Fire tablets technically run on Android OS, but Fire users can't officially access the Google Play store (as with many things tech, there are workarounds for that limitation, but you'll need to search for those on your own. Instead, you buy apps from the Amazon app store, which is more limited (no Microsoft Office, for example). One plus is Amazon Underground, which offers entertainment and productivity apps for free -- even in-app purchases are free.
Still, critics point out, the Fire's target audience simply wants a tablet for streaming TV and movies, playing games and browsing the Internet. The Fire HD 8 works perfectly for that. And if you already own a bunch of Amazon content, the Fire HD 8 makes it seamlessly easy to access it all -- and, of course, buy more.
"If you've used an iPad before, you'll feel it's a step down," CNET's David Carnoy warns. But consider this: You could buy three Amazon Fire HD 8s for the price of the cheapest iPad. The Fire HD 8 has a pretty good 8-inch screen and speakers, impressive battery life, and you can talk to Alexa on it (Amazon's Siri-like digital assistant). The battery takes forever to charge (well, six hours), and the camera's lousy. But overall, "despite some small drawbacks, you just won't find a tablet with these features and performance at this price," Carnoy says. Owners are satisfied: The Fire HD 8 earns 4.4 out of 5 stars, over more than 26,000 reviews at Amazon.com.
There is an even cheaper option: the Amazon Fire (Est. $50 and up). For its "jaw-droppingly low" price, ComputerShopper.com says, it does everything its big brother the Fire HD 8 can do.
Does it do it as well? No. The cheap Fire's smaller 7-inch screen is standard-def. Its speaker is mono. Battery life is shorter.
"Is it a good tablet? No. Is it good for a cheap tablet? Yes," CNET concludes. In fact, a child-tailored version is our top pick for kids (see below). And again, owners like it: It earns a score of 4.2 stars at Amazon.com, with more than 109,000 reviews posted. Both the Fire and Fire HD 8 carry 90-day warranties -- much shorter than the one-year industry standard.
Amazon has nailed it, reviews say. The Amazon Fire Kids Edition (Est. $100) is a real, grown-up tablet that's just about childproof.
Seriously, childproof. It comes encased in a thick, squishy rubber bumper, and Amazon's two-year, worry-free guarantee promises to replace the tablet if it malfunctions or breaks, "no questions asked."
This is a real tablet, not a toy, which sets it a bit apart from other kids tablets. It's built around a full-fledged Amazon Fire (discussed above, in our section on cheap tablets).
The Kids Edition costs more than the regular Fire, because it includes more. Besides the kidproof case and much more robust warranty, the Kids Edition creates a walled, child-safe garden for kids to play in. Parents can set up as many as four separate kid and adult profiles, designating in advance what content each person can or cannot access. Web browsing and app purchasing are disabled in kids' profiles, and parents can set up time limits for various activities, such as game playing or video watching.
One year of Amazon's FreeTime Unlimited service completes the picture. Geared to kids aged 3 to 12, that offers unlimited access to age-appropriate games, educational apps, books, TV shows and movies, including content from Disney, Nickelodeon, PBS and more. Once the year expires, subscriptions run $4.99 per month ($2.99 for Amazon Prime members) for one child or $9.99 ($6.99 for Prime) for up to four children.
No other kids' tablet comes even remotely close in reviews. The Amazon Fire Kids Edition racks up awards at Laptop Magazine, Macworld, TechRadar.com and DigitalTrends.com, is a customer favorite at BestBuy.com, and earns 4.1 out of 5 stars at Amazon.com, with more than 18,000 reviews posted. We did see several 1-star reviews, complaining that the Fire Kids Edition stopped holding a charge. But other owners point out that if that happens, Amazon's worry-free guarantee will cover it.
Today, virtually every Windows slate tablet or convertible laptop runs the full Windows 10 operating system. We cover some convertible laptops that can function as a slate in our report on laptops. However, some Windows tablets are most definitely slates first.
The runaway favorite in this category is the 12-inch Microsoft Surface Pro 4 (Est. $700 and up). Microsoft offers it as a true laptop substitute: The base version comes with an Intel Core m3 processor, 128 GB of storage and 4 GB of RAM, all the way to a top-of-the line version (Est. $1,850) that ships with an Intel Core i7 processor, 512 GB of storage and 16 GB of memory.
Reviews are mostly glowing. Experts and owners find the Surface Pro 4 powerful, quick and elegantly designed, with a wonderfully responsive touch screen and stylus. However, the keyboard is an optional accessory (the Surface Pro Type Cover) and tacks $130 onto the price of the tablet. Also, the Surface Pro 4 carries a one-year warranty -- but Microsoft tablets have a dismal repair record in one major consumer survey of more than 85,000 tablet owners. One out of every five Microsoft tablets broke within the first two years, the survey reports.
To find the best tablets overall, we first gathered expert reviews from dedicated tech-testing organizations, including ConsumerReports.org, PCMag.com, CNET, Laptop Magazine, TheWirecutter.com, ComputerShopper.com and AnandTech.com. Helpfully, some of our sources delve deeper to judge the best tablets for kids (ConsumerReports.org, TechRadar.com, Laptop Magazine, DigitalTrends.com and Macworld). Rich sources of owner feedback are Amazon.com and BestBuy.com, which have amassed thousands -- in some cases, more than 100,000 -- reviews of popular tablets.