The Best Tablet
How We Found the Best Tablet
20 Hours of Research
9 Tablets Evaluated
4 Top Picks
The Best Tablet
Tablets are quickly becoming streamlined replacements for bulkier computers and laptops. Some people use tablets for portable entertainment; others use them as a tool for staying productive on the go. We spoke with tech experts and dug into user reviews to discover that the best tablet will have fast processing speeds and a clear display, plus intuitive functions that match your needs.
How we chose the best tablets
Crisp screen resolution
Screen resolution affects how crisp and clear images are — we followed PCWorld’s advice and set 1280x800 as our minimum requirement, a bar that even our Amazon Fire budget pick could hit and most of our finalists far exceeded. Anything lower is likely to result in a grainy, unattractive display.
Fast processing speed
When it comes to CPU (central processing unit) speed, tablets rely on a universal measurement called gigahertz — or GHz — which measures how many times per second the tablet’s processor can perform actions (the higher the number, the faster things happen). We only looked at tablets with a CPU of at least 1 GHz. The Amazon Fire squeaked past with 1.3 GHz, which means you’ll wait a second or two when you open an app. The Microsoft Surface operates at 2.5 GHz, so fast we didn’t even have time to think the word “loading” before our page opened. Anything below our benchmark brings the risk of a glitchy touch screen and frustrating load times (and is likely to have trouble streaming in HD).
The biggest difference between our finalists lies in their operating systems. The OS completely dictates the way you’ll interact with the tablet — and people often have strong personal preferences. The biggest draw for Apple’s operating system is its massive app store and easy-to-learn interface. However, Android gives you more flexibility — allowing you to change color schemes and install widgets onto your home screen that give live updates of the weather or display your daily calendar, for example.
To find the best tablets, we had to understand what the tablet should be able to do. When we looked into how they were being used, we found two scenarios:
Tablets as media player: For people who want to stream television, read books, play games and watch movies on a larger and more enhanced screen than their phones. Most people fall into this category.
Tablets as laptop replacements: For those who want to take notes, multi-task or work on documents or spreadsheets without lugging a computer around. More and more business professionals and schools are adopting tablets as lightweight laptop alternatives.
Speakers for entertainment
While most of your audio media might flow through headphones, the location and caliber of a tablet’s speakers can affect your entertainment experience. Speakers surrounding all four edges generally offer better sound quality while those only on the bottom of the device aren’t nearly as loud.
Tablet accessories for laptop replacements
If you’re hoping to get serious work done, you’ll need a tablet with a decent, portable snap-on keyboard. Stylus options were our second consideration: They’re more precise than a finger for handwritten notes and sketches, and hitting that tiny red ‘X’ in the corner of a popup advertisement.
After taking these considerations into mind, and then cross-checking our findings by reading through hundreds of user reviews and noting what people loved and hated about their own tablets post-purchase, we found our picks.
The 4 best tablets
Why we chose it
Great display and lag-free performance
The iPad has a great display and lag-free performance, giving you crisp, high-definition visuals in record time. A slightly lower resolution doesn't automatically mean a blurry picture or visible pixels, but a high-resolution screen is noticeably nicer to look at for long periods of time. The iPad’s resolution (2048 x 1536) is the same as the more expensive Samsung Galaxy Tab S3 making it a comparable, but drastically more affordable option.
Wide range of iPad-friendly apps
A huge reason Apple dominates the tablet space is its apps. When scrolling through the Apple App Store, you can filter your search for apps that have been made for the iPad. Hulu and Sim City, for example, have both been altered to meet the needs of a tablet. Apps that aren’t redesigned for tablets can look stretched out and blurry when they’re opened on screens double the size and with double the resolution of a smartphone. Other app stores don’t offer nearly as wide a range. Google Play (for Android tablets), encourages their app developers to optimize for tablets, but it’s difficult to find options beyond the store’s top 250 apps.
iOS 11 functionality
Users and experts agree, the iPad is truly an everyman's tablet. It’s portable, affordable, and has great battery life. With Apple’s latest update, iOS 11, it’s the better than any iPad before it. Even though there’s no need to upgrade to this model if you don’t want iOS 11, the update makes this iPad distinct from the mobile Apple experience.
One of the biggest improvements is multitasking. It’s now possible to run two apps simultaneously or hover one (like Twitter or Spotify) over another. Because the iOS 11 experience is more seamless and you can consolidate your media consumption, you may find yourself using the tablet more often.
Points to consider
At 9.7” it’s a bit taller than a paperback book, and is difficult to hold for long periods of time. Its tallness can make it feel tippy, with users also noting that it’s thicker than the iPad Pro. In addition to its height and thicker shape, the iPad also feels more slippery. If you’re looking for something solely for e-reading, it could be too strenuous. However, the battery will certainly last long enough if you’ve got the stamina. Apple promises 10 hours of battery life but most users comment they can go for closer to 13 with constant use.
Why we chose it
For just $80, the Amazon Fire HD 8 is easily the best tablet on a budget. In fact, you probably get more than what you pay for. If you want a tablet for reading books, browsing the internet or watching TV and movies, but don’t want to spend a few hundred dollars for extra features you don’t really need, the Amazon Fire HD 8 is a great alternative.
Optimized for Amazon services
Since the device is meant to connect seamlessly with Amazon services, its app store doesn’t include Google apps like Youtube and Chrome (though you can access the web versions of Google services through its built-in Silk browser). That being said, users who have an Amazon Prime account can really take advantage of all the features this tablet offers. Prime users will have access to a catalog of free books, movies and TV shows. The Fire also pairs with Alexa, Amazon’s virtual assistant AI. You can use Alexa for easy online ordering, to answer a search question or for audiobook playing.
The Fire is a great pick for younger kids who don’t need all the bells-and-whistles, but still want to play games or watch their favorite shows. For an extra $2 per month you can get Amazon FreeTime, which grants access to tons of kid-friendly content. Worried about adult content? It’s extremely easy to set up separate children and adult profiles so you can still use the Fire, but your child can’t access movies or TV shows that are too old for them. Plus, the children’s profile allows parents to view activity on a parent dashboard. Another kid-friendly benefit: the Fire is pretty sturdy so you won't cringe every time it's dropped to the floor.
Points to consider
Limited operating system
The Fire runs an operating system called Fire OS, which is based on a limited version of Android. Its interface is really basic and doesn’t give a ton of freedom for customization: Scrolling through the tablet takes you to different media home bases like Shop, Movies, or Books and other purchased-based entertainment. While you can change your screensaver, the different destinations on the Fire feel very much like you’re always out shopping, never like you've come home to enjoy your purchases. However, if this doesn’t bother you, the interface is simple and easy to navigate.
Not as sleek
When compared to similar tablets, the Fire isn’t nearly as fast or stylish. A 1.3 GHz CPU means it’s the slowest out of our top picks and makes opening apps take a few seconds longer. The Fire’s image quality will also be slightly grainier than competitors. Sleekness isn’t going to be a problem, though, if you purchase this for your child or don’t mind a little lag. Plus, at $80, it’s still a steal and hard to fault for any of its drawbacks.
Why we chose it
Runs full versions of Windows software
Tablets that branch from smartphone operating systems (like Android or iOS) come with limited computing designation. But the Surface Pro runs a desktop operating system (with the flexibility of switching to a tablet-designed interface when desired) that’s been optimized for touchscreen tablets — it’ll look just like a smaller computer. One of the big bonuses of that full functioning Windows OS is that you can run full versions of software: You won’t have to slow down, learn a new layout or make any sacrifices in productivity. With systems like Apple, you might find yourself saving more complicated multi-window and spreadsheet tasks for a full computer.
USB port and microSD slot
Students and professionals will appreciate its USB port and microSD slot for external drives and storage. Digital artists and media creators will need its large range of storage for saving and editing large files. The Surface Pro starts at 128 GB, but you can also purchase one with 1 TB of internal storage. With serious storage space already included, plus the ability to add more externally, the Surface Pro is one of the best PC tablets around.
Excellent tablet keyboard and pen accessories
The Microsoft Surface Pro Keyboard comes included with the Surface Pro. Unlike the iPad Pro’s keyboard (which you have to purchase separately), the Surface Pro’s keyboard comes equipped with a trackpad, which means you don’t have to tap the screen to pull up apps or documents. This feature alone makes it one of the best tablets with a keyboard.
The Surface Pen is also a highlight for the Surface Pro (although you’ll need to purchase it separately), as it's fast and highly pressure sensitive. In terms of specs, it’s nearly identical to the Apple Pencil, and we found both equally responsive. The Surface Pen is shorter and doesn’t mimic an actual pencil as much as the Apple Pencil, though some users report the Surface Pen is easier to grip.
Points to consider
Because the Surface Pro is extremely pricey for a tablet, this is only a really good option if you’re a student or professional set on ditching your heavy computer. Depending on the storage you choose, final cost can run from $1,000 to $3,000 — for that price you could buy a sleek laptop that’s also easy to travel with. But we love that the Surface Pro is also flexible with its tablet-interface mode. This feature helps make it feel more like you’re getting a tablet and compact laptop for the price of one.
Why we chose it
One of the iPad Pro’s main draws is its compatibility with the impressively realistic Apple Pencil (sold separately). The Pencil has pressure sensing technology that can read how heavy and dark your strokes and lines are. It’s also sensitive to tilted use for easy shading. We found the Pencil and the Surface Pen to be equally responsive, but in terms of sheer specs, the Pencil is the fastest stylus out there, which means that there’s never any noticeable lag as you’re writing or drawing. It’s like using an actual pencil — so much so that calling it a stylus feels misleading.
Fast CPU and new iOS
Apple’s new A10X processor (the CPU) makes it lightning-fast in everything from video editing to gaming. Another major benefit of having a powerhouse processor is that utilizing two apps at once with the iOS 11 upgrade is a breeze. You can have your class notes open on one half of the screen, and anatomy sketches on the other without dealing with lag or crashing.
The iPad Pro’s clear resolution is perfect for creatives who spend a lot of time editing videos, photos or drawing on the go. At 2224x1668, it has an incredibly sharp picture that puts it in the top tier of tablets. In addition to the resolution, its 120Hz display means it refreshes at 120 frames per second (for reference: the iPhone has a 60Hz display). With such a high refresh rate, you can expect decreased blurriness when viewing videos and an improved response rate. This is particularly good for gamers, but it’s also important for anyone editing videos or dealing with large files.
Points to consider
Tablet keyboard lacks trackpad
Artists, students and creative professionals can use the iPad Pro as something closer to a laptop than previous iPads have allowed, although if your work tends to be word document or spreadsheet heavy, we’d still recommend the Surface Pro instead. Part of the reason it doesn’t feel like a complete computer replacement is because the iPad Pro’s keyboard (sold separately) lacks a trackpad. Without an actual trackpad, you have to tap the tablet screen to do tasks like copying and pasting. While the trackpad isn’t a dealbreaker, it can slow you down.
Replacing your computer with a top tier tablet is costly and the iPad Pro is no exception. What made the device worth the cost for many is its pencil and keyboard, but now that these accessories are compatible with the less expensive iPad it’s harder to justify the cost. The iPad Pro’s display is bigger and its design sleeker, but if you’re an art student or dabble in drawing as a hobby, the iPad will offer similar functions and be easier on your wallet.
Should I get a PC or Apple tablet?
Going with a PC or Apple tablet is about personal preference, but historically Windows is not quite as reliable as Apple computer products. A recent Consumer Reports National Research Center study found an estimated 25 percent of Microsoft tablet and laptop owners experienced problems within their first two years of ownership. On the plus side, Microsoft frequently releases micro updates to address these issues and Consumer Reports found the Surface to perform excellently in their lab tests.
How much storage does my tablet need?
If you’re downloading large documents or media files directly onto your tablet, you’ll want to invest in more storage. The iPad Pro, for reference, tops out at 512GB. That much storage will cost you and is generally only needed if you have a lot of videos saved on your device. You don’t have to spend more on extra space if you don’t need your files at all times. Having access to Wi-Fi or a tablet with a data plan means you can use cloud based storage, as well as stream music and movies rather than download.
What’s the difference between a tablet and an e-reader?
E-readers are less versatile than tablets and generally have an e-paper screen, so they’re easier on the eyes for extended periods of time. Tablets have backlit screens and offer additional features that e-readers don’t. With a tablet, you can download multiple reading sources, even audible ones if you like, whereas e-readers are often paired with one app or e-bookstore. Tablets also let you read enhanced ebooks that have graphics and interaction, as well as more easily take notes on books.
How much battery life does a tablet have?
Battery life varies from tablet to tablet. Generally, battery life ranges from 8-14 hours, with an average of about 10 hours. Battery life will also change depending on how you use your tablet. Watching movies and TV shows will drain your battery faster than casually browsing the web or reading a book.
The Best Tablet: Summed up
|iPad 9.7||Amazon Fire HD 8||Microsoft Surface Pro||iPad Pro 10.5|
|The Best||For Entertainment||For Budget Entertainment||Laptop Replacement||For Creative Types|
|CPU speed||1.8 GHz||1.3 GHz||2.5 GHz||2.4 GHz|