How to choose the best tablet for you

Your ideal device is out there.

Tablet
Make sure you pick a tablet that's right for you.William Iven/Unsplash

Tablets pack all the power of smartphones behind a much larger screen. That comes in handy when you're watching Netflix on the sofa or reviewing documents on the go. Grab a clip-on keyboard and wireless mouse, and you can even turn your tablet into a light, slim laptop replacement.

Fortunately for prospective buyers, you can now pick from a plethora of tablet models to find the slab of high-tech magic that best fits your needs. Here, we'll guide you through all the options and specifications that you'll need to consider.

Decide on key specs

First and foremost, you should think about how big you want your tablet to be. You have to find the right compromise between screen size, which ranges from roughly 8 to 13 inches, and portability. In other words, would you rather see more details in your videos or have a lighter device to carry around with you? Also take a look at the resolution of the screen, as measured in pixels: A device that packs more pixels into the same screen size will give you a sharper image.

Unless you plan to leave your tablet at home all the time, battery life will also be a crucial consideration. So as you review the specs list, do note the size of the battery. However, as with overall performance, bear in mind that a lot of other factors—including the efficiency of the device as a whole, the size and brightness of the screen, and so on—influence the length of a battery's life. When you check the manufacturer's quoted battery life, see if it matches up with reviews online.

Next, think about the accessories you'll want to use with your tablet. If you might do some digital doodling, make sure your tablet comes with support for one or more styluses. If you want to turn your tablet into a makeshift laptop, check out the available snap-on keyboards before you buy. Most tablet makers are now making at least some effort to push their devices as laptop replacements, so you should definitely be able to find an accessory or two to go with the main device.

As you peruse the product specifications, in addition to screen size and resolution, you may see references to the device's processor speed (how fast that tablet makes calculations) and its amount of RAM or memory (how much data it can handle at once). Both these specs affect the overall performance of your tablet, but they don't make great benchmarks for comparing one tablet to another. That's because processing power is hard to parse: Each manufacturer tends to use a different processor, or CPU, and to give it its own confusing label. At the very least, you can use the CPU spec to compare tablets in the same range. (For example, in Apple's iPad range, the A10X beats the A9.) If you narrow down your choice to two or three tablets, a quick online search should give you some indication of how their processors stack up. As for memory, while more RAM is always better, it's not the only factor that affects performance. The quality of the components and the efficiency of the internal engineering also affect a tablet's speed. So we'd suggest making a note of the CPU and RAM specs without giving them too much weight in your final decision. The price of the tablet is usually a good shortcut to work out whether you're getting a speedy or sluggish device, and of course, online reviews can always help.

Pick an operating system

As laptops and smartphones do, tablets come with three primary operating system choices. In fact, picking which one you prefer will be one of the biggest decisions you make while choosing your slab of glass. We won't go into a full blow-by-blow comparison here, but we can point out some of the key points for you to keep in mind.

Apple continues to push the iPad and its iOS as a serious operating system for on-the-go computing. The new iOS 11 includes improvements like a Mac-style dock, better app switching, and support for dragging and dropping files and images between apps. As iPhone users already know, iOS is a slick and polished choice, but it works best with other Apple hardware and software. So if your computer, phone, and other devices run on the Android or Windows systems, iOS might not be for you.

Even Google would admit that Android works better on smartphones than tablets. However, the situation is slowly improving: In comparison with iOS, Android tends to have fewer apps specifically geared toward tablet use, but many apps, such as the Microsoft Office and Google suites, work fine on the larger devices. Android is a good tablet choice if you want to use it with a broad range of other devices and avoid getting locked into the Apple ecosystem.

Finally, we have Windows. Microsoft has developed Windows 10 to work on desktops, laptops, and tablet computers—unlike iOS and Android, you're essentially getting a full desktop operating system on a tablet. Microsoft might have lost the smartphone battle, but its OS is well worth considering for a tablet, especially if you have some serious computing to do on the move.

Choose your tablet

Once you've chosen your operating system, you can dig deeper into the hardware options for each one.

For Apple, the big choice is between the iPad (available in standard and mini sizes) and more expensive iPad Pro (with 12.9-inch or 10.5-inch screen sizes) models currently available. They differ in physical dimensions and internal components, but the biggest change is in their screens: Pro screens aren't sharper, but they do have extra abilities like adjusting white balance and refresh rates based on the room lighting and the viewed content. The other key advantage with the iPad Pros is that they support the Apple Pencil and Smart Keyboard accessories, although third-party styluses and keyboards will work with the regular iPad and iPad mini. Finally, they differ in price, with the Pro line varying from $649 to $1279 and the non-Pros from $329 to $559. Size, added storage, and the option to add cellular connectivity all affect the Apple tablets' prices.

Over on the Android side of the fence, you can choose between premium and more budget-minded options. On the high end, your best bets are the Google Pixel C (now two years old, and available for $685 on Amazon) or Samsung's Galaxy Tab S3 (starting at $598 on Amazon). Again, the prices will depend on your storage size and accessory choices. If you're on a budget, you still have plenty of Android tablet options—just check a few reviews first to make sure you avoid buying a tablet that grinds to a halt after a couple of months. We like the Lenovo Tab 10 ($119 on Amazon) and the Asus ZenPad 8 ($128 on Amazon). You can also save serious money with the Amazon Fire range—the Fire HD 8 tablet is just $80 on Amazon. However, Fire users will have to limit their app-shopping to Amazon's smaller Android app store instead getting access to the full Google Play Store.

Windows 10 lovers also have a wealth of options to pick from. Start your comparison shopping with the latest 2017 version of Microsoft's own Surface Pro (from $718.96 on Amazon). Then compare the specs and options to the Windows 10 offerings from other manufacturers. For example, compare the Surface Pro to the Acer Switch 5 (from $799 on Amazon) or the Huawei MateBook Signature Edition (from $422.90 on Amazon). Samsung, Dell, and HP also sell their own ranges of Windows 10 tablets. When browsing through these options, remember to factor accessory costs into your price comparisons: Many Windows 10 devices come with a keyboard included.