Tablet Buying Guide

A lot of people own a phone and a computer, but sometimes you've just got to have a third screen. A good tablet handles a lot of the tasks you might do with a laptop—browsing the web, catching up on email, watching movies—but in a more comfortable package. Sure, you can curl up on your couch with a computer, but a flat, lightweight tablet is much easier to hold. And for many people, a tablet may be all the computer they need or want.

It can be difficult to how much to spend on a new tablet, with prices ranging from less than $100 to more than $1,000. Pay too much and you may be wasting money on advanced features you don't care about. Pay too little and you might find yourself with a tablet that requires too many compromises: a mediocre display, paltry built-in storage, or poor cameras.

Below you’ll find some of the major questions you should ask yourself while shopping for a tablet, and you can also check out our tablet ratings, which are based on lab testing of products we buy at retail using a team of secret shoppers. 

What to Ask Yourself

Is Portability a Priority?
Most tablets with displays 8 inches or smaller weigh well under a pound. Many are very thin, and most have at least 10 hours of battery life. Some top 15 hours. But of course larger displays can provide a better experience for watching movies, reading, or using productivity and art apps.

What’s Your Budget?
Some small tablets sell for less than $100, but cheaper models come with compromises. There are a number of very good 7- to 8-inch tablets starting at under $200. Tablets with larger display sizes and premium features cost more. 

Are You Looking for Maximum Versatility?
Lots of factors can affect a tablet's versatility, from the screen size to its memory. If you plan on extended tasks like reading books or watching movies while you travel, you should consider a machine with at least 12 hours of battery life. The entry-level iPad starts at just over $300 and has a 10.2-inch display. It was last refreshed in fall 2021 and offers a good mix of features and performance, but it's missing features you'll get with some other tablets, such as memory card slots to expand storage for files like photos and videos. Most iPad models now support a stylus called the Apple Pencil, which is useful for creating digital art and taking “handwritten” notes (though the Pencil can cost you an additional $130, depending on which version you need).

Are You a Bookworm?
You can save some money with a tablet from Amazon if you're planning on relatively simple tasks such as reading e-books or streaming video, with some casual web browsing and social media use on the side. These models start around $50. These tablets don’t have the highest-resolution displays, but you’re unlikely to notice if you’re mostly reading.

Do You Want a Tablet That’s Also a Laptop?
Microsoft’s Surface line of devices can be thought of as both a tablet and a laptop; Microsoft heavily promotes the use of a keyboard that doubles as a protective cover, but it’s sold separately, starting around $60 for one that’s compatible with the entry-level Surface Go. Without a keyboard, the device functions as a good tablet. With the keyboard cover it functions like a Windows laptop.

Do You Have Kids?
Parents have more control over what their kids are doing with parental filters. Tablets like the Amazon Fire and Walmart Onn Pro, which cost around $100, let parents create profiles for their children that limit what apps they can use.

Tablet Features

All models offer WiFi connectivity, and most have a front-facing webcam. Some tablets also have built-in 4G LTE and even 5G connectivity, allowing you to access the internet when you’re out of WiFi range. This typically adds about $10 to your monthly cell phone bill.

Operating System
A tablet’s capabilities are in large part determined by its operating system. The operating system will determine which app stores and which apps are available to you (see "Consider the App Market," below). Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android dominate the tablet market. There are fewer Windows tablets available now than in the past, but Microsoft still sells its Surface line of devices. Amazon's tablets run on the company's own Fire OS.

Storage in many tablets can be expanded using a memory card, and a few models can read USB flash drives. The iPad has no memory-card slot, but adapters, available for around $20, are available to connect flash drives.

Printing Capability
Most printer manufacturers have apps that allow WiFi printing from iPad and Android tablets.

Tablet Shopping Tips

Pay Attention to Aspect Ratio
We find the iPad’s squarish screen to be better suited to most uses than a longer, narrower one. However, rectangular screens, like those in the 16:9 ratio held horizontally, offer a wider landscape view that’s better for watching movies.

Consider the App Market
The breadth and quality of Apple’s app market is still a competitive edge for the iPad and continues to overshadow those for Android and Fire OS, which powers Amazon’s Fire tablets. App developers frequently create apps for Apple’s platforms first, and sometimes exclusively, with no options for Android or Fire OS users. Fire OS users also miss out on several popular apps, including Chrome, Firefox, Word, and Excel. There are alternatives available, including Amazon’s Silk browser and Amazon WorkDocs, but you may miss working with the exact apps you’re already familiar with.

WiFi Is Good Enough for Most People
WiFi-only models are less expensive than those that incorporate cellular service, and that cell connection adds another charge to your monthly mobile bill. Keep in mind that many cell phone plans allow you to share your smartphone’s cellular internet service with your tablet via tethering, but they may charge extra for you to be able to do so.

Buying a Tablet for Kids?

While ordinary tablets are fine for older kids, Amazon has models created specifically for younger children. They offer parental controls that let you block access to certain apps and websites, and provide curated content for an added fee.

Multiple Profiles
If you plan to have kids share the tablet, look for one that lets you create a profile for each user. That way you ensure an age-appropriate experience for everyone.

Battery Life
If you’re planning to take the tablet on trips, make sure it will last long enough to keep your child occupied. Look for battery life in the 7- to 9-hour range.

Tablet Brands

Fire tablets come in competitively priced 7-, 8-, or 10-inch models. Subscribers to Amazon Prime, $119 per year, have access to extra content, including movies, TV shows, and books. The app store is curated by Amazon. The Fire OS-based tablets have a user interface customized by Amazon. And Amazon has two models, one 7-inch and one 8-inch, designed for children. They feature a rugged case and a two-year "worry-free" guarantee: If your child breaks the tablet for any reason, it can be replaced free of charge.
Apple’s tablet lineup now consists of the high-end iPad Pro, which is available in 11- and 12.9-inch models; the entry level iPad; the midrange iPad Air; and the iPad Mini 6. In addition to varying screen sizes, the differences come down largely to power: The iPad Pro, for example, has Apple’s speediest tablet chip and a souped-up display. Older, less expensive models are still easy to find online. Newer iPads are available with optional 5G service, while all older models are available with 4G service compatibility.
Lenovo tablets are a good middle ground—cheaper than higher-end Samsung tablets but with the full flexibility of the Android OS, unlike Amazon's Fire tablets, which lock you into the restricted Fire OS. Lenovo models come in 8- and 10-inch versions.
Samsung consistently puts out our highest-rated Android tablets. The best models are often more expensive than other Android tablets, but some, such as the Galaxy Tab A 8.0, are modestly priced. If you want the flexibility of the Android OS but with the screen sharpness, long battery life, and fast processor speeds of an iPad, Samsung may be the right choice for you.
Walmart's private label electronics brand Onn offers budget tablets. They rate similarly to Amazon Fire tablets, making them a good choice for consumers who merely want to browse the web, use social media, and watch videos, but they have the added benefit of providing full access to the apps in the Google Play store (think Gmail, the Chrome browser, etc.).
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