Why Buy a Tablet?
The top performers in our review are the Apple iPad Pro, the Gold Award winner; the Microsoft Surface Pro 4, the Silver Award winner; and the Google Pixel C, the Bronze Award winner. Here's more on choosing a tablet to meet your needs, along with detail on how we arrived at our ranking of the best tablets.
Tablets: Computers Built for Mobility
At first glance, a tablet might look like a step down from a full-size laptop or desktop computer. After all, elements like a missing keyboard and smaller screen could seem like a potential disadvantage when you compare tablets to other computers. However, because they are so portable, tablets have advantages over their bulkier cousins.
The biggest factor that distinguishes tablets from other types of computers is their size. The best tablet computers can easily fit into backpacks and purses without feeling bulky. Generally, tablets in the 7-inch and 8-inch range are the most portable, and while less portable, the best 10-inch tablets’ larger screens make them good for watching videos, reading documents, and editing photos and videos. Increasingly, the performance of the best tablets belies their compact size, thanks to responsive high-resolution touchscreens and fast graphics processors. Many of the tablets are optimized for multimedia content, such as games or videos, to take full advantage of the apps in their dedicated online stores.
For alternatives to tablets, our main computers section includes reviews for a variety of product families like business laptops and ultrabooks. If you want more information, check out our articles on tablets.
Tablets: What We Tested, What We Found
In our review, we looked at top-rated tablets designed for average home users. Our hands-on testing evaluated areas like tablet build quality, durability and operating speed. We also did synthetic testing with programs such as processing test Geekbench 3 and graphics benchmark 3DMark to evaluate each tablet’s performance ceiling. In addition, we drew additional data from our colleagues at Laptop Mag to develop our rankings. Thanks to our testing, we found several points you should consider before purchasing a new tablet.
Gaming & Tablets
For families with young children or teens, tablets are useful devices for both schoolwork and gaming. In general, tablet games aren't as graphically demanding as PC or traditional console video games, but higher-end titles like "Minecraft" can be forced to run at lower graphics settings on lower-end tablets. Generally, this means that games have pixelated, low-resolution graphics.
Our benchmarking with 3DMark's Ice Storm Unlimited test illustrates how well each tablet handles graphics-intensive gaming. In Ice Storm Unlimited, tablets run through a series of simulated game scenarios to test graphics processing ability. Tablets with scores of more than 20,000 points can run high-resolution games with ease, while tablets below this threshold are best suited for casual mobile-friendly titles like "Angry Birds."
Long-Time Use: Battery Life Ratings
Tablets’ long battery lives are another one of their strengths. Because of their low processing overhead, the best 7- and 8-inch tablets often last for eight to 10 hours on a single charge. This is great when you use your tablet away from home, though battery life times can be shortened by hardware-intensive tasks like gaming or watching movies.
We tested battery life using methodology produced by our colleagues at Laptop Mag. Tablets were set at identical brightness levels and looped through a series of webpages until they powered down. While battery rating generally improves with the tablet’s price tier, entry-level tablets like the Samsung Galaxy Tab E and Lenovo Yoga Tab 3 managed to exceed the 10-hour mark before powering down.
How Much Speed Do You Need? Processor & Graphics Performance
Tablets generally aren't designed for consumers who need top-of-the-line performance, but even for home users, performance ceiling is important and can affect day-to-day use. Tablets with low Geekbench speed testing scores of less than 2,000 are typically fine if you plan to use the tablet exclusively for applications like Facebook or general web browsing. By comparison, higher-end tablets with fast processors and scores of more than 4,000 are capable of performing tasks like image or video editing.
Clear Screens, Sharp Displays: More Than Resolution
As the central part of your tablet, the display plays a valuable role in how easy the device is to use. Like laptops, resolution is a key factor in determining screen quality. Premium tablets feature screens with resolutions of at least 2048 x 1536; at this resolution, the screen displays content with minimal pixelation, and it can handle high-definition games or videos with excellent fidelity. By comparison, budget-level tablets often rely on displays with resolutions of around 1280 x 800. At this level, the tablet can still handle basic tasks like displaying text or web browsing, but pixelation around the edges of photos or text is extremely discernable.
However, resolution isn't the only factor that contributes to screen quality. Our grade ratings relied on a combination of hands-on evaluations, testing and screen brightness assessments. In our brightness testing, we examined the physical luminance of each tablet’s display. While none of the tablets we evaluated had outright unusable brightness ratings, sub-300 nit displays were noticeably dull.
Top Ten Reviews seeks, whenever possible, to evaluate all products and services in hands-on tests that simulate as closely as possible the experiences of a typical consumer. We obtained the units in our comparison through manufacturers and purchases through online or local retailers. The manufacturers had no input or influence over our test methodology, nor was the methodology provided to any of them in more detail than is available through reading our reviews. Results of our evaluations were not provided to the companies in advance of publication.
What Else Is Important When Buying a Tablet?
Beyond the price tag and brand name, tablets come with a wide variety of strengths and weaknesses for home users. Consider the following factors to make sure the tablet you purchase best fits your needs.
All in the Family: Integrating Your Tablet Into Your Home
Most home tablets run Google's Android operating system, Apple's iOS or Windows. Generally, tablets are designed to be an extension of a larger hardware family. For instance, Android smartphones are built to easily work alongside Android tablets or home theater peripherals. If your home already has gadgets built with a certain software platform, getting a tablet that runs the same operating system can provide additional functionality.
Applications & Platform Limits: Dealing with Digital Rights Management
Like hardware, content purchases are designed to work best within the same operating system ecosystem. For instance, if you buy a game on an Android smartphone, you could also download it for free on your Android tablet. Conversely, purchases are rarely compatible across platforms. As an example, a game that you purchased on Google's store couldn’t be played on an iPad. If you already have a large library of purchases on one platform, jumping platforms can be a potential hurdle.
Storage Space: Taking Your Files on the Go
As portable as tablets can be, their slim dimensions can come with hardware compromises. Unlike laptops – which feature hard drives with spacious storage sizes of at least 256GB to 1TB – tablets generally sit at around the 16GB to 64GB storage range. Although most tablets can be supplemented with an SD card for additional file space, the base storage capacity is still an important part of your device. While 16GB tablets are fine if you exclusively use your tablet for web browsing, small capacity tablets have limited space for most mainstream users. Content like apps, movies, photos and songs can quickly take up considerable space on your device.
Tablets: Our Verdict & Recommendations
Our top tablets feature strong designs bolstered with stellar performance and abilities. On the inside and outside, the iPad Pro benefits from Apple's attention to detail. With its fast processor and strong design, the iPad Pro offers premium-level performance compared to other top tablets. The Microsoft Surface Pro 4 earns its stellar marks thanks to its benchmarking scores and design. With its durable metal body and compact dimensions, the Pro 4 is equally suited for home or work use. Likewise, the Google Pixel C is one of the top home tablets on the market for general users. The Pixel C benefits from a fast processor and high-end display.