Full disclosure: I love tablets. There’s something just delightfully sci-fi about the idea of a keyboard-less computer; a laptop that can be held in your palm. The concept was born out of the imaginations of science-fiction writers such as Douglas Adams, Isaac Asimov, and Gene Roddenberry – and as such, I feel space-aged just to live in a world where they exist.
Tablets have taken the world by storm since Steve Jobs first shared his vision of the consumer-focused iPad with the world. Nine years later, they're everywhere – in offices, schools, and even on archaeological digs (where I'm told they're heaven sent, because their uniform nature means they don't get clogged up with dust, as used to happen with computers).
Lately, tablets have come under pressure, perhaps for the first time in their existence, thanks to the rise of the 2-in-1 laptop, which fold back into tablets while offering all the functionality of a laptop at the same time. And smartphones are getting bigger, moving into their territory too. But still tablets persist, and they're still my favourites. A big phone screen is nice, but it’ll never match the comfort of reading from an actually big screen. A 2-in-1 laptop might have a touchscreen, but it’s also heavier and less portable than a tablet. And anyway, tablets generally tend to be cheaper than either. Win-win.
I know, I know, picking an iPad as the best tablet out there is really boring. But even I, no great fan of Apple, would struggle to deny that their tablets are far and away the cream of the crop. There’s just something about iOS, Apple's operating system, which fits so stupendously well with the tablet format.
That's both good and bad news for the consumer: good, because Apple have had the common sense to focus on really squeezing the most from this line of products; and bad, because it's led to a near bewildering array of models: the iPad, iPad Air, iPad Mini, and iPad Pro. Being spoilt for choice doesn't always mean making that choice is any simpler. So, which should you buy?
Obviously you’ll get a reasonably consistent experience throughout: the premium metallic back, the lovely bright retina display, the made-for-fingers iOS. As for the differences, I'll run you through them quickly.
iPad Pro (£719 - £1,869, John Lewis) is a behemoth with super-powered innards that would probably blow your laptop out of the water, but it is excessively expensive. iPad Mini (£390 - £654, John Lewis) is also very powerful and also very good looking, but I found it uncomfortably small. The basic iPad (£295 - £389, Currys) is the cheapest, and is still very good, but it’s slower, heavier, and the screen isn’t as good as the rest.
Which brings us to the iPad Air, my pick of the bunch. It’s got a slightly bigger screen than the basic iPad, but it’s not so massive as to be unwieldy like the iPad Pro. That’s an important point because the iPad Air lives or dies on its portability, and this one doesn’t disappoint.
The screen is still of the highest standard with a fantastic anti-glare filter that should be more than enough to beat off even the harshest overhead lighting. It also has a feature called True Tone which uses the tablet’s camera to subtly adjust the screen’s brightness and colours to make it easy to read, no matter where you are. Whether you’re moving from the window to the wall in an open plan office, or you’re on the go, that’ll be a lifesaving feature.
And it’s not just the screen that’s fantastic. The cameras are of an incredibly high quality, the speakers are brilliant (and there’s a headphone jack, which Apple dropped on the iPad Pro), there’s bags of storage plus iCloud, and a huge battery.
While there are some pretty blatant cash grabs associated with the product (avoid the decidedly “meh” Apple Pencil and just buy a third party keyboard case), there’s simply no denying that iPad Air is the apotheosis of the tablet form. It isn’t trying to be a laptop, or a phone, or a smart speaker; it's a tablet through to its bones, and a bloody good one at that.
When I told a colleague I was doing a story on tablets, the first thing he asked was whether I could recommend one to replace his god awful old laptop. If you’re in the same boat, look no further, my friends, because the Microsoft Surface Go is the device for you.
While it is very much a tablet and can be used as one, it runs on Windows 10 and when you attach the magnetic keyboard case, it looks and feels like a laptop.
I’ll concede that it takes a minute or two to get used to a laptop with such a small keyboard, but once you’re acclimatised, it becomes second nature. The ten-inch screen is a lovely size, easily big enough to see what you’re doing, but small enough to be ultra portable.
The whole thing is just packed full of great little features. The stylus (more on that shortly) is magnetic and clips to the side when not in use, the kickstand on the back is maybe the robust-feeling kickstand I’ve ever seen, and the processor is more than speedy enough to be able to keep up with anything a standard user will need.
The keyboard and stylus are sold separately, but at about £100 and £75 respectively, they’re much cheaper than other options which we’ll come to later. And you will want that stylus because, simply put, it is the single best tablet stylus out there, stuffed to the brim with what I’d call fuzzy tech. That is to say, tech that’s so intuitive it feels almost analogue.
The Surface Go has plenty of drawing apps and all you need to do is open up one of them with the stylus to feel the full effect. It feels like a real pen or pencil. Press harder on the screen and you’ll notice the “ink” that appears is slightly darker, use a lighter touch and you’ll get a lighter look, ideal for shading. I’m not an artist, but have a quick Google search and you’ll see the amount of genuinely jaw-dropping artwork people have made with the Surface Go. I just love how natural it feels in the hand.
Most of these tablets come with a handwriting recognition system so you can scribble down notes and have them turned into printed font, but Microsoft’s OneNote is the only one I felt comfortable using in a meeting, safe in the knowledge that it would accurately record my writing and not miss anything out, thanks to the stylus.
Finally, I think it’s worth saying that the pricing feels fair for the Surface Go. You can get higher-end models for more, but at £379 for the starting model, it's accessible without being cheap. Obviously there are drawbacks, such as a camera which is just “fine” rather than excellent, and the storage is pretty small. It still doesn't quite have the wow factor of Apple's super-shiny iPad.
But overall, this one will do everything the average person will need and could be a cheaper replacement for a computer if you only need one for browsing the internet and a bit of word processing.
3. Google Pixel Slate
What we like about it: ChromeOS is a lovely half-way house between Apple and Android
For my money, the Made By Google range of devices is some of the best, most user-friendly tech out there at the moment, and Google’s answer to the iPad is no exception.
The Pixel Slate effectively apes Apple’s premium design. I love the rounded edges, the cool brushed metal back, and the bright, ultra-responsive screen. The whole thing feels perfectly balanced – I could comfortably hold it in one hand, despite the huge 8x11.5” screen. There’s even a fingerprint scanner to make unlocking it as easy as possible.
The operating system is equally impressive. The Pixel Slate runs on ChromeOS, a kind of hybrid between Android and iOS that looks and feels just fantastic to use. A few years ago, the downside was there so few apps supported ChromeOS that it was basically useless, but thanks to some behind-the-scenes work, Google have made it so almost everything on the Android store also works with ChromeOS. No drawbacks to be found here.
Anyway, let's get to the meat of the matter. The huge screen is really the selling point of this device. Google’s 12.3” molecular display is incredibly, capturing every pixel’s detail. It’s beautiful, probably the best here for watching television programmes or playing games on.
But equally, the Pixel Slate is almost a laptop killer too, packing plenty of internal storage (up to 256GB) plus cloud storage, and coming with plenty of laptop-esque features like an impressive wide-angle inner camera for making video calls with the whole family, a 12 hour battery life, and a fairly impressive keyboard case.
The special Slate keyboard feels fantastic to use. It has round keys rather than square ones because, according to Google, that will make you type more efficiently and therefore faster. Given that I spend all day typing for a living, I didn’t notice much difference, but I’ve heard anecdotally from other users that they do feel they type faster on their Pixel Slate than on a regular laptop.
The downside is that the keyboard, and the equally lovely Pixel Slate Pen stylus, cost a fortune. On top of the tablet itself (which definitely isn’t cheap by any means) the keyboard costs £189 and the stylus is £99. Buying the whole lot, you’re paying over £1,000 which seems excessively steep to me.
My other slight complaint is that the hinge in the keyboard case is slightly placed, so while the Pixel Slate works fine as a laptop when you’re at a desk, it’s a bit too wobbly to use on your actual lap.
Still, if you’re prepared to pay the price, you get a really good quality product which is incredibly intuitive to use. But, if anyone at Google is reading, I’d really recommend doing the same trick you just pulled with your phones and releasing a budget Slate to fit alongside this one. I know I’d buy it.
4. Amazon Fire 7 (6th Gen)
What we like about it: The price
The only place to start with the Amazon Fire 7 is the price. £50 for a tablet is a mad price. Sure, Amazon are a trillion dollar company and could afford to give these away for free if they wanted, but so is Apple, and we’re yet to see a £50 iPad.
Considering that price, you actually get a pretty fair deal. The Fire 7 is a light, easy-to-hold tablet which is easy to read or view from and does everything you need it to do. With eBooks and Amazon Prime Video built in, you should have no lack of content to worry about, and the eight hour battery life from a single charge should be plenty to get you through a long trip.
There’s a headphone jack and expandable storage, two features that many of the major tablet manufacturers have started to do away with over the past few generations.
It’s also worth remembering that this is just a small version of the Amazon Fire 8. The functionality is exactly the same, but that device has a bigger screen. Simple.
I’m also a big fan of the ability to set profiles, ideal for parents with little tykes who are constantly asking to borrow it. Rest easy that you can quickly switch profile and prevent your sprogs from accidentally buying a bulk order of chocolate buttons while your back is turned. (Or see our roundup of the best tablets to buy for kids, for something more tailored to their – and your – needs.)
Amazon update these tablets all the time but the latest version offers the best value, with 16-32GB base storage, a fast processor to cut down on loading time, and hands-free Alexa compatibility.
However, you won't be surprised to learn that a £50 tablet does come with a number of drawbacks. Both the inner and outer cameras are poor, the plastic back feels a bit tacky, and the huge bezels around the screen look really dated, making the whole device feel bulkier than it is.
There’s also Amazon’s continuing petty scrap with Google which sees all its devices using an ugly, unresponsive version of Android and unable to access Google apps like YouTube and Drive without going through the browser. It also means that Amazon hosts its own app store which is no where near as good as Google Play or the iOS App Store.
Still, no matter what criticisms I level at this thing, there’s no getting around the fact that it is really cheap. For those who basically just want a tablet to read books, watch movies, and browse on a bigger screen than their phones can offer, this is easily the best cheap tablet on the market.
5. Lenovo Smart TAB P10
Given that Lenovo is charging under £200 for this tablet, you might feel like you could justifiably dial back your expectations a little, but to do so would be a mistake.
There’s no denying that there are better tablets on this list, but Lenovo have packed this one with a few neat tricks of its own that make it a slightly more interesting device than you might expect.
Let’s start with the look and feel. The P10 looks a lot more premium on the outside than it is on the inside. The glass back and light weight body give it a luxury feel – certainly one that belies its price point. And with Dolby Atmos speakers, it also sounds great.
The screen is perfectly serviceable, if not quite up there with the best of them. Same goes for the camera, and the processor which does tend to get bogged down when you’ve got a lot of tabs open.
The tablet comes with a lovely looking fabric speaker/charging dock. Simply slip your device into that and it’ll connect instantly via Bluetooth to transform into a smart speaker. “Alexa, what’s the weather?”, “Alexa, how does my commute look this morning?”, “Alexa, show me pictures of cats.”
Simply ask away and the in-built Alexa will do anything Amazon’s own devices can do, plus you can pick it up and move around with it. Easy peasy. I was very impressed.
The downside is that while it can do anything Amazon can do, it also has the same limitations. You can’t say, for example, “Alexa, play Line Of Duty on Netflix.” Which is a bit annoying because you can play Netflix on the tablet anyway, you just can’t do it with the in-built voice assistant.
Well, not that in-built voice assistant anyway. Because, as an Android device, the P10 has Google Assistant built-in as well. And you can say “Hey Google, play Line Of Duty on Netflix”.
So here’s my question. Why did Lenovo bother licensing Alexa around Amazon when Google would have been a more seamless fit?
Still, overall, I like the P10. It’s a scrappy, budget-friendly little device which gives you a lot of bang for your buck. It’s not perfect, but the docking option is a unique selling point which makes it worth the cost of entry, in my book.
6. Amazon Fire 10
Amazon’s flagship tablet is another cheap model, similar to the Fire 7 and 8, but with a few features to differentiate it.
The first thing you’ll notice about this one is the length. It’s a long skinny display which takes a bit of getting used to, but certainly represents a great screen to watch films on, as it fits the aspect ratio of most movies. Plus, the stereo-speakers sound make those scores sound great. That being said the HD screen isn’t the sharpest and even the introductory video looks a little jagged around the edges.
You’ve got a headphone jack, ten hour battery life, expandable storage, and this model also comes with Alexa built in which is a nice addition. You can even flip the device on its side to turn it into an Amazon Echo Show smart home assistant.
All that being said, the cheapness which Amazon managed to just about get away on the smaller Fire 7 does feel more noticeable here, in particular the plastic back cover which feels very thin and shatterable. The plastic screen also picks up fingerprints like nobody’s business which is all the more noticeable on a larger device.
Amazon Fire HD 10 is still a bargain, but it’s certainly less of a bargain, than the smaller model which shares a lot of its DNA. The price just about covers its deficiencies, but I’d think hard before laying down the big bucks on this one.
7. Huawei MediaPad M5
I’ve already discussed a few tablets in this piece which feel like they could almost be laptops, but the Huawei MediaPad M5 feels more like it could be a phone.
If the Incredible Hulk ever needed a phone big enough for those dirty green sausages he calls fingers, then this would be the device for him. It looks and feels sort of like an enormous Samsung Galaxy phone from about 2011, more than a tablet. That’s especially the case given that the Android operating system is very phone-like.
In fact, so phone-like is this tablet, that you can actually slide in a SIM card to make and receive calls on it. Weird, but I can see the niche. For older folks who don’t feel the need to step out of the house with a mobile every day but do want a tablet to read the Telegraph on in bed, this could be the ideal two-in-one device.
And actually, it’s quite a nice tablet in its own right. The screen is just the right size to watch films and TV, and the Harmon Kardon speakers sound fantastic. It’s easy to hold and not actually much heavier than a standard smartphone. You can just about use it with one hand, but you’d be better off with two.
It’s also pretty cheap, though that does mean there are some cut backs. The camera isn’t great, the screen is nothing special, and the processor does feel pretty sluggish meaning there’s a noticeable slow-down if you have a lot of apps running at once.
But hey, it’s not too bad for the price. If you’re looking for a cheap alternative to your phone, this could be ideal.
Frequently asked questions about laptops
Can a tablet replace a laptop?
I’ll answer with a cautious “yes”. Honestly, a tablet with a nice keyboard case isn’t that far removed from a laptop or notebook. You’ll find most tablets have a decently sized screen which is easy to read off and the keyboards are generally very good to type on. If you’re only doing a bit of light web-browsing (most people do so with a mobile device anyway, so the vast majority of sites are optimised for it) and the odd bit of word-processing, a tablet will do the job just fine.
Anything more in-depth, and you might be better to consider buying a laptop. Most tables have a comparatively tiny storage capacity which you’ll quickly fill up if you’re using it to edit photos or videos, download a lot of content, or any heavy duty tasks.
The other wrinkle is in terms of connectivity. Tablets tend not to come with many ports, and lack the older and bigger ports like USB or HDMI entirely, so if you’ll have to prepared to use cloud storage.
What's the difference between a laptop and a tablet?
The biggest difference is that laptops tend to come with a keyboard and trackpad attached, whereas tablets have no keyboard and a touch screen. Laptops also tend to (though this isn’t always true) have more storage, bigger batteries, and more powerful processors, making them bulkier but capable of doing a lot more.
On the flipside, tablets are lighter, more portable, and the touchscreen makes them ideal for creative work.
What is the best tablet for school work?
Big question. Depends on what school work you’re doing on it. When I was an English Literature student I relied on my trusty Kindle Fire as a handy place to store all my books, read papers, listen to audiobooks, and take notes from time to time. The budget price point didn’t hurt either. Then again, I also had a laptop to write my essays on.
If you are off to school sans laptop, I’d recommend the Microsoft Surface Go. It’s basically a miniature laptop in its own right, affordably priced, and with a decent amount of storage space to do just about everything you need. Plus, all the classic Microsoft office tools are at the tips of your fingers.
While I don’t doubt that some students will go the whole hog and buy a Google Pixel Slate or even an iPad Air, I think that’s probably a bit excessive. And if your school is anything like mine was, everyone will think you’re a posho and judge you if you pull one of those out in lectures.