Your buying guide to the best tablets in 2017
The tablet market has slowed down significantly over the past year or so, but a few key models were launched recently. Apple released a new 9.7-inch iPad and a 10.5in iPad Pro, and Samsung updated the Galaxy Tab S2. You can read our review of the Galaxy Tab S3 which is a strong contender. Also make sure you check out the best new tablets coming in 2017 for more.
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.
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.
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 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.
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. For some, a 7-8in tablet is perfect as it’s big enough to be more comfortable to use than an phone, but small enough to fit into a handbag.
Larger tablets are better for productivity and tend to have more powerful processors, but are heavier and – obviously – larger and less portable. 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 SIM card. 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 data-only SIM.
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 a Wi-Fi only tablet can get online.
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.
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.
1. Apple iPad
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 a lot to say about the 10.5in iPad Pro, but in short, we think you’ll love it. It’s a delight to use for a huge variety of tasks thanks to its power, design and great screen size, but it comes at a price. For future-proofing, you’ll likely want to opt for the 256GB Wi-Fi model at £709 at least, and when you add accessories like the keyboard into the mix you’re getting very close to shelling out £1,000, and for that you could buy one of Apple’s laptops.
We’d recommend considering how much you think you’re realistically going to use the iPad Pro. Do you love using a touchscreen? Are you a designer or illustrator who’ll benefit from its compatibility with the Apple Pencil? Do you need a device that’s incredibly portable? Do you need lots of power for gaming or graphics-intensive apps? Do you have lots of disposable income?
If the answer to more than one of those questions is yes, then you might fit perfectly into the target market for the iPad Pro. For everyone else, a laptop or cheaper iPad is likely to suffice.
Read our 10.5-inch iPad Pro review.
4. iPad mini 4
The iPad mini 4 is now only available in 128GB so starts at a higher price of £419. That makes it one of the most expensive small tablets around but it’s still one of the best. It’s got a great screen, excellent build quality, top battery life and Apple’s wealth of apps. You won’t be disappointed if you can afford it.
Read our iPad mini 4 review.
The new Surface Pro is a superb 2-in-1. It’s beautifully built and performs well. The screen is excellent and even the speakers sound good. However, it’s very expensive, especially when you add the cost of the Type Cover and – if you need one – the Surface Pen. Few will opt for the base model, and you’ll pay a heck of a lot more for a Core i7. Ultimately, while a fantastic device, it’s hard to recommend the Surface Pro unless money is no object.
Read our Microsoft Surface Pro (2017) 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.
My gut feeling is that the iPad Pro will become the device it aspires to be when iOS 11 rolls into town. For now, it remains a beautifully designed compromise, meaning it still represents the 2-in-1 market’s struggle to define itself. The large size won’t suit everyone, but there’s a smaller size available. Even for casual users there is attraction in the large display and video playback; Apple has managed to evolve iOS just enough for it not to always feel like a ridiculously large iPhone. Yet the ‘pro’ aspects of the Smart Keyboard and Pencil are, frankly, essential to the full enjoyment of the iPad. You need both, but the curse of this product is that you don’t necessarily need any of it in the first place. For those that do, the iPad Pro comes highly recommended. For everyone else, can you afford the luxury?
Read our iPad Pro 12.9in (2017) 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.
You need an Amazon Prime membership to fully enjoy it, but this isn’t necessary if you’re buying the Kids Edition as that comes with a year’s subscription to Fire for Kids Unlimited.
Overall, it’s an incredibly priced media consumption tablet that exemplifies Amazon’s dominance in the low-end market, and it’s just as good for adults as kids.
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.