The Best Tablet
Finding the right tablet for you
Our Favorite Pick
Apple iPad Air 2
So, you’ve decided to buy a tablet. Awesome! Now, there’s only one (rather large) hurdle left to jump: Which one?
As you may have noticed, there are plenty — and I mean plenty — of models to choose from. I know which features and specs are important to me, but to determine the best tablet for the masses, I consulted with industry professionals, scoured online reviews, and investigated all sorts of consumer interests and use cases.
After a month’s worth of said research, the answer is clear: Apple’s iPad Air 2 is the best all-around tablet you can buy. Why? It has an incredibly lightweight design, enough power to survive several years’ worth of software updates, and the most robust selection of apps on the market.
The iPad Air 2 isn’t the best choice for absolutely everyone, though. There are plenty of options that are more suitable for other types of lifestyles and age groups. Keep on reading and you’ll find a selection of top tablets for kids, businesspeople, students, folks on a budget, and more.
How we chose the best tablet
I began my search by visiting 22 online tech and research publications I’ve grown to trust through years of experience at Engadget. I spent close to 30 hours scrutinizing their reviews, polls, comments, and reader reviews. I also dug through hundreds of customer reviews from four of the top online retailers and spoke with a couple of industry professionals.
During my research, I developed a list of key selling points and features for tablets by poring over customer reviews and interviewing everyday people with everyday needs. The going trend is that tablets are marketed as productivity devices (cue the awkward Surface Pro 3 commercial), but what I discovered is that most people still use them primarily to surf the web, play games, engage in social media, and keep up with email. That said, it made sense for the best tablet to have:
- a great selection of quality apps
- a user-friendly and intuitive operating system
- enough power to stay speedy and relevant for several years’ worth of updates
- a beautiful display
- a lightweight design that’s comfortable for both children and adults
Based on those parameters, it didn’t take long to whittle my selection of 23 tablets down to the top five most qualified contenders. Then I loaded my favorite apps onto each one, set my laptop and smartphone aside, and proceeded to spend an entire week testing the heck out of said tablets (in fact, I wrote much of this article on them). The result? My research was confirmed: Apple’s iPad Air 2 was the victor.
Other tablets to consider
The best tablet for kids
Nabi DreamTab HD
Parents are looking for three main things in a tablet for their children: durability, affordability, and a generous selection of educational apps. I give the nabi DreamTab HD8 a thumbs up in each respect: It’s under $200, well-built, and brimming with free content from DreamWorks — though some users actually complained about the amount of free Shrek and Kung Fu Panda content by saying it felt redundant and pushy. Otherwise, the slate averages 4.3 stars on BestBuy.com, and most of the comments I read praised its Dream Pro Studio drawing application and repertoire of creative software.
Despite being a “child’s tablet,” the HD8 has the display and processing power of an upper mid-range device — it’s powerful enough to placate both toddlers and preteens. Additionally, it comes with several intuitive parental controls like Chore List, a feature that manages your child’s playtime based on completed chores. Neat, right? Another solid sub-$200 option is the Amazon Fire HD 6 Kids Edition: it performs exceptionally well and features its own “kids mode” called Amazon FreeTime that’s full of exclusive content.
The best Android tablet
Google Nexus 9
The Nexus 9 is the best tablet for Android lovers, by far. It’s the first slate in 2015 to run the newest version of the operating system (Android 5.0 Lollipop), which means it has a fresh new look called Material Design. No other tablet better integrates Google’s bevy of apps and services (Gmail, Chrome, Google Drive, YouTube, et cetera).
I found the Nexus 9 to be quite sturdy and comfortable in the hand. And when it comes to overall performance, it’s second only to the iPad Air 2. Typing, launching apps, swiping through home screens, playing games — everything is lightning fast.
The best Windows 8 tablet
Microsoft Surface Pro 3
If you prefer all things Microsoft, the Surface Pro 3 is your number-one match. It’s equipped with a built-in kickstand, full-size USB port, Windows 8.1 Pro and comes standard with a smart stylus. It’s 12-inch display feels a bit large for sure, but it definitely comes in handy when using Windows 8 Desktop Mode.
Several tech publications recommend other Windows 8 tablets over the Pro 3 for two main reasons: It’s pricey (starting at $799) and its touchpad-equipped keyboard cover is sold separately. It’s a valid argument, but you won’t find such a powerful, fully-loaded Windows 8 experience on any other tablet.
The best tablet for the money
ASUS Memo Pad 7 ME572
David Pierce of The Verge named ASUS’ Memo Pad 7 ME572 the best cheap tablet you can buy, and he’s dead on. First off, it has an excellent display (given its sub-$200 price tag). I was also genuinely impressed with its build quality and touchscreen response — both of which are usually the Achilles heel of budget devices. Plus, it maintains a 4.4-star rating on BestBuy.com.
Why didn’t I choose the Kindle Fire HDX 7 or $99 HD 6? One word: apps. Yes, Amazon’s tablets are pumped with exclusive features and free trials, but they don’t have access to the Google Play Store. Translation? Kindle Fire owners have a million less apps to choose from.
The best tablet for college
Microsoft Surface Pro 3
Students are constantly typing documents, writing notes, studying instructor’s Powerpoint presentations, answering emails, and bouncing around campus. That’s why the Surface Pro 3 is the best tablet for college. It’s sturdy enough to lug around in your backpack and has the specs of a high-end laptop. And after getting used to its touchpad-equipped keyboard cover, I often found myself treating it like one.
I’m still a sucker for the ol’ pencil and pad, but the Pro 3’s pen technology is the most natural I’ve ever felt. It’s really good. Empowered with Microsoft OneNote, a flexible built-in kickstand and crisp 12-inch display, the Surface Pro 3 is the finest tablet a student can own — especially if they prefer handwritten notes.
The best tablet for business
Samsung Galaxy Tab S
The Samsung Galaxy Tab S 8.4 is a premium 8-inch tablet built for business. It’s fast, extremely thin, and its stunning AMOLED display is the best on the market. The resolution is a bit “taller” than normal, but that’s OK; the extra room allows for more features on the keyboard (including left-right directional keys!). That said, it was my go-to device for responding to emails.
Hardware aside, there are two main reasons it’s the top pick for businesspeople. First off, it has an intuitive file management hub that corrals data from both local storage and cloud services like DropBox — in other words, it’s crazy easy to locate all your stuff. And thanks to its fingerprint reader, those files and documents are safe behind a wall of biometric security. Secondly, it supports multitasking windows, which means you can use two apps simultaneously.
The best tablet for gaming
Nvidia is a company synonymous with gaming, so it’s no surprise that the flagship tablet for gamers is its Shield. Paired with the company’s Xbox-like wireless gamepad (sold separately), it’s basically a small, portable console. And despite being a crazy-fast machine (thanks to Nvidia’s Tegra K1 processor), Engadget says the battery lasts for about 8 hours of constant video playback (to be clear, it won’t last quite that long during gameplay).
In addition to its speedy hardware, there are three main software features that make the Shield perfect for gamers: built-in Twitch support, GameStream and Console Mode. Between those, you’ll be able to share in-game footage with friends, stream games from your PC on the tablet and broadcast gameplay onto the living room tele.
A full review of the best tablet
Forbes’ Ewan Spence calls Apple’s iPad Air 2 a “fine slice of modern computing,” and that’s exactly what it is. No other slate boasts such a premium design, stellar performance, and excellent selection of apps — not to mention it’s the second-thinnest tablet in the world.
At 9.7 inches, the Air 2 is essentially a 10-inch tablet, but it’s hardly a burden. Its lightweight, slim profile made it comfortable to tote around the house for 30-40 minutes at a time, even with one hand. And thanks to its gorgeous IPS display, storming my opponents’ islands on Boom Beach was as visually entertaining as it was fun.
For the things I do when I’ve got my feet up (read long articles I’ve saved in Pocket, sift through Twitter, watch back-to-back episodes of “How I Met Your Mother”), the iPad still beats the competition.
Despite its weight, there isn’t a single thing about the Air 2’s hardware that feels cheap, chintzy or flimsy. It’s constructed from a unibody brushed aluminum frame, and all its (relatively few) parts are fused together. All that’s to say the Air 2 is the most durable yet ultra-thin tablet around. However, that thinness comes at the cost of a slightly smaller battery — mine hit 12 percent after two days of casual use. And unlike previous models, it doesn’t have a physical mute switch, which for me, wasn’t a big deal.
My biggest qualms with Apple’s tablet are actually with its software (iOS 8). Unlike Windows 8 and Android tablets, it doesn’t support multiple users, meaning you won’t be able to set up profiles for family members. Apple devices also don’t support multitasking (using two apps at the same time), which is something really liked doing on the Galaxy Tab S and Surface Pro 3. Finally, iOS 8’s standard keyboard works great on the iPhone, but I didn’t love typing on the iPad — if efficiency is a top priority, consider downloading a third-party keyboard app such as SwiftKey.
What about power? Both Engadget and The Verge stated in their reviews that its performance was noticeably faster, smoother and more graphically precise than the original Air, especially with regard to games. And after using it myself, I wholeheartedly agree. Touchscreen interactions are swift, launching apps takes less than a second, and power-hungry games like Asphalt 8 are impressively fluid.
Apple’s iPad Air 2 is the best yet. I have purchased every model made except iPad 2 and love Apple products. They are always reliable and intuitive enough for my 76 year old mom who would never give up her iPad.
How do the rest of the world’s tablet users feel? In short, they agree. Out of 3,977 total reviews from Best Buy and Amazon, 87 percent of customers gave it five stars. Forbes said in its review that the Air 2 “destroys the competition,” and Re/Code agrees that it’s the “best full-sized tablet” in town. It’s the number-one recommendation from The Verge, Engadget, and CNET’s tablet buyer’s guides, and it boasts the highest CNET Editor’s Choice rating of any tablet currently available.
Another huge leg-up is Apple’s network of Apple Stores, and more specifically, the people within them. Unlike most other technology companies, Apple Stores are equipped with “Geniuses” that are there to assist you with any questions you have, for as long as you need, at no charge. A member of our staff witnessed a blind patron spend hours with an Apple Store employee that helped her with various accessibility options. This baked-in amenity is a powerful one for those who are unsure of their technical prowess, or simply want to have someone to call on if things get overwhelming. Learning a brand new technology isn’t always a cakewalk, and Apple’s in-person, free-of-charge support network is a rare find in a world obsessed with endless phone trees.
Who is it best for?
The iPad Air 2 is best for folks who:
- want a dependable, high-res device for surfing the web, streaming Netflix, perusing social networks, and keeping their inboxes clean
- are new to mobile technology
- are overly concerned with security
- already have an iPhone, MacBook, and/or Apple TV
- love apps and casual games
- don’t plan on buying another tablet for 4 to 5 years
- are heavily invested in iTunes
- are fine holding a tablet the size of a wirebound notebook
Who should think twice?
Yes, the iPad Air 2 is the best all-around tablet on the market, but that doesn’t mean it’s right for everyone. If any of the criteria below sound familiar, think twice before heading to the Apple Store.
Owners of the original iPad Air – If you bought the original iPad Air, don’t feel obligated to upgrade. Yes, the iPad Air 2 claims a 40 percent speed bump over the first generation, but most people don’t really need that kind of power. Think of it this way: The Air 2 costs $100 more, and its most evident enhancement is the TouchID fingerprint reader.
Productivity hounds – The iPad Air 2 isn’t a laptop replacement; it’s a powerful complementary device. Personally, I can’t survive 24 hours without a mouse and full-sized keyboard. If that resonates with you, make sure to research a few low- to mid-range laptops before settling with a tablet and keyboard-cover combo (stay tuned: our laptop review is coming soon!).
Those who are invested in Android or Windows 8 – Consider how many apps you’ve purchased in the Google Play Store or Windows Store, and more importantly, how much money you spent on them. Are you willing to buy them again for iOS 8?
Those who need lots of storage – You can get an iPad Air 2 with 128GB of storage, but it’ll cost you at least $699. If you really need to store all your songs, photos, and videos directly on your tablet, there are cheaper options available that either have more space or a MicroSD port.
Those who want total control over their device – Apple’s iOS 8 still doesn’t support multiple users, widgets or multitasking windows. So if you love customization, or want to share a tablet between several family members, the Air 2 isn’t for you.
What are the options?
The runners up for best tablet
In the end, there can only be one “number-one,” but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider any other options. Here are a few of the next-best tablets, along with an explanation on why they didn’t make the cut.
Samsung Galaxy Tab S (8.4-inch or 10.1-inch) – It’s a close second to the iPad Air 2. Despite its brilliant display and solid battery life, though, the Tab S suffers from minor performance jitters, occasional touchscreen lag and a somewhat finicky fingerprint reader.
Google Nexus 9 – Performance wise, it’s a top contender. However, it lacks the gorgeous display and premium build of its Apple-made counterpart. In fact, I experienced occasional clicks and creaks from the backside depending on how I was holding it.
Apple iPad mini 2 (with Retina Display) – Thanks to its $300 price tag and Retina display, the latest iPad mini 2 is essentially a smaller, cheaper version of the original iPad Air. That said, it performs noticeably slower than the Air 2 and its smaller size isn’t as ideal for movies and photos.
Microsoft Surface Pro 3 – The Surface Pro 3 is a powerful productivity machine, but its inferior selection of apps and weighty 12-inch build aren’t very beneficial to most people. I enjoyed using it to write notes and browse the web, but found myself drawn to the iPad Air 2 for anything else. Interestingly enough, though, it leads a recent Engadget poll for the most preferred tablet with 33 percent of the votes (22,649 in total).
What makes a great tablet?
The 7 most important features
To make the running for “best all-around tablet,” each slate should excel in the majority of these areas:
Sturdy build – A completely metal device is preferable, but an aluminum frame and composite combo will do just fine (e.g. Samsung’s Galaxy Tab S series). No one wants to feel like their tablet is caving in beneath their fingertips.
Buttery smooth performance – Touchscreen interfacing tasks should rarely (if ever) cause jittering, standstills, or other funky behavior. Apps should launch as soon as you touch them and hardware controls (volume rockers, capacitive buttons) shouldn’t ever stick or rattle.
Top-tier display – Full HD resolution (at least 1920 x 1080p) and accurate color representation are musts. It also should respond well to wide viewing angles and include some sort of anti-glare or anti-reflective coating. IPS and Super AMOLED technologies are the current gold standard for mobile displays.
Storage options – These days, 16GB doesn’t go very far. Any top tablet must include at least 32GB of internal storage or a MicroSD slot. You’ll need plenty of storage for apps, photos, videos, and music.
Comfortable design – The best overall tablet must be comfortable in the hands of both children and adults (think light, thin, and nice to touch). Consider these stats: 59 percent percent of households with 2-12 year olds have tablets, as do 42 percent percent of adults 18 and older.
Superb battery life – The number-one tablet should be able to withstand at least ten hours of use. In real talk, that means roughly two days of “casual creation and consumption.”
Decent main camera – Tablet’s aren’t great for photography, but it’s nice to have the option, right? Nothing less than an 5MP rear camera should be tolerated.
Choosing the best tablet for you
Here comes the fun part: It’s time to choose your tablet! Below are a couple of key considerations I found helpful when deciding what features and operating systems work best for your lifestyle.
Two key considerations
Are you already invested in a particular operating system? – Ask yourself this question: how much money have I invested in a particular operating system? Syncing music from iTunes to Android devices is doable. Transferring apps, however, is impossible. If you’ve purchased a significant amount of apps for a certain OS, you’re probably better off choosing a tablet in the same family.
How do you plan to use your tablet? – Do you have a smartphone or laptop? If so, think about where a tablet fits into your life. Will you mostly leave it at home? How often do you travel? Do you need lots of storage for music and photos? Do you plan to use it for school or business meetings? Is it just for you, or will your kids use it, too? How important is the camera? Will you primarily play games, or just browse the web?
Taking extra time to identify your needs is crucial to making the right choice, and can end up saving you money. For example: If your main justification for buying a tablet is watching Hulu Plus around the house, you don’t need one with a fingerprint reader or oodles of power.
Here’s a handy dandy visual aid that’ll help you which features that are most important to your favorite activities and interests, along with recommendations on which specs you shouldn’t skimp on:
Android – By nature, Android offers a full integration of Google apps and services. It runs on the widest variety of devices, and has over 1,300,000 apps to choose from. It’s also worth noting there are a few different iterations (or “skins”) of Android that offer their own themes and features, but that variety sometimes comes at the cost of security. Bottom line: If you are computer literate and love customization, Android is the way to go.
iOS – If you’re new to mobile technology, or know little-to-nothing about computers, iOS is for you. It’s by far the easiest operating system to learn, which is what makes it a great choice for kids and grandparents. Plus, it has the best selection of high-quality apps around. All in all, iOS is most simplistic and dependable of its competitors.
Windows 8 – Of the three main mobile OSes, Windows 8 is the most unique — especially in looks. Instead of a grid of apps and folders, it has customizable squares called “live tiles.” One benefit to this, though, is that its interface is consistent not only on mobile devices, but laptops and PCs too. Here’s the catch: Windows has far fewer apps than Android or iOS. And yes, that means you’ll have to slay goblins in Clash of Clans on some other device.
Buying your tablet
One thing to remember – In case you didn’t know, (most) companies are horrible at naming devices. Take ASUS for example: There’s the Memo Pad 7 ME572 and Memo Pad 7 ME170. One’s the best budget tablet you can by, and the other isn’t. And let’s not forget all the many Galaxy something-or-others Samsung has put out over the years. The moral of the story? Pay extra attention to model numbers, especially when ordering online.
Since Apple unveiled the first iPad in 2010, tablets have undoubtedly proven themselves a popular and powerful tool — especially in the classroom. Both kids and adults of all ages enjoy using tablets to browse the web, watch TV, study, and play games. Remember, though: they’re still better at consuming content than creating it.
If you’re convinced a tablet is right for you, give the iPad Air 2 a look — but certainly don’t stop there. In today’s world, there’s an overabundance of awesome devices for just about any specific need imaginable.
Have any questions about tablets or mobile operating systems? Is there certain device you think I’ve overlooked? Leave your feedback and questions in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you!
Our favorite tablet reviews from around the web
Engagdet – If you’re looking for a more in-depth review of the iPad Air 2, Engadget is the place to go. Here you’ll find pictures, benchmarks, and more detailed information about specs.
CNET – With CNET’s tablet review tool, you can search for devices based on price, brand, Editors’ Choice ratings, and more. Plus, you’ll find a full-on review for each slate, written by some of the most qualified folks in tech.
Best Buy – Want more insight from real people like you? Each tablet on BestBuy.com has hundreds (sometimes thousands) of customer ratings and reviews.