Types of Tablets
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
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.
What size tablet?
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.
Finding the best tablets
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.
Apple iPad Pro 9.7:
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 (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
By contrast, the flashier (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 (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.
the best cheap tablets
You can find tons of cheap, $100-or-less tablets for sale. Unfortunately,
most are frustratingly bad. The (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 (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.
Fire Kids Edition: Kid tested, parent approved
Amazon has nailed it, reviews say. The (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
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.
tablets for work
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 (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
Expert & User Review Sources
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.