It’s difficult to remember a time before tablets, but it’s been just over six short years since the original Apple iPad hit the scene, and the current tablet market was born. Since then, we’ve seen scores of manufacturers trying to snag a slice of the tablet pie. There’s no denying the tablet is here to stay.
But which one is right for you? Whether you’re eyeing an iPad, one of the many Android tablets available, or a Windows slate for productivity, here are the key factors you need to consider when shopping, along with some of the top-rated models we’ve tested.
We’d like to make one note for the summer: Apple’s iPad lineup is starting to look a bit old. It’s been two years since Apple updated its midrange iPad Air series, and while it’s still a fine tablet, we’d suggest holding off until any potential fall tablet announcements happen if you’re looking for an iOS tablet below the iPad Pro level.
Choose Your Operating System
Just like with a full-fledged computer, if you’re getting a tablet, you need to pick a camp. And just like with a computer, your decision will likely come down to your gut feeling. Right now, the top contenders are Apple with its iPads and Android with its many hardware choices from the likes of Acer, Amazon, Asus, Samsung, and others. And we’re seeing affordable Windows 10 tablets built around Intel’s Atom processor from various manufacturers like Acer and Asus.
Generally speaking, the greatest strength of Apple’s iOS, the operating system on the iPad Air, iPad mini, and iPad Pro tablet lines, is twofold: It’s very clean and intuitive, and the wide selection of iPad apps that you can buy right on your tablet—more than one million iPad-specific titles at the time of this writing—work uniformly well with very few exceptions. For more, check out our iOS 9 review.
Google’s Android mobile OS gives you a choice of hardware from several different manufacturers and offers maximum configurability, a top-notch notification system, fast and smooth Web browsing, and seamless integration with Google applications like Gmail, Google Maps, and Hangouts for video chat. Android also includes support for multiple user logins so you can share your tablet with a friend or family member, a useful feature that’s missing in Apple tablets (despite Apple’s Family Sharing, which isn’t the same thing). See our Android 6.0 Marshmallow review and our hands on look at Android 7.0 for more.
Windows 10 comes the closest to offering a traditional computing experience with full x86 support for all of your Windows software. And you can run the full version of Microsoft Office when you buy a Win 10 tablet. Also, connectivity options and hardware add-ons for Windows models are typically more plentiful than with other tablet types. Check out our Windows 10 review for more.
What About Apps?
What’s a tablet without quality apps? If you want third-party apps specifically designed for a touch-screen interface, nothing out there beats the iPad with its huge library of programs and games designed specifically for Apple tablets. The App Store is well-curated and monitored, offers a deep selection, and includes every popular app you can think of. If a wide range of compelling apps that look good and work well your tablet is your main priority, Apple is your best bet. For more, see The 100 Best iPad Apps.
Android has made great strides on app selection, courting more developers and offering more high-quality tablet apps, but it’s still not as many as Apple offers. It’s tough to say exactly how many tablet-optimized Android apps are available, but it’s likely in the thousands, rather than the hundreds of thousands. There are also Android phone apps, which look decent on a 7-inch tablet, but less so on a 9- or 10-inch one, so you’re likely to have more problems getting high-quality apps for larger Android tablets.
Windows 10, meanwhile, offers an impressive array of more than 100,000 touch-screen-friendly tablet apps, but its real strength is in running the millions of existing Windows desktop apps. Many of those aren’t designed for touch screens, though, and may be better handled with an add-on keyboard and mouse.
Screen Size and Storage
This consideration is a bit obvious, but size—both screen real estate and storage capacity—is important to consider. First things first: When you hear the term “7-inch or 10-inch tablet,” this refers to the size of the screen, measured diagonally, and not the size of the tablet itself. 7-inch tablets are considered small-screen, while 8.9-inch tablets and above are considered large-screen. Apple’s iPads, Amazon’s Fire, and Samsung’s Note- and Tab-branded tablets all come in small- and large-screen iterations. And more than ever, phones are blurring the lines with tablets. Huge smartphones (or phablets) like the 5.7-inch Samsung Galaxy Note 5£450.01 at Amazon and the Google Nexus 6P£390.92 at Amazon are challenging the need to even carry a separate tablet.
Screen resolution is important too, especially for ebook reading and Web surfing. A sharp, bright display is key. Right now, the highest resolution you’ll find is 2,732 by 2,048 pixels, on Apple’s 12.9-inch iPad Pro£660.00 at Amazon. If you’re in the market for a 10-inch Android tablet, look for a display with at least a 1,280-by-800 resolution.
The weight of a tablet is one definite advantage it has over a laptop—but with large-screen tablets typically weighing around a pound, they’re not cell phone-light. After you hold one with a single hand on a subway ride for 20 minutes, your hand will get tired. Setting one flat in your lap, rather than propped up on a stand, can also be a little awkward. And few tablets will fit in your pocket, unless you’re wearing a very large jacket. If you want pocketabiity, you might want to consider one of the aforementioned phablets.
Cloud (off-device) storage is an option for many tablets (iCloud for iPads, Amazon Cloud Storage for Fire tablets, and OneDrive for Windows), but when it comes to onboard storage, more is always better. All those apps, when combined with a typical music, video, and photo library, can take up a lot of space. Right now storage tops out at 256GB of flash-based memory, and that’s only on the iPad Pro line, with most of the tablets we’ve tested available in either 16, 32, or 64GB varieties. Larger-capacity models can get as expensive as full-featured laptops, though—the 256GB Wi-Fi-only 9.7-inch iPad Pro rings up at $899; add 4G service, and you’re up to $1,029. Many non-Apple tablets have microSD memory card slots that let you expand storage.
Wi-Fi-Only vs. Cellular Models
Some tablets come in a Wi-Fi-only model or with the option of always-on cellular service from a wireless provider. If you want to use your tablet to get online anywhere, you should opt for a model that offers a cellular version, like the aforementioned iPads. Of course, this adds to the device’s price, and then you need to pay for cellular service. Generally, though, with a tablet, you can purchase data on a month-to-month basis, without signing a contract.
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