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 (Est. $400), 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.
Elsewhere in this report:
Best Tablets: Looking for the best tablets you can buy? We discuss top performing, premium tablets from Apple, Samsung and more.
Best Cheap Tablets: Low price doesn't have to mean low performance. Editors discuss small tablets that score big.
Best Tablets for Kids: Just because a tablet is child-safe, doesn't mean it needs to be a toy. These kid-friendly tablets will fill the bill for parents and youngsters.
Buying Guide: Not sure what matters when picking out a tablet? Editors spell out the key considerations to steer you in the right direction.
Our Sources: Editors look at reviews from top experts and hundreds of users to weed out the best tablets from the also-rans. These are the sources we relied on to make our picks.