Lower Prices Make Tablets Attractive Entry-level Computing Devices

Exploding tablet sales are no more. The latest figures show us that slates and detachables' sales have fallen eight quarters in a row. This could be explained by a number of factors, among them that smartphones are now larger and faster, while laptops are thinner and lighter than they used to, so the scope of tablets has been narrowed down significantly.

On top of that, there have been very few 'must-have' devices released in the past year, in fact most of our recommendations from a year ago are still the best devices you can get today. The good news for consumers is that prices have never been better. Tablets remain an attractive form factor for numerous uses and with the price of a top notch tablet below $400, they are more accessible than ever before. Here's our round-up of the best tablets in each category.

Best Overall

Apple iPad Air 2

Great | Differentiating Features
Still the best iPad for content consumption. Great design and build quality. Features like continuity and handoff are great if you're invested in the iOS ecosystem.

Good | Most Have It
Proven fingerprint sensor. 10-hour battery life.

Average | Competitors May Be Better
No microSD expansion option. 1.2MP Front camera. 16GB base model may not be enough for some.

Even as the tablet market stagnates, Apple’s products remain at the top of the pile with a 21.5 percent market share. Why? Because the company’s iPads remain the most stylish, user-friendly, and well-supported tablets you can buy. And even though it’s now over two years old, you can’t find a better overall experience than the one offered by the iPad Air 2.

The iPad Air 2 may have been surpassed by the iPad Pro when it comes to hardware, but unless you’re determined to use an Apple tablet for productivity purposes, which would also entail buying the smart keyboard and pencil, then paying the extra money for a Pro just isn’t worth it. It may not match the iPad Pro or Microsoft’s Surface Pro 4 when it comes to pure performance, but the Air 2’s A8X’s tri-core CPU running at 1.5GHz with 2GB RAM is still snappy. Web pages load fast, it handles multitasking and split-screen without problems, and it breezes through games.

The Air 2 has the same 2048x1536 resolution and 264 ppi pixel density as its predecessor, but by eliminating the air layers between the LCD panel and the surface glass, Apple has improved image quality and managed to reduce reflection and glare. The Retina display is crisp, clear, and doesn’t cause tired eyes, even after hours of use.

At 437 grams, the Air 2 lives up to its name - you’re unlikely to experience aching hands with this tablet. Features such as Touch ID and Apple Pay help set it apart from other products in the price range, and battery life is rated at a solid 10 hours of use. Connectivity also receives a boost with 802.11ac and support for more 4G bands (on LTE models).

With new 16GB Wi-Fi models on sale for under $350, you can’t buy a better value, all-purpose tablet right now than the iPad Air 2.

Best Productivity Tablet

Microsoft Surface Pro 4

Great | Differentiating Features
A genuine laptop replacement. Beautiful high-resolution display. The latest Type Cover is vastly improved with better tactile feedback and touchpad. The included Surface Pen is highly accurate. First-class build quality and design. Can be customized with some powerful hardware.

Good | Most Have It
Fast performance. Full-fledged Windows 10 operating system is the best for productivity tasks.

Average | Competitors May Be Better
Type Cover costs extra. One USB port. Battery life could be better.

It’s been a full year since Microsoft released its fourth generation of the 2-in-1 detachable, but it’s still the best tablet you can buy when it comes to productivity. The Surface Pro 4 may look similar to the Pro 3, but the thinner, lighter design along with some more powerful hardware and an upgraded resolution make it the best Surface Pro to date.

In addition to the bump up to 2736 x 1824 resolution, the screen gets a small size increase that takes it to 12.3 inches, giving a super-crisp pixel density of 267 ppi. And the silver-colored magnesium casing that surrounds the display just oozes quality.

As Microsoft is marketing the Surface Pro 4 as a genuine laptop replacement, it comes with a slew of configuration options. The Skylake processors on offer range from the lower-end Core m3 models right up to the Core i7 variants. There’s also 4GB, 8GB, or 16GB of RAM, depending on which Pro you opt for. While this hardware can give laptop levels of performance, you will need to fork out for a Type cover, though these have now dropped to around $110, they should still be included by default.

Other plus points of the Surface Pro 4 include the Windows Hello biometric login feature, which takes advantage of the front-facing camera that doubles as a depth camera. The accurate Surface Pen has 1024 levels of pressure, and, assuming you do buy the Type Cover, improved tactile feedback over the Pro 3 and a bigger trackpad that’s covered with glass.

Apple would have you believe that the Surface Pro 4’s main rival is the iPad Pro, but the popularity of Windows in business environments give Microsoft’s machine a definitive edge.

The Pro 4 does lose some points because of its mediocre battery life, but it’s still an amazing tablet. With rumors that the Surface Pro 5 is due to arrive next spring, prices are dropping all the time. You can now find some Core i5 models for ~$1000+.

Best Small/Budget Tablet

Apple iPad Mini 2

Great | Differentiating Features
Premium build quality. Unbeatable tablet app ecosystem. Good overall performance.

Good | Most Have It
7.9-inch Retina display is still beautiful. Easy to hold with a single hand. 10-hour battery life.

Average | Competitors May Be Better
No memory expansion option. 1.2MP front camera. Touch ID is reserved to the more expensive Mini 4 model.

The bulk of the tablet market is made up of low-cost sub-$200 devices, and more often than not 'you get what you pay for' with these products: an experience that’s decidedly sub-par. But as its price continues to decrease, the iPad Mini 2 could soon be the exception to the rule. In the market for three years now, the 7.9-inch display is still great with its 1536 x 2048 resolution and 324 ppi. Build quality is superb and comparing it to tablets around the same price range often shows a difference in class.

The A7 SoC and 1GB may not sound like much, but it’s still better than many of its similarly-priced competitors, and even beats some of the more expensive tablets. It’s certainly more than enough to cope with today’s iOS games and apps.

The iPad Mini 2 comes with a 1.2MP front-facing camera that lets you take part in video chats at 720p and a 5MP snapper on the back, which is pretty decent considering this is a budget tablet. Apple recently increased the base capacity from 16GB to 32GB, while discontinuing the 16GB, 64GB, and 128GB editions of the tablet, though they’re still available from various online retailers. It also knocked the price down to $269 for the Wi-Fi-only version.

While the iPad Mini 2 may sit behind the Mini 4 when it comes to power and features, it's hard to recommend it if what you want is an affordable way in Apple's ecosystem. Paying around $100 extra for the iPad Mini 4's few extra bells and whistles, such as Touch ID, is hard to justify for most. And if you want to spend about $350 on an Apple tablet, you’d be better off buying an Air 2 instead - unless you really wanted the smaller form-factor.

Additionally, the iPad Mini 2 will give you a solid ten hours of life from a battery that's 30 percent bigger than the one found in the Mini 4, so you should get a week's worth of light use out of it between charges.

With models available for under $250 on Amazon (and refurbs going for as little as $215), you’d struggle to find another tablet at this price that can match the iPad Mini 2. But if you’re determined to buy a tablet under $100, your best option is probably Amazon's Fire HD 8. It’s not great, but what do you expect for $90.

Best Android Tablet

Google Pixel C

Great | Differentiating Features
Stands head and shoulders above other Android tablets. Great keyboard and hardware. Sturdy chassis. Bright, gorgeous screen.

Good | Most Have It
10-hour battery life. Snappy performance.

Average | Competitors May Be Better
Android tablet experience not for everybody. Can feel weighty when keyboard is attached.

There are a huge number of Android tablets available, and while most of them don’t excel when it comes to performance, there are a handful of exceptions: the best of the bunch being Google’s Pixel C.

If you’re in the market for a tablet designed for productivity but don’t want to pay Surface Pro 4 prices, then look no further.

Like the Surface Pro, the Pixel C’s keyboard is an optional extra; a shame, as it’s one of the hybrid’s best features. The strong magnet snaps the keyboard in place, turning the Pixel into a laptop with a screen that adjusts to different angles. It can also be attached directly over the front of the Pixel to act as a cover or stuck behind the device when it’s being used as a traditional tablet.

Under the hood there’s a 64-bit 1.9GHz octa-core NVIDIA Tegra X1 processor and 3GB of RAM. Compared to other ARM-based tablets and hybrids, only the iPad Pro outstrips it in benchmark tests. As such, the Pixel is able to run games and applications at lightening-fast speeds, and remains an extremely reliable tablet.

Google says the Pixel C will provide 10 hours of light use on a single charge, though you’ll have to turn the brightness down to make it last this long. It’s worth noting, however, that the Pixel is a lot brighter than its rivals. You also get an 8MP rear camera and a 2MP front snapper, stock Android, and, being a Google device, all the latest OS updates, such as Nougat.

You can find the 32MB Pixel C for around $500. It’s certainly not perfect – that pricey keyboard add-on makes it a bit heavy for some, there’s no microSD slot, and Android on tablets still isn’t great – but if you want an excellent 2-in-1 running Google’s latest mobile operating system, nothing beats the Pixel C.