Best Tablets: Q1 2016by Brandon Chester on March 14, 2016 12:15 PM EST
The last time we updated our tablet guide was right around the Christmas shopping season. We haven't seen many tablet launches since then, but there have been a couple of notable changes in the market. There are also some new tablets on the horizon, and that means new flagship devices along with potential price drops on existing models. Both are great news for anyone interested in buying a tablet.
As always, I'll begin with the iPads available from Apple due to the simplicity of that category, followed by the best offerings at a couple of price points from Android tablet manufacturers, with the best Windows tablets finishing things off.
Even if your phone is an Android device or a Windows Phone, it's difficult to not give the iPad some consideration when looking for a tablet. It's can definitely be difficult to have to manage two different ecosystems with their own apps, but at this point the iPad still has a significant platform advantage over most tablets as far as applications and multitasking goes, and to improve multitasking and productivity further you really need to move to a full blown Windows tablet.
iPad Mini 2 and iPad Mini 4
The iPad line is fairly simple, with only a few options available, and most of them occupying their own screen size. For people who want a smaller tablet, Apple offers the iPad Mini 2 and iPad Mini 4. The former is definitely getting old, although at $269 it offers a fairly inexpensive entry to the iPad ecosystem. I think it's probably unwise to purchase an iOS device with only 1GB of RAM at this point, as we're moving closer to the point where developers can assume that productivity apps can take advantage of devices with 2-4GB of RAM. $399 gets you the iPad Mini 4 which offers significant improvements to the display, performance, and the size and mass of the chassis. The Mini 4 is definitely my recommendation for a small iPad because of the improved display and additional RAM to enable split screen multitasking, but the $399 price for the 16GB model can definitely be hard to swallow when you can get many small Android tablets for half the price.
iPad Air and iPad Air 2
For a buyer that's interested in a more standard sized tablet, Apple sells the iPad Air and the iPad Air 2 respectively for the 16GB models. At this point I really wouldn't go for the iPad Air due to the limited amount of RAM it includes which prevents you from using split screen multitasking. As for the iPad Air 2, it's arguably still the best full sized tablet on the market despite the fact that it's being on the market for around 1.5 years. With Apple holding an event in around a week it may be better to wait until the end of the month before pulling the trigger on a 9.7" iPad, as Apple may have something new coming down the pipeline.
At the very top of the iPad line sits the iPad Pro. The iPad Pro will inevitably be compared to the Surface Pro 4, but as Josh made very clear in his review of it, the iPad Pro and Surface Pro 4 are very different devices that target different users. The Surface Pro 4 is the best device for someone who wants a laptop-like device with tablet aspects, while the iPad Pro is very much a pure tablet.
As someone who has actually adopted the iPad Pro for many tasks, I think the applications of it are fairly clear, along with the target market. Students are definitely a big group within it, as the combination of the iPad Pro and Apple Pencil is more than capable of replacing notes written on paper. Creative professionals will find enjoyment from the combination of the two as well.
If you decide that the iPad Pro is the device for you, there are some considerations to make regarding accessories. I think the Apple Pencil is a must have for most users, although not all. The $99 price tag does add a significant amount on top of the price of an already expensive tablet, and so it's something to consider when comparing to other devices. As for the Smart Keyboard, it's definitely useful in some circumstances, but definitely not as necessary as the Apple Pencil. I think the lack of lap usability is a big drawback, and I've rarely ever used it apart from a few circumstances where I had to use SSH without a laptop around. Unless you really want the keyboard for typing up documents, I would probably pass on it, as at $169 it's very expensive.
I took a look at a number of Android tablets back in 2015, and this year added the Google Pixel C to the list. In most cases the tablets I review all end up occupying their own price bracket, so it's not difficult to pick out the best at each price due to the limited competition.
Unfortunately, it's pretty accurate to say that the past year hasn't been the greatest for Android phones or tablets due to issues with the available SoCs from Qualcomm, along with Android's general tablet problems. On top of that, all but two or three of the tablets that I reviewed had issues with display power usage or calibration. Despite that, I think there were three notable Android tablets that launched in the past year.
NVIDIA SHIELD Tablet K1
Starting off with my recommendation for a low-cost Android tablet, I think the NVIDIA SHIELD Tablet K1 is the obvious winner of this category. The SHIELD Tablet K1 was originally sold for $299 before being recalled due to battery issues, but late last year it was re-introduced at a $199 price point with its new name. With most vendors having given up on providing compelling tablets at the $200 price point, the SHIELD Tablet K1 is mostly without competition. The performance provided by NVIDIA's Tegra K1 SoC is far greater than what you'd expect from a $199 device, and up until the launch of the Pixel C the GPU was unmatched by any other Android tablet. You can read our review of the SHIELD Tablet K1 in its original iteration here.
The only complaint I really have about the SHIELD Tablet K1 is that while the display is a sufficiently high resolution at 1920x1200, the color gamut and accuracy is lacking. While this can be excused somewhat based on the $199 price tag, we're definitely getting to a point where a limited gamut isn't excusable on any device. Despite that compromise, I don't know of any current Android tablet that competes at this price point. When you factor in the game streaming support, relatively quick updates, and few tweaks to the Android UI, the SHIELD Tablet K1 is definitely worth considering.
Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 9.7"
If someone is looking for a high end Android tablet, then the Galaxy Tab S2 is still a very good option. When I reviewed the Tab S2 I praised its thin and light build, and high quality AMOLED display, I wasn't fond of the use of plastic, the performance, or the battery life. On the hardware side it lags behind the aging iPad Air 2 which is quite unfortunate. Samsung does try to offer tablet-oriented features, like their split screen and separate window multitasking. Unfortunately, the features are limited by what changes Samsung can make, and they don't measure up to what you get on iOS or Windows. Fortunately, Google is coming through with their own multitasking implementation in Android N, and we'll hopefully see that make its way to the Tab S2.
Google Pixel C
Finally, we have Google's own tablet, the Pixel C. The Pixel C has had a rocky lifetime, and it has only been out since December of last year. In its original form it was plaugued by problems relating to its WiFi, its touchscreen, its stability, and its performance. Since that time Google has issued a patch that significantly improved the touchscreen responsiveness and the software stability, and with that patch the Pixel C became what is arguably the best Android tablet on the market. It definitely isn't without its flaws, as the WiFi has a very short range and never comes close to achieving the speeds that it should, but unfortunately the current Android tablet market forces you to pick and choose between hardware related problems, and in the Pixel C's case its performance, display quality, and battery life are enough to put it above the competition. It's available for $499 in a 32GB configuration, or $599 for the 64GB model.
The Pixel C has one major accessory, which is its keyboard cover. At $149 it's not something I would recommend due to the Pixel C's its general issues with wireless connectivity along with the limited use for the keyboard, but it is available for users who want it. One notable thing is that the keyboard has a very novel hinge implementation that allows you to set it to almost any angle without the need for a kickstand.
The Windows tablet market is pretty much a Microsoft Surface market at this point. There haven't been any successors to the inexpensive Bay Trail tablets of two years ago, and most Windows tablets are really 2-in-1 laptops that either have a rotating hinge or can be split into two parts. There certainly have been some notable launches there like the ASUS T300 Chi, and of course Microsoft's own Surface Book, but they often end just being both a mediocre tablet and a mediocre laptop. Meanwhile, convertible devices like the HP Spectre x360 can be great laptops, but being convertible means you're always holding up a laptop, which is just far too heavy to comfortably use.
With all that in mind, my recommendation from last Christmas hasn't changed. The Surface 3 and the Surface Pro 4 are the best you can get for Windows laptops. For many people the full Windows experience with legacy apps and a filesystem necessary for their daily workflow. The bonus on top of that with the Surfaces is tha you get a Windows experience that is free of the preloaded bloatware that other OEMs include.
Microsoft Surface 3
The entry model in the Surface line is the Surface 3. This is both a smaller and less expensive device than the Surface Pro 4, but it still runs a full copy of Windows. The display is a 10.8" 1920x1280 panel with a high degree of color accuracy, but at $499 the resolution is definitely much lower than it should be. Inside is an Intel Atom x7-Z8700 SoC, along with 2GB of RAM and 64GB of eMMC NAND in the $499 model, or 4GB of RAM and 128GB of NAND in the $599 model. The additional RAM and storage for $100 is definitely worth it if you plan to be running any serious Windows software, although as the price moves even further beyond $499 the display's low pixel density becomes very difficult to accept. Adding on Microsoft's Surface Pen bumps the price up another $50, and the Type cover is $129 so the cost of the accessories brings the price up fairly quickly.
Microsoft Surface Pro 4
Of course, the flagship Surface tablet is the Surface Pro 4. The Surface Pro 4 comes in more configurations than I could ever list here. The pricing ranges from $899 for the fanless model with an Intel Core m3-6Y30 CPU, a 128GB PCIe SSD, and 4GB of RAM, all the way to $2699 for a dual core Intel Core i7-6650U, 16GB of RAM, and a 1TB PCIe SSD. The average price for the Surface Pro 4 should make it pretty clear why I think it ends up competing more with high end laptops than iPads or Android tablets, but it is technically a tablet. From another point of view, the base model isn't really any more expensive than the iPad Pro once you factor in what Apple charges for accessories, and getting the full Windows experience will appeal to many people.
Specs that are common to all models of the Surface Pro 4 are a 12.3" 2736x1824 display, 802.11ac WiFi, and an included Surface Pen. The battery capacities do vary based on the CPU you get, and the Core i5 and Core i7 models aren't able to be passively cooled like the Core m3 model is so they do use a fan for cooling. Microsoft's Surface Type Cover will still run you $129 on top of the price of the tablet, or $159 if you opt for the version that has a fingerprint scanner for authentication.
Both Surface tablets can legitimately replace a full fledged Windows laptop, and in part that's because they excel at the types of tasks you would do on a laptop. The limited Modern UI app selection does put it in a different category than the iPad Pro, but I also think that many of the buyers interested in a Surface 3 or Surface Pro 4 want one specifically because it can run all of their existing Windows software. If you fall into that category, I really recommend you take a look our reviews of the Surface 3 and Surface Pro 4, because Microsoft has executed the hybrid laptop/tablet idea better than any other company has.