When it comes to tablets and ranking the best of the best, Apple generally comes to mind first. For good reasons, the iPad has been a game-changer in the tablet sector, and now the company truly offers one for everyone.
But in the crowded market that's filled with the iPad, iPad Mini, iPad Air and iPad Pro, there are also Android tablets available from Amazon and Samsung, as well as cheap options from some lesser-known brands, and several Windows tablets that run full-fledged Windows 10. Things you'll want to consider when choosing a tablet come down to screen size, software preference, and how you plan to use it.
One size doesn't fit all
Tablets don't discriminate with sizes; Apple alone offers 7.9-inch, 9.7-inch, 10.1-inch, 11-inch and 12.9-inch tablets. Samsung's Tab S4 comes in at 10.5 inches and Amazon offers the Fire tablets in 7-inch, 8-inch and 10-inch sizes. The Microsoft Surface Pro 6 has a 12.3-inch display, and the Surface Go is just 10 inches.
iOS, Android or Windows
So with screen sizes laid out, the other big question is software. If you're already in the Apple ecosystem, you likely know how easy and straightforward iOS is to use, and that's the operating system found on iPads. From the first setup, you'll see that Apple puts privacy first and simplicity at the forefront. The App Store has a wide array of productivity, entertainment and other apps, along with games for free or to purchase. Plus, if you have an app you love on your iPhone, it can be downloaded on the iPad.
Android is a bit of mixed bag, as each manufacturer puts its own twist on the software. For instance, Android powers the Amazon Fire tablets as the base operating system, but they're technically running Fire OS. You get access to Amazon's App Store, which has a majority of the big hitters, and all of Amazon's services have apps for the Fire. On the Galaxy Tab S4, you have a Samsung user interface on top of Android and full access to Google's Play Store. The Surface Pro 6 or Surface Go both run Windows 10 and you'll get access to full-fledged apps.
What will you be using the tablet for?
Tablets as a whole generally fall into a few buckets. The iPad Pro line and Windows tablets fall typically into the productivity sector. These are devices that aim to replace a computer and let you accomplish a lot. For instance, the 12.9-inch and 11-inch iPad Pros are really powerful, with dedicated RAM or random access memory.
The other iPads, Amazon's Fire HD line and the Tab S4 all seem more like consumption devices, for web browsing on the go, viewing photos, light gaming and of course streaming content. Many of these still offer keyboard attachments. On the iPad side, all these devices now support the Apple Pencil for note-taking and art.
So with all of this in mind, let's walk through our top picks for tablets.
The 9.7-inch iPad is our top all-around pick
- Apple iPad (Starting at $249.99, originally $329.00; amazon.com)
At $329, the 2018 9.7-inch iPad is Apple's most affordable tablet, and it brings a lot of value to the table. It doesn't have all the bells and whistles of the iPad Pro, but it performs really well. It can handle multitasking with iOS 12 and is powered by an A10 processor with either 32GB or 128GB of internal storage. In my testing, consuming content was a joy on it, and note-taking with some light drawing via a first-generation Apple Pencil performed well.
If you want an affordable tablet that can handle a lot and offers almost 12 hours of battery life, the 9.7-inch iPad is a great choice. Plus it's regularly on sale.
Amazon's Fire 7 has mixed performance, but you can't beat the price
- Amazon Fire 7 (Starting at $49.99; amazon.com)
- Amazon Fire HD 8 (Starting at $79.99; amazon.com)
- Amazon Fire HD 10 (Starting at $149.99; amazon.com)
Amazon's $49 Fire 7 proves the saying, "You get what you pay for." At that price point, you shouldn't be expecting blazing fast speeds and a jaw-dropping display. However, in a few weeks of testing, the Fire 7 was a joy to stream on via Netflix or Prime Video, a great backlit e-reader, and decent for simple tasks. Plus, Alexa is on board for any questions you might have.
If you're really into the Amazon ecosystem and want a super affordable screen for watching content, the Fire 7 should suit your needs. The same goes for the Fire HD 8 and Fire HD 10. Both of these models have sharper displays and slightly better performance. Plus you can pair either with a dock to have them act as permanent Alexa devices.
The Surface Pro 6 is essentially a laptop
- Microsoft Surface Pro 6 (Starting at $799.99; microsoft.com)
Surface-owners swear by them and won't let them go. The Surface Pro 6 is a cross between a tablet and laptop, especially with the Pen and the Type Cover (an attachable keyboard that has a trackpad built in). You can essentially do anything you would on a Windows 10 laptop on this, and it makes sense for a starting price of $899. Microsoft was strategic with Windows 10, as it works with a touch screen, stylus or a normal trackpad. The Pro 6 is also powered by an eighth-gen Intel Core processor and can last for a typical workday.
Apple's 11-inch and 12.9-inch iPad Pros are powerful tablets
- Apple iPad Pro 11-inch (Starting at $849.99; amazon.com)
- Apple iPad Pro 12.9-inch (Starting at $999.99; amazon.com)
I use an 11-inch iPad Pro as my tablet, pairing it with an Apple Pencil and Smart Keyboard. It's a go-to device for writing stories, taking notes in a meeting, gaming, photo editing and, of course, consumption. The iPad Pro is becoming more robust, and Apple is hoping more people will dump their laptops and desktops in favor of this powerful tablet. For some professions, that will probably work just fine, especially with a system that can browse files effectively, the recently added USB-C port, and multitasking muscle. Your mileage may vary, and these aren't cheap, but they're powerhouses. The Apple A12X chip powers both, and plenty of RAM is tossed in, so the experience is really buttery smooth.
The Tab S4 is a good deal, but not for everyone
- Samsung Galaxy Tab S4 (Starting at $549.99, originally $649.99; samsung.com)
In a similar vein to the iPad Pro, Samsung suggests the Tab S4 as a replacement for your laptop or desktop, even bundling it with a keyboard and a trackpad attachment, along with an S Pen. But it's still running Android, and the software isn't there yet for actual productivity. It doesn't fall on Samsung entirely, but also on Google to deliver more power and productivity features. With all that being said, it has a gorgeous display and Dolby Atmos tuned speakers for a great entertainment experience.
While you're browsing on Amazon, be sure to check out these Amazon Coupons for more savings.
CNN Underscored is in the process of testing the new iPad Mini and iPad Air. We'll be sure to update this post, once testing is complete.