Finding the perfect tablet
Tablets emerged into the mainstream in 2010 with the launch of the original iPad, and the market has since become flooded with dozens of these portable devices. Buyers today face a confusing landscape with tablet computer choices segmented by operating system (Apple iOS, Android and Windows) and size.
Tablet computers take two main forms -- convertible tablets and slates. Convertible tablets look like regular laptops, but the screen either swivels 360 degrees to transform the computer into a touch-screen tablet or detaches completely. Almost all convertible tablets, such as the Dell Inspiron i3147, run the Windows 8 operating system. For more information on these types of tablet computers, see our report on laptop computers.
Slates, on the other hand, get rid of the physical keyboard in favor of a virtual touch-screen keyboard. Slates are lighter than convertible tablets, but the touch-screen keyboard can make typing long documents a chore.
Tablet buyers have several decisions to make to find the right tablet for their needs.
Which operating system?
Three operating systems dominate the tablet marketplace:
iOS: The Apple iPad line -- including the new Apple iPad Air 2 (Est. $500 and up) and iPad mini 3 (Est. $300 and up) -- run Apple's iOS operating system, the same one used by the iPhone line. 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.
Android: 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. Google Play 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. However, many Android apps are optimized to look their best on smartphones and smaller tablets. While these apps will mostly work just fine on a larger tablet, they won't look quite as sharp or won't display full screen.
Android comes in lots of different flavors. Android 5.0 (code named Lollipop) is the latest version at the time of this report and reviews say it is the most polished version of the OS to date, with a more intuitive and attractive interface and improved performance. As is the norm with Android, roll out is slow and staged, with only a handful of devices -- including only some just-released tablets -- getting it initially, and with some slated to never receive the update at all. For now, the vast majority of tablets still use Android 4.4, code named KitKat. That's not necessarily a bad thing, as KitKat itself is considered stable and easy to use. Some cheap Android tablets still use Android 4.1, commonly known as Jelly Bean. Google has put together a history of Android page that explains the different versions of Android in more detail.
Very few tablets actually run the "stock" version of Android. Instead, manufacturers will put their own spin on things with different interfaces and functionalities -- though most are relatively minor.
Some manufacturers will take things further -- a lot further, in fact, to the point where the underlying Android operating system is barely recognizable. These "forked" versions of Android are created to give a manufacturer's devices unique features or restrictions not found elsewhere. Many "kids" tablets run a forked version of Android to create a child-safe "walled-garden" to play in, preventing -- in theory -- any exposure to parts of the Internet that parents deem to be undesirable. Amazon's Fire tablets also run a forked version of Android, in this case to create a more seamless user experience, albeit one tied tightly to Amazon's content products. Forked Android tablets can't access Google Play for app downloads. Instead, users must depend on independent App stores set up by the manufacturers.
Windows: Windows tablets also come in multiple versions. Windows RT was developed to run on the lower-powered processors found in Android and Apple slates. They can't run standard Windows applications -- only Windows Store apps -- and the selection pales compared to what's available under Apple or Android, though many Microsoft products, including a version of Office, are offered. Currently, the Microsoft Surface 2 (Est. $450 and up) is the only Windows RT tablet available.
Slates that run the full Windows 8.1 operating system are also available. These run more powerful processors, the Intel Atom or better, and can run Windows Store apps as well as any program that runs under Windows. That makes Windows tablets a good choice where productivity is important -- though any real productivity will also demand budgeting a little extra for an accessory keyboard.
What size tablet?
Slate 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 12-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.
How we made our recommendations
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 Air 2 reigns supreme
Although it's facing more competition than ever from Android slates by Google, Amazon, Samsung and others, as well as Windows slates running Windows 8.1, the latest-generation 9.7-inch iPad, dubbed the Apple iPad Air 2 (Est. $500 and up), remains the tablet computer to beat -- and it's not even close. Every review site that's laid its mitts on one has given it high ratings and heaps of praise. Those that do hands on reviews and testing are near unanimous in awarding it an Editors' Choice award or the equivalent. That includes CNET, Laptop Magazine, ComputerShopper.com, PCMag.com, HotHardware.com and more. TheVerge.com says that it is not only the best iPad ever, but the "best tablet ever made." Anandtech.com says "Overall, the iPad Air 2 is likely to be one of the only tablets worth buying on the market today."
That's not to say, however, that the iPad Air 2 is some revolutionary tablet. No, it's simply last year's iPad Air made better through small, albeit meaningful, tweaks. Those include a better processor (Apple's A8X), improved cameras, an anti-reflective screen, support for the latest 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard, and more. Business travelers that opt for a version with mobile data might appreciate the programmable SIM card that can be switched between multiple carriers. The iPad Air 2 is also thinner than last year's already incredibly thin iPad Air.
Other tweaks impact how you interact with the iPad Air 2 and your other Apple services and devices. The addition of Apple's Touch ID fingerprint identification for unlocking that tablet was expected and welcome. You can also use Touch ID for iTunes purchases and within apps for purchases from retailers and services that support Apple Pay. Reviewers say that iOS 8 is only a modest upgrade in most ways from the last version of the tablet's operating system, but the ability to hand-off calls between your iPhone and your iPad is one welcome addition. Handoff, also new, syncs Apple mobile devices with Apple laptops and desktops running OS X Yosemite, letting you work in certain Apple applications on one Apple device (iPhone, iPad, MacBook or iMac), and pick up right where you left of on another.
Laptop Magazine notes that the A8X processor promises to deliver 40 percent better performance overall, and 2.5 times better graphics performance. Benchmark testing is impressive, and real-world performance more so. The Asphalt 8 racing game delivered photo-realistic reflections on the cars and tracks, and I was blown away by the exploding glass during the slow-motion crashes," Mark Spoonauer says. However, CNET's Scott Stein notes that, while graphics designers and hard-core gamers will certainly appreciate the improved and more stable performance, "if you're a casual iPad user who's mainly streaming videos, reading, writing, and playing some games, you're probably not going to need the iPad Air 2's extra oomph." Battery life is better than average in Laptop Magazine's benchmark testing, but a little less than Apple's claim of 10 hours. Others say that it's about the same as earlier iPads.
As noted, the chief design aesthetic is the incredible thin profile -- roughly 18 percent thinner than its predecessor. " It's hard to believe that there's a computer back there, let alone a computer as powerful as the laptop computers of just a few years ago," says Nilay Patel at TheVerge.com. Also new this year is an available gold tone option (no extra charge). The well liked Retina display with its 2048-by-1536-pixel resolution is retained.
The killer app for the iPad Air 2 is literally its app ecosystem. Not everyone loves or even likes the immutable quirks of the iOS operating system and its insistence that you do things only Apple's way, or the iPad's tight integration to iTunes. But, there's no denying that the whole delivers a user experience that no other tablet can quite match, and no other platform offers the same breadth of tablet-optimized apps.
All of that, plus the iPad Air's impeccable build quality make the premium price of the iPad Air 2 a bit easier to swallow. Apple has held the line on pricing with this upgrade, and has included more storage in its step up versions (otherwise identical to the base version) -- 16 GB (Est. $500), 64 GB (Est. $600) and 128 GB (Est. $700). If you want mobile connectivity in addition to Wi-Fi, add $130 to those prices and don't forget to budget for carrier-access charges. When selecting your iPad Air 2 model, keep in mind that storage can't be added after purchase, and there's no memory card slot.
So, then, should you buy an iPad Air 2? If you own the last generation iPad Air, the answer is probably no. PCMag.com's Sascha Segan echo's the consensus when he says "there's not enough here to merit the cash outlay." For everyone else, however, the answer is most definitely yes. Compared to earlier generation iPads. "The drop in weight and improvement in Wi-Fi performance will blow your mind, and that's just to start," Segan says. Apple's continuing leg up in terms of tablet apps also give it a leg up on competing Android and Windows tablets.
While the iPad Air 2 is the "apple" of most reviewers' eyes, the last generation iPad Air remains available, and thanks to a price cut, is a viable choice for those who blanch a bit at the iPad Air 2's price tag, but still want to experience most of the advantages of that Apple tablet. It's still thin and fast, just not as thin and fast as the Air 2. You get full access to the full iPad ecosystem, including iOS 8 and the software enhancement it supports, such as Handoff, though not any features that are hardware specific to the Air 2, such as Touch ID. The iPad Air 2 is available in 16 GB (Est. $400) and 32 GB (Est. $450) versions; add $130 to those prices (plus the cost of service) if you want mobile access as well as Wi-Fi.
While reviewers have greeted the iPad Air 2 with cheers, the response to the also new 7.9-inch iPad mini 3 (Est. $400 and up) has been more muted. That's because it's virtually unchanged from the last-generation and still-available version, which has been renamed as the Apple iPad mini 2 (Est. $300 and up) and seen a $100 price cut. There's Touch ID, the programmable SIM (for those who opt for a version with mobile data (a $130 upcharge), and a new gold tone option, and that's pretty much it. That means that "the nearly identical and significantly cheaper iPad Mini 2 is a smarter buy," says CNET's Tim Stevens. Other reviewers agree: "New tablet buyers should snag the discounted-and-renamed iPad mini 2, one of our top picks for small-screen tablets, while existing mini 2 owners have very little reason to upgrade," says Eugene Kim at PCMag.com.
PCMag.com's testing reveals no surprises -- the iPad mini 2 and iPad mini 3 perform the same, competitive with the older iPad Air but leagues behind the newer iPad Air 2. "The tablet never felt slow in my tests, but it's disappointing to see the mini lag behind the larger iPad," Kim says.
The iPad mini 3 is available in 16 GB (Est. $400), 64 GB (Est. $500), and 128 GB (Est. $600) versions, in gold, silver and "space gray." The iPad mini 2 comes in 16 GB (Est. $300) and 32 GB (Est. $350) configurations, in silver and space gray. As with all iPads, in all generations and sizes, a step up to Wi-Fi plus cellular is $130 for all models, plus the cost of service.
Best Android tablets
Reviewers almost unanimously agree: If you want the best premium tablet experience, and have the budget to back that up, the Apple iPad Air 2 is the way to go. However, if you don't care to be locked into the Apple lifestyle, or for any other reason you prefer an Android tablet, the Samsung Galaxy Tab S is one heck of an alternative to the Air 2 reviews tell us.
The tablet is available in two similar versions, the 8.4-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab S 8.4 (Est. $400) and the 10.5-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab S 10.5 (Est. $500). Lots of reviewers look at both and, depending on preferences and predilections, like one or the other a little more, or both equally. PCMag.com gives the Galaxy Tab S 8.4 a half-star higher rating than its larger sibling, and an Editors' Choice award. Laptop Magazine, looks at both as well, but names the Galaxy Tab S 10.5 as the Best Android Tablet.
It's clear that Samsung was taking direct aim at what was then Apple's current flagship tablets with both of these Tab S models. They have bigger screens than their equivalent iPad competitors, and higher resolution (2,560 by 1,600 pixels). They use Super AMOLED technology that results in "breathtaking" image quality, says Laptop Magazine. Comments there and elsewhere also note that colors can be a little oversaturated, but most are willing to forgive that foible while allowing that some image purists might not.
Like the various iPad models, the Galaxy Tab S is incredibly thin -- both versions come in at just 0.26 inches. That puts the Galaxy Tab S 8.4 at just a hair thinner than the iPad mini 3 (which is .029 inches); it's a tiny bit lighter as well. Apple wins the thin spec race in the larger screen size, however, as the iPad Air 2 is just 0.24 inches thick.
Regardless of the version, performance is good, but not class leading. Both tablets use the same custom Exynos processor. It holds its own in performance benchmark tests conducted by most reviewers. Graphics performance is another story, however. It falls behind what's seen in some cheaper Android tablets and the iPad mini 2. "Low graphics frame rates made screen transitions a little gummy and meant this isn't the ideal tablet for high-end gaming," says Sascha Segan in PCMag.com's review of the Tab S 8.4. In grading the Tab S 10.5's performance, ComputerShopper.com comes to a similar conclusion. Melissa J. Perenson says: "For most tasks, we have little doubt the Galaxy Tab S will do well. But for graphics-intensive gaming, you can expect to see the occasional visual hiccup."
Battery life is good, especially considering the power needed to drive that high-res display. Results vary depending on who is doing the testing and the specific benchmark used, but ComputerShopper.com sees it slightly outlasting the iPad mini 2, and outlasting some Android competitors by a bit more. "If you're reasonably careful about how you use the tablet, you won't struggle to get at least a day of use," says CNET's Andrew Hoyle.
The biggest downside to the Galaxy Tab S is Android. That mobile OS allows for far more user customization, but the other side of that double-edge sword is also a more challenging interface to master. Samsung overlays its own TouchWiz interface over the native Android KitKat OS (no Lollipop here, yet). TouchWiz has its critics -- especially among purists who detest messing with the stock Android interface -- but ComputerShopper.com notes that it's become a little less "blunt" over the years. "Samsung's changes are both subtle and overt, and most help enhance the experience," Perenson says. .
As noted earlier, Google's app store falls short of Apple's, and the gap is wider when it comes to tablet-optimized choices. That's less of an issue with the Tab S 8.4 as apps originally designed to display on a 4- to 6-inch smartphone screen won't have to be scaled nearly as much for an 8.4-inch screen as they would for a 10.5-inch screen. Samsung also bundles a bunch of proprietary apps of varying usefulness (and redundancy compared to what's also available via Google Play) and offers an app store of its own.
The design takes its cues from Samsung's popular line of Galaxy S smartphones. "The Galaxy Tab is clearly the product of the same design team that worked on the Galaxy S5 as it's easy to spot similarities between the two products," CNET's Hoyle says. The use of plastic rather than aluminum, as in the iPad, gives the Tab S less of a solid feel. Still, Samsung tends to fare well in user reviews, with relatively few durability complaints. Two colors are available: titanium bronze and white.
The base Tab S comes with 16 GB of storage, plus there's a microSD memory card slot for adding more. The Galaxy Tab S 10.5 also comes in a 32 GB version (Est. $550); a 32 GB version of the Tab S 8.4 is available elsewhere, but we've not seen it offered in the U.S. If you want cellular as well as Wi-Fi connectivity, locked versions of this tablet are available from carriers such as AT&T and Verizon, but command a premium of between $100 and $130.
The Google Nexus 9 (Est. $400 and up) is among the first tablets to run Android 5.0, commonly known as Lollipop. Reviews have been decidedly mixed, however. Price is a concern -- especially considering the company's recent history in providing terrific tablet values, such as the discontinued Google Nexus 7. "Had Google arrived with a $299 price point for its 8.9-inch tablet -- obviously bigger and badder than a Nexus 7, but still inexpensive -- it would be easier to overlook the various flaws we found in our testing," says Sam Machkovech at ArsTechnica.com.
However, one of those flaws isn't this tablet's raw performance. "Its cutting-edge Nvidia Tegra K1 Denver chip is a charging bull, ready to smash through any task," CNET reports. Instead, it's one of polish as everything seems just a touch rough around the edges.
On paper, the display looks terrific; in real life, not so much. The 2,048 by 1,536 pixel display is done in a bit by poor brightness and colors that are no better than average. "In side-by-side comparisons with the iPad Air 2 and the Fire HDX 8.9, HD video looked more colorful and detailed on both the Apple and Amazon tablets," CNET's Xiomara Blanco says. TechRadar.com concurs: "The Nexus 9 is, frankly, uninspiring. The display quality watching HD movies isn't impressive and nothing gave me that 'wow' factor like the first time I saw a QHD screen on a phone," says Matt Swider. Swider also complains about a "minor, but noticeable backlight bleeding around the bezel," and we saw similar complaints elsewhere.
Android's Lollipop is new and feature rich. However, it's still undergoing some typical early-release glitches. Commenting on those -- such as lag, crashing apps or unexpected restarts -- Blanco says "It's reasonable to believe that a fair share of the bugginess I encountered, despite the tablet's state-of-the-art specs, is because Android 5.0 is a fresh bun out of the oven and not all apps are seamlessly compatible with it."
The design of the Nexus 9 draws some kudos from most reviewers, though even fans call it "minimalist" or "boring, but not ugly." It's thin and light, but both Apple and Samsung beat it in that spec race, at least by a little. Build quality draws a few frowns, however. DigitalTrends.com awards it one of this tablet's few Editors Choice honors, but still grouses a bit about it being flimsy. The back of the tablet is not designed to be removed, yet ArsTechnica.com noticed a "gap between the Nexus 9's backing and its guts," with quite a bit of flex evident on the back panel. However, as an indication that build issue may vary greatly between units, CNET says that this "HTC-manufactured device has a clean and streamlined look, complete with sturdy, quality construction." Color options currently are black or white.
The base model of the Nexus 9 has 16 GB of storage. A step up version with 32 GB of storage (Est. $480) is also offered. A version with LTE mobile in addition to Wi-Fi is promised, but unreleased at the time of this update. There's no memory card slot, so the memory you select at purchase can't be augmented.
Today, virtually every Windows slate tablet or convertible laptop runs the full Windows 8.1 operating system. We cover some convertible laptops that can function as a slate, but do a better job as a laptop, in our report on laptops. However, some Windows 8.1 tablets are most definitely slates first.
One obvious choice in this category is the 12-inch Microsoft Surface Pro 3 (Est. $800 and up). Not to be confused with the Surface tablet, this is a full-fledged Windows 8.1 device powered by a fourth-generation Intel Core processor. The base version comes with an Intel Core i3 processor, 64 GB of storage and 4 GB of RAM. Other configurations with more powerful processors, more memory and more storage are available, all the way to a top of the line version (Est. $1,950) that ships with an Intel Core i7 processor, 512 GB of storage and 8 GB of memory.
Microsoft likes to position the Surface as a substitute for a laptop, however the keyboard is an optional accessory (the Surface Pro Type Cover) and tacks around $130 on to the price of the tablet. Reviews are generally good, though most say that the Surface Pro 3 misses Microsoft's goal of being one device to fill two needs. "While the new Surface Pro 3 is Microsoft's best PC to date, it's more successful as a tablet than a laptop replacement," says CNET's Dan Ackerman. Anand Lal Shimpi at Anandtech.com agrees: "Like most compromises, Surface Pro 3 isn't the world's best laptop nor is it the world's best tablet."
Windows also makes a version of its operating system intended strictly for slates. However, Windows RT is hobbled by the dearth of available apps in the Windows Store, and unlike Windows 8.1 slates, it can't run standard Windows applications. That has reduced the selection of Windows RT tablets to exactly one -- the Microsoft Surface Pro 2 (Est. $450 and up). Experts say that it is greatly improved over the original Surface, but the lack of a great library of apps in the Windows Store makes it difficult to recommend. Also, keep in mind that you can buy convertible tablets, such as the Dell Inspiron i3147, for less. That laptop features a great touch screen and trick hinge that converts the laptop into a highly usable, albeit heavy, tablet -- and it runs the full Windows 8.1 operating system. You can learn more about that convertible tablet/laptop in our report on laptops.