Tablet Buying Guide 2021: An Ever Evolving and Affordable Form of Computing

Tablet Buying Guide 2021: An Ever Evolving and Affordable Form of Computing

by Tech News
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Like PCs and other tech products as of late, tablets have seen a resurgence and demand’s been reaching new record levels. Not only are tablets more powerful today, but the displays are better, and we can enjoy features on mainstream models previously reserved for more expensive flagships.

Whether you need a new tablet for work or study, content consumption, web browsing, or for your kids, this buying guide has got you covered. From high-end to budget, iPad, Android or Windows, here are our picks of the best tablets.

Best Tablets 2021

  • Best for Most
  • Best for One-Hand Use
  • Best of the Best
  • Best Productivity Tablet
  • Best Android Tablet
  • A Budget Option

The Best Tablet for Most People

Apple iPad 10.2″ (9th-gen)

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Great | Differentiating Features
Unbeatable combination of price, performance, and features.

Good | Most Have It
Storage starting at 64GB is a notable upgrade over predecessor’s 32GB.

Average | Competitors May Be Better
Bezels remain chunky. Lacks the display features of other iPad models and power of Pro models.

The Apple iPad comfortably retains the tablet crown, despite the vast improvements made by Android and Windows tablets over the last few years. While several options are available at various price points, the $329 iPad is our pick as the best for most people.

This 9th generation iPad has minor differences over the 2020 model, but it’s definitely worth the money if you’re upgrading from an older iPad. The two tablets look nearly identical, and the biggest changes are the newer version’s upgrade to the faster A13 Bionic SoC and 64GB of base storage. It also has the same starting MSRP of $329 for 64GB, or $479 for 256GB.

The fantastic 2160 x 1620 Retina display remains, offering 500 nits of brightness and the same 264 PPI as the iPad Pros. It does lack several features of the more expensive models, but the iPad is colorful, crisp, and great for content consumption of all types. The stereo speakers at the bottom offer good audio output and there’s also a 3.5mm headphone jack.

The upgrade to the A13 Bionic SoC offers improved CPU and GPU performance. It’s not the state-of-the-art M1 found in the iPad Pro, but there’s plenty of power here with good efficiency.

Elsewhere, the 8MP rear cam and 10-hour battery are unchanged, but the 1.2MP front cam has been upgraded to an ultra wide 12MP; there’s support for the first-gen Apple Pencil and Smart Keyboard. It comes with Touch ID, it hasn’t upgraded to USB-C from the Lightning port like its siblings, and a 20W charger is included. You also get iPadOS — the most complete tablet OS available. A brilliant combination of price, performance, and features make this an easy top choice.

Willing to spend a little more?
Check out the iPad Air 4

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If you want a few features that the standard iPad doesn’t have but don’t need the iPad Pros’ power, the Air is an interesting middle ground. At $599, it’s not as affordable, but it offers many of the Pros’ best features at a more reasonable price.

Some of the Air’s advantages over the standard iPad include an all-screen design without a home button (Touch ID is built into the power button); a fully laminated, 10.9-inch 2360 x 1640 Liquid Retina display with a wide color gamut and an anti-reflective coating; a 12MP rear camera; and Magic Keyboard, Smart Keyboard Folio, and 2nd-gen Apple Pencil support. The only real drawback compared to the basic iPad is the 7MP front camera.

It also has USB-C charging, and sports the more powerful A14 Bionic and 4GB of RAM, all wrapped in a thin and light design. If you’re happy to pay a bit more, the iPad Air 4 is a top choice at its size category. Shame about the lack of a 120Hz screen and Face ID.

The Best Tablet for One-Hand Use

Apple iPad Mini 6 – 2021

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Great | Differentiating Features
A15 SoC is faster than the iPad Air’s. Pixel density is 326ppi. Sub-6GHz 5G speed support on the Wi-Fi + Cellular version.

Good | Most Have It
Easy to hold with a single hand. Battery life is 10 hours. Support for 2nd-gen Apple Pencil.

Average | Competitors May Be Better
Keyboard support limited to Bluetooth.

Most tablets with displays smaller than 9″ are budget devices with outdated hardware and older Android versions, but the iPad Mini is a glaring exception. Regardless of size, the Mini is one of the best tablets on the market.

With a 2266×1488 resolution, its 8.3″ display actually has the highest pixel density of all iPads (326ppi). It sports the A15 Bionic chip which is faster than the Air’s A14 and it has the same 4GB of RAM. The Wi-Fi + Cellular version also supports sub-6GHz 5G speeds, unlike the basic iPad and iPad Air. It combines the same ultra-wide 12MP front camera as the basic iPad with the iPad Air’s 12MP wide rear camera.

The Mini doesn’t support the Smart Keyboard or Magic Keyboard, but it supports the 2nd-gen Pencil. It also has 4 color options. It starts at $499 with 64GB of storage and Wi-Fi, and for $150 more you get 256GB of internal storage.

Best of the Best

Apple iPad Pro (M1)

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Great | Differentiating Features
More power than you’ll need on the M1 chip. 120Hz refresh rate display. Face ID. Solid camera array. 12.9″ model gets mini-LED HDR capable display.

Good | Most Have It
Impressive battery life.

Average | Competitors May Be Better
Expensive. Still not a direct laptop replacement. Pencil and Magnetic Keyboard sold separately.

The iPad Pro 11″ remains our top pick as the best tablet you can buy overall. With the M1 chip, the latest iPad Pros have received more horsepower than you’re probably going to need. The USB-C connector supports USB4/Thunderbolt speeds, and the Wi-Fi + Cellular versions also support 5G.

The 11″ Pro is the best iPad for several types of professionals. If you are a graphic artist, drawing on a 120Hz display will be a different experience. If you are an indoor designer who wants to show your clients what their kitchen or office would look like, LiDAR is a must-have. The bezels in the iPad Pro are slimmer than the Air’s, and it’s compatible with the same accessories. You also get a 12MP front camera and four speakers.

While the large 12.9-inch Pro is great, it’s overkill for most users unless you plan to take advantage of the higher quality display. If you are a video editor who works on the go, the 12.9” Pro might be the device of your dreams. The Mini-LED display with its 1600 nits of peak brightness (1000 for the whole screen), its only competitors are some of the most expensive laptops.

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These are the first iPads to receive a desktop-grade processor. The M1 SoC delivers considerable performance gains over previous iPad Pro models equipped with the A12Z Bionic. Apple claims the 8-core CPU and GPU are 50- and 40-percent faster. Not that you’re going to notice too much. Apple used to say that the A-series SoC was “faster and more powerful than most Windows PC laptops,” but with the M1 we can entirely believe that claim now.

The magnetic Magic Keyboard (optional $350 extra) features a floating design and cantilevered hinges to support viewing angles of up to 130 degrees, plus the software integration to make this ever closer to becoming a laptop replacement — a decent attempt for casual users.

The iPad 11-inch sports the same ProMotion display as the previous generation, boasting of a buttery smooth 120Hz refresh rate, which makes scrolling a joy. There’s also Face ID and narrow bezels that make this a svelte and well crafted slate. You also get a USB-C connector, and there’s the Apple Pencil — sold separately — which attaches magnetically to the side, it’s very responsive and delivers a very polished user experience.

The square camera module resembles the iPhone, getting you a 12MP wide lens, 10MP ultrawide and a LiDAR scanner for “AR experiences.”

The 11″ Pro starts at $799 for the Wi-Fi only version with 128GB ($749 on Amazon), and goes up from there as you add storage and RAM. Same goes for the 12.9″ model that starts at $999 for the cheapest, Wi-Fi only, 128GB version. You don’t even want to know how much a maxed out iPad costs (honestly, it’s ridiculous), but for lovers of slates, there’s none better.

Best Productivity Tablet

Microsoft Surface Pro 8

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Great | Differentiating Features
Full Windows productivity on an Intel CPU. Two Thunderbolt 4 ports. Replaceable SSD. Stylus has haptic feedback.

Good | Most Have It
Gorgeous, 120Hz display and long battery life.

Average | Competitors May Be Better
More expensive than last-gen model. Stylus and keyboard cost extra. Intel CPUs require active cooling.

The Surface Pro 8 was released in late 2021 and has instantly become our top choice for Windows productivity on the go. It comes packing quad-core 11th-gen Core processors and up to 32GB of RAM, and includes two Thunderbolt 4 ports, but no USB Type-A. The screen is bigger than previous versions at 13″ and the bezels are slimmer, and you get the same solid case with kickstand that allows it to be used at different angles.

The 120Hz IPS display uses the 3:2 aspect ratio (2880 x 1920) we’ve come to expect from Surface devices, making it great for productivity work. You also get a 10-megapixel camera on the rear and a 5-megapixel cam on the front for Windows Hello. While the top-specced machine can cost $2,600, the base Core-i5 model with 8GB of RAM and a replaceable 128GB SSD can be had for $1,100.

The Slim Pen 2 charges wirelessly and provides haptic feedback, and the Signature Keyboard uses backlit, mechanical keys. The downside is that, like with iPads, the keyboard and stylus cost extra.

The Surface Pro X is a more direct iPad Pro competitor, with the passively-cooled SQ1 or SQ2 ARM processor, up to 16GB of RAM, and optional cellular connectivity. As of writing, a version with SQ1, 8GB of RAM, a 128GB SSD and cellular connectivity can be had for $830.

Best Android Tablet

Samsung Galaxy Tab S7+

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Great | Differentiating Features
The best Android tablet. Amazing display. S-Pen included.

Good | Most Have It
Sleek design, good battery life, cameras, and speakers.

Average | Competitors May Be Better
Android on tablets is still in the shadow of iPadOS. Performance can’t match Apple’s flagship. Pricey.

Much like in the phone business, Apple’s main rival in the tablet market is Samsung (well, and Microsoft). The Galaxy Tab S7 Plus has been hailed as the best Android slate ever built, and it’s easy to see why. We’ve opted for the Plus model of the Galaxy Tab S7 as its got a few advantages over the smaller version. On paper, Samsung’s device is more than a match for the iPad Pros, partly thanks to its 12.4-inch (2800 x 1752, 266ppi) 120Hz, 16:10 display.

The Galaxy Tab S7 Plus uses a Super AMOLED panel that makes content look fantastic, with vibrant, gorgeous colors and perfect blacks that are ideal for outdoor viewing. It’s even got an in-screen fingerprint reader similar to those found on modern phones. An advantage over the iPad Pro is that Samsung’s stylus is free in the box rather than requiring another $99 outlay.

Storage starts at 128GB, and it comes with a USB-Type C port, 6GB of RAM, four speakers, and a 5G option. Camera-wise, you get an 8MP front-facing camera alongside a 13MP snapper and a 5MP ultra-wide at the rear.

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The Samsung Galaxy S7 Plus (starting at $750) is powered by the Snapdragon 865+, a powerful SoC though it’s not in the same performance ballpark as the iPad Pro’s M1 chip. Battery life is an impressive 8 hours and 51 minutes, but you still have to deal with the somewhat disappointing software.

Android on tablets has come a long way, and you do get DeX mode, so compatible apps work in windowed versions, but iPadOS remains superior. But if you’re in the market for a premium Android tablet, the Galaxy S7 Plus is a sleek device with an unmatched screen.

A solid alternative: Galaxy Tab S6

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Our choice from last year, the Galaxy Tab S6 remains a good option for fans of Android tablets. It also comes with a Super AMOLED screen, S-Pen, and several other features that make its successor so great. While not as powerful as the Tab S7 range, you can find the Tab S6 for less.

A non-Samsung option for $400: Lenovo Tab P11 Pro

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Samsung dominates Android tablets the way it does phones, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t alternatives, such as the Lenovo Tab P11 Pro. Lenovo rivals the Tab S7 by featuring a gorgeous OLED screen (11.5 inches, 1600 x 2560, 263 PPI) that comes with HDR10 support, four loud stereo speakers, and impressive battery life. It also starts at a wallet-friendly $399. Unfortunately, the Snapdragon 730G and cameras are a bit underwhelming.

A Budget Option

Amazon Fire HD 10 – 2021 model

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Great | Differentiating Features
Can’t find better at this price, good screen, speakers, and battery life

Good | Most Have It

Average | Competitors May Be Better
Cameras aren’t the best, very Amazon-focused, limited apps

It’s a case of buyer beware when purchasing a budget tablet; there are plenty of sub $200 or even $100 slates available that aren’t worth your time. But Amazon’s Fire HD 10, which runs the Android-based Fire OS, remains a good option at $150 for the 32GB storage model, though you might want to pay the extra $15 to remove the lock-screen ads.

With a crisp, bright screen and fairly loud speakers, the Fire HD 10 is a cost-effective device for those who use tablets sparingly for content consumption, or if you want something cheap for your kids, and it’s even more useful if you have a Prime subscription. The Fire 10 features hands-free Alexa, allowing it to work in the same way as Amazon’s many Echo devices. But you can only access Amazon’s App store, so no Google services — unless you’re willing to sideload them.

In this latest 2021 iteration, the Fire HD 10 has received a new thinner and lighter design, more RAM, and a brighter 10-inch display. Now with 3GB of RAM, 32GB and 64GB storage options (expandable up to 1TB via microSD), and a 2.0GHz octa-core processor, all of which is nice for that low price point.

Good for kids: Lenovo Smart Tab M10 HD (2nd-gen)

For something a little different that’s around the same price, check out Lenovo’s Smart Tab M10 HD (2nd-gen), which starts at $150. Its big selling point is the Google Assistant Ambient Mode that turns the Android tablet into a smart display when dropped into the included dock.

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Lenovo’s tablet is well-built for the price and is especially suitable for young children thanks to Google Kids Space. The feature works with Google’s Family Link to show a colorful interface packed with child-friendly games, videos, books, and apps. The tablet is a bit underpowered, has a lower resolution than the Fire HD (1280 x 800), and the battery life could be better, but the Smart Tab M10 HD is a viable alternative to Amazon’s product.

Paying a little more: Samsung Galaxy Tab A7

While the two previous tablets offer great value, paying a little extra will get you something even better: the Samsung Galaxy Tab A7 ($215) comes with everything you need from a content consumption-focused tablet; the 2000 x 1200 (224 PPI), 10.4-inch screen is vibrant and colorful, the speakers and battery life are excellent, and the build is sturdy.

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Samsung’s tablet also comes with features you’d expect to find on more expensive models, including facial recognition and USB-C charging. The Snapdragon 662 processor and 3GB RAM mean the A7 isn’t on par with the entry-level iPad, and the camera isn’t great, but it’s also a lot cheaper than Apple’s slate.

Masthead credit: Daniel Romero

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