Your buying guide to the best tablets in 2017
You’ll notice that quite a lot of the tablets reviewed below were reviewed a year or more ago. That’s because the tablet market has slowed down significantly. According to Strategy Analytics, tablet sales are slumping – presumably because most people already own one – with the market down 10 percent in the last three months.
Companies aren’t launching new models regularly, and it’s now been over a year since the Surface Pro 4 came out. Microsoft’s latest Surface Pro has been announced, and we will have a review shortly.
A few key models were launched recently, though. Apple released a new 9.7-inch iPad (which has now been replaced by a 10.5in model, with review to follow!) and Samsung updated the Galaxy Tab S2. You can read our review of the Galaxy Tab S3 which is a strong contender.
Which is best: Android, iPad or Windows?
Apple iPads run Apple’s own iOS operating system which is widely regarded as one of the best out there. It’s easy to use and app makers usually make it their first choice, so you’re pretty much guaranteed to find what you’re after.
This is valuable when you buy accessories which require apps – mainly smart home or fitness gadgets – as you may not be able to control these from a Windows tablet.
In most cases, apps are made available on Android as well as iPads, but not always. Android tablets can be cheaper than iPads, but there are some Samsung models which cost the same or are more expensive. Windows tablets come in both cheap and expensive guises, but although Windows is the ‘worst’ of the tablet operating systems, it has the advantage of being able to run the same programs you use on your laptop or PC – not just finger-friendly tablet apps. The latest version of Android is Android 7.0 Nougat.
And that’s why most Windows tablets come with a keyboard, or offer it as an option: they’re really a hybrid of a laptop and tablet. But as you’ll find out in most of our Windows tablet reviews, this is rarely a case of getting the best of both worlds. One exception is the Surface Pro 4 from Microsoft.
The fourth option is Amazon’s Fire tablets. These are based on Android but are locked into Amazon’s system: you won’t find any Google services or apps on them.
What do you want a tablet for?
Tablets are great for watching videos and TV, for playing games, reading eBooks, and browsing the web. Sharing photos and catching up via Facebook, Instagram or Pinterest are all great on iPads and Android tabs. And you can catch up on email, too.
They’re not so good if you need to create a newsletter, presentation or write up a report. Printing off a spreadsheet or document can prove problematic if you don’t have a printer that’s compatible with your particular tablet. These things are possible, but you’ll find it’s much easier on a laptop or PC.
You can install extra software – known as apps – on a tablet, much like you can on a PC. Many are free, but some cost a few pounds. You have to install apps from the respective store on your tablet: Apple’s App Store on an iPad, the Google Play Store on an Android tablet and the Amazon Appstore on a Fire Tablet.
On a Windows 10 tablet you can install normal Windows software, but you also get to browse the Windows Store for dedicated tablet apps. But the selection is much more limited than on the other types of tablet.
The same is true of music- and other media: you can buy it from Apple, Google, Amazon or Microsoft. You can also transfer your own music, videos and photos to your tablet from a PC or access them from many cloud storage services. Apple, Google, Amazon and Microsoft have their own cloud services but you can also use others, such as Dropbox, which let you store files and media and get to them from all your devices, no matter whether a phone, tablet, laptop or PC.
Here’s the bottom line: for fun, you need an iPad- or Android tablet. For work, go Windows. But only if you can afford the best.
What size tablet is best?
Tablets come in many sizes ranging from almost smartphone-sized screens up to around 13in. So one of the first decisions is how big a tablet you want. For some, a 7-8in tablet is perfect as it’s big enough to be more comfortable to use (for web browsing, say) than an phone, but small enough to fit into a handbag and less strain on your wrist when you are lying or sitting at home.
Larger tablets are better for productivity and tend to have more powerful processors, but are heavier and – obviously – larger and less portable.
These days screens are better quality and there are fewer duds, but it’s still worth reading our reviews to find out if there are any particularly good or bad ones. You can look for specifications such as resolution, pixel density and aspect ratio, but none will tell you anything about a screen’s colour accuracy, contrast or brightness. Look for an IPS or AMOLED screen and avoid anything with a TN screen.
Wi-Fi or 4G?
If you need to get on the internet while you’re out and about with your tablet, you might want to go for one which will accept a 3G or 4G SIM card (like your phone). Not many Android tablets have this option, but all iPads do.
Just bear in mind that you’ll pay more for a tablet will a SIM slot and that you’ll need to pay for a special data-only SIM, either on a contract or a monthly pay-as-you-go deal. For most people it’s not worth it: you can use your phone to go online, or set your phone up as a Wi-Fi hotspot so that an ordinary tablet with Wi-Fi (but no SIM card) can get online.
All tablets have Wi-Fi but some have the older 802.11n version and some also support the newer 802.11ac standard. In practice, it doesn’t really matter as even the older 802.11n standard is perfectly fast enough and not that many Wi-Fi hotspots (including home routers) support the faster 802.11ac standard. In any case, both are faster than the average broadband speed.
It’s unlikely you will want GPS in a tablet, but if you do want to use it as a navigation device make sure you get one with a GPS receiver. Only Wi-Fi + cellular iPads have this – Wi-Fi only iPads don’t have GPS.
iPads also have their own proprietary charging cable with a ‘Lightning’ connector. This means that you need peripherals that work specifically with the iPad. Android- and Windows tablets typically connect via a microUSB port which means you can use a standard cable and charger, although some Windows tablets also have full-sized USB connectors which are very handy for attaching a USB flash drive, hard drive or even a keyboard or printer. Reversible USB Type-C is becoming more common, too.
If you need to connect a USB flash drive to your tablet, Android can also be a good option as long as its microUSB port supports OTG (on the go), and you’ll also need a specific OTG flash drive with a microUSB connector.
Some people like to connect their tablet to their TV. Bear in mind that not all apps allow you to view them on a big screen, for example the Sky Go app. There are ways to connect tablets wirelessly to a TV: iPads can do with if you have an Apple TV and Android tablets may use Miracast or you could buy a £35 Google Chromecast and use your Android tablet like a giant remote control for that. For more, see how to connect an Android tablet to a TV.
How much storage do I need?
Storage is important, but it’s most important with tablets that don’t have a microSD slot, because no slot means you can’t add more storage after you’ve bought the tablet. iPads don’t have microSD slots, and the same is true for a few Android tablets.
The headline number for internal storage can be misleading. For example an 8GB tablet might have only 5GB of free space available to use: the rest is taken up by the operating system and pre-installed apps. Windows tablets can be the worst for this: a 64GB Microsoft Surface might have as little as 23GB of usable space.
Add-on storage like microSD cards and USB drives might be cheap, but they’re not as good as built-in storage because not all tablets allow you to install apps on a microSD card. Performance might suffer, too, as some USB drives and microSD cards are much slower than internal storage.
Cameras and battery life
Tablets cameras tend to be worse quality than on the best phones. Just check our reviews to find out if a tablet has good or bad cameras.
Don’t forget about battery life. You don’t want your tablet to last less than around six hours, and the recharge time is worth knowing, too. Some tablets take almost as long to charge as they do to run down. We say in our reviews how long each tablet lasts.
As a benchmark, every iPad lasts about 10 hours or so for watching videos or browsing the web. That’s multiple days with ‘normal’ use.
The 2017 iPad isn’t Apple’s usual big upgrade. Instead, it’s aimed at owners of older iPads who want better performance and the latest software features.
It’s slightly disappointing that the screen isn’t laminated and that the cameras aren’t the best Apple offers in an iPad, but considering the price it’s good value overall.
Read our Apple iPad review.
There’s no doubt the Samsung Galaxy Tab S3 is the best Android tablet to be launched in years. If you’re looking for a high-end device to rival the iPad Pro running Google’s software then this is it. However, it’s not without downsides. The price will be too high for many and doesn’t include the Keyboard Cover, the software isn’t the best for a tablet and that glass back isn’t the best choice for multiple reasons.
Read our Samsung Galaxy Tab S3 review.
There’s no doubt that the iPad Pro 9.7 is the best tablet Apple has ever made, combining the power of the original into the stunning form factor of the iPad Air 2 (with a camera bump). Apple has also added new features such as upgraded cameras and one of the best displays we’ve seen on a tablet. Whether you should buy one is another question, though, and depends on your perspective (see above). For some, the iPad Pro 9.7 will be the perfect balance between work and play while for others it will simply not be up to the job. What we can say is that it’s certainly not the ‘ultimate PC replacement’ as it’s trying to do too many things at once.
Read our Apple iPad Pro 9.7-inch review.
iPad mini 4
There are cheaper tablets – cheaper iPads even – but if you can afford to buy the iPad mini 4 you won’t be disappointed. It finally has a great screen and while it can’t match the more powerful iPad Air 2, it’s got more than enough poke to satisfy demanding users. The rear camera is decent and a big step up from many cheaper tablets. With great build quality and battery life on top, it’s hard to fault the new mini so unless you want to wait to see if Apple launches an iPad Air 3, or you want the Air 2’s bigger screen, it’s a good buy.
Read our iPad mini 4 review.
There is a great deal to like and rave about the Surface Pro 4. The design is thinner and lighter for starters. The screen is awesome, there’s plenty of power available, the new Surface Pen is better and the Type Cover is a vast improvement on the last one. However, the design is inherently awkward at times, it’s more expensive that a lot of laptops and the Type Cover, which you’ll pretty much need, isn’t included lowering the value.
Read our Microsoft Surface Pro 4 review.
- Reviewed on: 8 December 2015
- RRP: £729 (32GB, WiFi); £819 (128GB, WiFi); £909 (256GB, WiFi); £939 (128GB, cellular), £1029 (256GB, cellular), US$799 (32GB, WiFi); $899 (128GB, WiFi); $999 (256GB, WiFi); $1,029 (128GB, cellular), $1129 (256GB, cellular)
At £679, few people will buy the iPad Pro instead of an iPad Air 2. It has a great screen and plenty of power, but do you really have a need for this hulking tablet? 32GB of storage will prove too limiting for most people, and the 128GB option with the Pencil and/or keyboard is expensive (that’s ignoring the £65 silicone rear cover). If you’re considering the Pro, go to an Apple store and hold one to understand exactly how bulky and hefty the new tablet really is. If you can live with all that the Pro is a great choice – just don’t expect it to replace your laptop.
Read our Apple iPad Pro 12.9-inch review.
As a standalone tablet, the Pixel C is superb. It’s better than the HTC-made Nexus 9 which was great but not exceptional. Which the ‘C’ most certainly is. Storage is a bit limited, but if you can live with 32GB it’s good value at £399.
Paying an extra £119 for the keyboard is something we can’t see many buyers doing. If typing is a priority, you’d be better off spending your £518 on a decent ultraportable laptop as Android Marshmallow – good as it is – isn’t nearly as versatile as Windows. And while the keyboard is well designed, you’ll still prefer a full-size laptop keyboard. If you need to run Windows apps, the consider the Surface 3 which is slightly cheaper – even with the optional keyboard – but remember that there are even cheaper options such as the Asus Transformer T100HA.
Read our Google Pixel C review.
The Amazon Fire HD 8 2017 ticks a lot of the right boxes. It’s affordable, well built and plays back video to an exceptionally high standard.
But we’ll say it again – you need Amazon Prime to fully enjoy it. It’s not that it is a complete necessity, but the prominence in the operating system of Amazon’s own apps and services means without a Prime membership it’s a frustrating user experience.
This caveat aside, it’s an incredibly priced media consumption tablet that exemplifies Amazon’s dominance in the low-end market – this over makes it an attractive, interestingly unique option.
Read our Amazon Fire HD 8 2017 review.
In a stagnated market, the Huawei MediaPad M3 initially feels a little underwhelming. After extended use though, we reckon it’s a cut above the mid-range, but then again at this price you are paying for it. It’s a good alternative to an iPad if you want an Android tablet that’s bigger than an iPad mini but smaller than an iPad Air 2. But, who is specifically looking for that? The MediaPad is excellent and we recommend it, but it lacks a certain ‘wow’ factor that’s largely down to the high number of existing Android tablets. The MediaPad 3 is a cut above, but you should also consider Samsung’s Galaxy Tab series for a similarly excellent Android tablet experience.
Read our Huawei MediaPad M3 review.