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We spent weeks testing tablets: Here are the top 3 you should buy

We spent weeks testing tablets: Here are the top 3 you should buy


Whether you’re looking for a portable media experience or a powerful, lightweight laptop replacement for travel, a tablet can fit the bill. These increasingly do-it-all devices can handle work and play, and even replace a laptop. After months of testing, we’ve found four top picks, one of which should fit your touch-screen needs, whichever platform you prefer. Apple’s iPad can handle work and play, the iPad Pro can replace your laptop, Amazon’s Fire HD series is great for on-the-go streaming and Samsung’s Galaxy Tab series continues to push Android tablets further with their DeX productivity environment.

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Best tablet overall

The 9th Gen iPad stood out as the best overall option in our testing thanks to a faster processor that crushes everyday tasks with ease. It mixes performance and value in a way that no other tablet can, and tosses in support for core iPad accessories.

Best performance

The 2021 iPad Pro is the fastest tablet we’ve ever tested and it runs effortlessly through all sorts of tasks — Photoshop exports, video renders, gaming, productivity tasks and streaming all happen without a hitch.

Best Android tablet

The Tab S7 is a clear winner, with enough power to keep up with whatever you can throw at it and plenty of battery life. While Android isn’t quite on par with iPad OS, Samsung DeX brings Windows-like multitasking to the Tab.

Best budget tablet under $200

The Fire HD 8 Plus can handle a host of everyday tasks and access Amazon’s library of content, including streaming movies and TV shows, e-reading and even some light gaming. For $109.99, it can do a lot, but know that the Amazon App Store is limited.

Jacob Krol/CNN

The new ninth-generation iPad keeps the classic design and a quality display but upgrades the front-facing camera and tosses in a faster chip, the A13 Bionic, which should keep this tablet working for many years to come. Most importantly, the price still starts at $329 with 64GB of internal storage. Last year that only got you 32GB, which filled up way too fast. It’s plenty of iPad for most users.

It may not have the laptop-like horsepower of the iPad Pro, but the ninth-gen iPad is best for everyday tasks — emails, web browsing, word processing, gaming, movies, video calls or even making your own films in iMovie. And all of the new features of iPadOS 15 work just fine. We threw all of this and more at the device during our testing period and it chugged right along. Unless you’re doing big-batch photo exports or outputting 4K movies, you’re unlikely to run into issues.

We wouldn’t rush out to upgrade if you have the eighth-gen iPad, though, since you won’t see massive improvements. Those coming from a Fire tablet — like the 8 Plus, our budget pick — or an older iPad, however, will find that the new iPad is snappier.

The ninth-gen iPad still features a 10.2-inch display, and it shines here. Text is both sharp and bold, while images and videos offer a lot of details with great colors. It also features True Tone, which adjusts the screen’s color temperature to match lighting conditions. This has reduced eye strain in our testing, making it easy to use the ninth-gen iPad for an entire day.

That’s good, since you’ll easily make it through a day of use without needing to recharge. The iPad lasted for nine hours and 45 minutes on our battery test, a 25-minute increase over the eighth-gen iPad.

The ninth-gen iPad now features a 12-megapixel camera, a significant upgrade over the previous 1.2-megapixel front camera. Apple’s Center Stage, which first premiered on the 2021 iPad Pro, is included here and performs just as well to identify who’s in the frame and keep them in the shot. This worked great for both video calls and capturing clips of our other projects during our testing

And if you want to use your older accessories with the ninth-gen iPad, you’re in luck. It still supports the first-generation Apple Pencil, so if you have one lying around from an old iPad Pro, you won’t need to buy a new one. If you need a keyboard, it supports the Smart Keyboard or Logitech Combo Touch. We’d opt for the latter since it’s an entire case and the keys provide much more travel if you’re looking for a keyboard. Trust us: Your fingers won’t bottom out nearly as often as they do on the Smart Keyboard. And if you have a seventh- or eighth-gen iPad, it’s the same design so you won’t need to buy new accessories. And conveniently, Apple ships the new iPad with a Lighting to USB-C cable and a 20-watt charging brick in the box.

The ninth-gen iPad continues to deliver an exceptional blend of features and performance for a very affordable price. We’d be willing to bet that this tablet will fit your needs perfectly, whatever they may be, and at a price point that won’t break the bank.

Apple has really let the iPad Pro mature, and the fifth-generation Pro, in either its 11-inch or 12.9-inch configuration, can replace your laptop if you’re willing to work within the limitations of iPadOS.

The M1 chip (yes, the same one that powers the MacBook Air, 13-inch MacBook Pro, 24-inch iMac and Mac Mini) is the star of the show on the iPad Pro, and it delivers ultra-impressive processing power. With an 8-core CPU, 8-Core GPU and 16-Core Neural Engine, the iPad Pro gives you a smooth experience, regardless of the task. The efficient, responsive chip is a core reason the iPad Pro outperformed every other tablet we’ve tested.

This tablet is truly up for any task. Large photo exports happen in milliseconds. Saving a PDF happens instantly. We were able to render 4K movies, export massive photos from Photoshop and import and export data, all with MacBook-like speed and without a hitch.

Apple’s iPadOS gives you access to hundreds of thousands of apps via the App Store. While early iPad Pros fell short as laptop replacements given their lack of multitasking, Apple’s addition of side-by-side multitasking to iPad in iOS 9 made the iPad Pro a productivity contender. Coming this fall, the Pro will receive iPadOS 15, which includes a menu for managing multitasking. We’ve been using the beta and find the new approach more straightforward, plus added features like the useful Quick Note (which lets you create a note from anywhere in iPadOS) give the Pro a more laptop-like feel overall.

While the eighth-generation iPad’s display performance is impressive, the iPad Pro ups the ante with its ProMotion display; the higher refresh rate creates a buttery smooth viewing experience whether you’re simply sorting through a spreadsheet or watching the latest episode of “Ozark” or “Loki.”

Whether you opt for the 11-inch or 12.9-inch variant of the iPad Pro, the display gives you plenty of room to multitask. Those who opt for the 12.9-inch will be in for a real treat, as it’s a Mini LED display. Over 10,000 LEDs behind the glass create immersive images that can pop with vibrancy and simmer down to deliver deep blacks and contrast points. It’s stunning in that it can make text look inky, scale to game with high refresh rates and give this tablet the keen ability for movie editing in Luma Fusion. Mini LED is sadly only found on the 12.9-inch, while the 11-inch sticks with a classic Retina display.

To sum it up, picture quality bests the eighth-generation iPad, iPad Air and iPad Mini. Thanks to a higher resolution, colors pop more, and a more comprehensive range of color support leads to a pristine viewing experience.

Apple has added a neat trick for video calls — CenterStage always keeps you in focus via the front-facing camera and is a dynamic experience. As you physically walk around or move your head around, the iPad Pro will keep you in the shot. Better yet, it works on FaceTime, Zoom, Webex, Slack and Google Meet.

The performance and display quality make the Pro a laptop competitor, but pairing the iPad Pro with the Magic Keyboard, while costly, makes it feel like a true 2-in-1 or even a full-fledged computer. An iPad Pro with a Magic Keyboard and an Apple Pencil is more expensive than a MacBook Air, but you get a truly multi-mode experience that takes advantage of the full power of iPadOS. As the task demands, you can type, or use the Pencil (ideal for note-taking and drawing) or your fingers.

The iPad Pro isn’t the only iPad on the block that can do this, though — the eighth-gen iPad (our overall pick) and the latest iPad Air both support these features. The key difference is the processing power inside and better display, which makes the difference for anyone looking to use an iPad as their primary device.

One downside is the single Thunderbolt 3 USB-C port (the MacBook Air has two). It can do a lot, but you’re stuck with just one. To get the most out of it — or even to keep it charged while running an external monitor — you’ll need to pair it with a USB-C hub, like the Satechi or Hyper models designed specifically for the iPad Pro (though other USB-C hubs should work if you need more ports). This way you can hook up peripherals like SSDs, cameras and even external displays. We do use an iPad Pro as our daily driver, and hook it into a hub to access external storage and a large monitor.

Simply put: The iPad Pro is a beast and really excels as a multi-mode device that allows for a plethora of inputs. The processor’s speed paired with iPadOS allows you to shred through exports, easily multitask with tons of apps and accomplish anything without a hitch. Sprinkle the great display and accessories on top of all that and you have a winning recipe for a solid laptop replacement.

Jason Cipriani/CNN

When it comes to Android tablets, there aren’t many options. Samsung, for the most part, is the only company that consistently releases new Android-powered tablets every year. Amazon’s Fire tablets are Android-based but run a heavily customized version of the operating system that leaves support for Google’s apps and services behind.

Still, even in a limited field, the flagship-level Tab S7 shines. It’s running Android with full Google support and some Samsung customizations (dubbed the One UI interface). A Qualcomm Snapdragon 865+ processor powers the experience (which is quite snappy). It pairs that swift chipset with 6GB of RAM, which means it was up for plenty of multitasking.

The combination of processing power here was also enough to power Samsung DeX — which transforms the standard Android interface into a laptop-like interface — although we did experience some slowdowns in this mode. App compatibility, like Android apps on a Chromebook, was spotty, though it’s still handy for when you need to work in a different environment. You can automatically trigger it by connecting the S7 to Samsung’s keyboard accessory, which is sold separately for $199.

The Tab S7 features an 11-inch screen set in a 16:9 ratio. It’s a bit taller and thinner than, say, the 11-inch iPad Pro. It’s an LCD display and looked crisp and sharp when streaming movies, browsing the web and even cycling through photos. Better yet, it supports up to an iPad-rivaling 120 Hz refresh rate, which delivers a buttery smooth viewing experience. Now, the Tab S7 isn’t the only tablet Samsung dropped this year. There’s the larger Tab S7+ with a 12.4-inch Super AMOLED display — that higher-quality display is the core difference, but in our testing, it didn’t present itself as a clear winner by offering brighter colors or more vivid imagery. The two displays looked almost identical no matter the test.

Powering the S7 is an 8,000mAh battery. During our benchmark battery test that consists of playing a video on repeat with the tablet in airplane mode and screen brightness set to 50%, the S7 lasted 15 hours and 22 minutes. In other words, the S7’s battery will last all day and well into the next.

Tab S7 starts with 128GB of internal storage and even supports 5G connectivity on the cellular model. It supports 45-watt fast charging via the USB-C port and comes with an S Pen stylus in the box.

Compared to previous Galaxy tablets, the Tab S7 offers a more complete package. From battery life to performance to display quality, there’s no real comparison. If you want a premium Android tablet, the Tab S7 is your best choice.

Jason Cipriani/CNN

From the moment we unboxed Amazon’s Fire HD 8 Plus, we noted its modern design, similar to that of the Kindle Paperwhite. The rounded edges are a worthwhile improvement over the dated and very boxy design of previous Fire HD tablets.

The front-facing camera has been moved so that it’s at the top of the screen when you’re holding the tablet in landscape mode — one of the few tablets to do so — and in turn, it makes your video calls look better.

Arguably the biggest addition to the Fire HD 8 Plus is wireless charging. You can place the 8-inch tablet on any Qi-compatible wireless charging pad, or order the tablet along with Amazon’s own wireless charging stand for $139.99. And there’s no cause for separation anxiety while charging as, once in the stand, Show Mode is activated, converting the tablet into a makeshift Echo Show smart screen. You can interact with Alexa, just like you would any other Echo device, asking for weather updates, controlling smart home devices and posing random questions or requesting jokes.

We’ll be honest: This isn’t the fastest tablet we’ve ever tested, but it is powerful enough to handle common tablet tasks. For example, you won’t have a problem using Amazon’s Silk browser to shop on your favorite sites, hold Zoom video calls and scroll through your social media feeds. You can even do some light gaming — just don’t expect to be wowed by how fast games load or how the graphics look.

In our battery life tests, the Fire HD 8 Plus lasted nearly 10 hours, which is more than enough for binge-watching your latest Amazon Prime Video series on a cross-country flight, with enough juice left over to get in a couple of hours with your favorite Kindle reads as you settle into your hotel later that night.

The biggest hurdle you’ll have to overcome is learning how to navigate Amazon’s Fire OS. It’s Android-based but leaves out any Google services. That means you won’t find Google’s Gmail or YouTube apps, for example, and are forced to use Amazon’s own app store and its limited selection (although, many big-name apps, including Netflix, Minecraft, Disney+ and Instagram are available). The interface has a steep learning curve, but once you adapt to its layout, you shouldn’t have any issues.

Even though apps may take longer to load, multitasking isn’t the smoothest and the lack of Google apps can be annoying, the Fire HD 8 Plus is by far the best tablet we’ve used anywhere near this price point. And the fact that it doubles as an Echo Show while charging provides added value to a device that would normally be nothing more than a paperweight waiting to juice up.

Tablets can vary a lot in what they aim to accomplish and deliver, but we wanted to take a look at a diverse variety of devices. After sorting through dozens of expert reviews (including our own) and applying our own knowledge of the tablet market, we drew up a list of devices to compare. These ranged wildly in price from $109 to $999. But before we took price into account, we wanted to objectively test qualities that we expect from a good tablet.

Every device was scored on the following properties: design, display, battery life, performance, software, speakers, connectivity, ports, accessories and warranty. The categories we considered key were weighted greater, namely design, display, battery life and performance. A tablet is a largely visual device, seeing as it’s one big screen, so display and design are important. And performance determines how smooth your experience is going to be and what you can do on the device. Of course, better battery life means you don’t have to put the device down to charge as often.

With each tablet, we ran out the battery from full to empty while playing a movie with screen brightness set to 50% and airplane mode engaged. We multitasked with numerous apps, streamed shows and movies, listened to music, played games of various intensities and more. Plus, we looked into the quality of the display and actual construction of a tablet. In terms of design, we looked into the shape and portability, how it feels in the hand and more nuanced aspects like bezel-to-display ratio. Finally, we considered and tested available ports and connected various other tech via Bluetooth.

iPad Air 4th Gen (starting at $539; amazon.com or starting at $599; apple.com)

The $599 iPad Air sits in the middle of the iPad lineup with a modern design and really fast processing speeds. It goes a step beyond the entry-level iPad or the Mini, and really is a consumer-level Pro model. It sticks with a Touch ID in the power button, but has minimal bezels and supports all the core accessories.

iPad Mini 5 (starting at $499; amazon.com and apple.com)

The iPad Mini 5 still serves a niche as an ultra-portable yet powerful iPad, but with a 7.9-inch screen size, the iPhone 11 Pro Max is closing in from behind. It’s a packed device that runs iPadOS 13 really well and, even on a tighter display, supports considerable multitasking. We just think for most people, the iPhone might be serving most of the use cases and opting for the seventh-generation iPad will give you more versatility and, ultimately, more bang for your buck.

Fire HD 10 (starting at $149.99; amazon.com)

The new Fire HD 10 gets a lot right and fixes a lot from its predecessor — mainly a faster processor delivers a fluid FireOS experience that doesn’t choke under pressure. It’s 10.1-inch HD display is just fine for streaming, but at $149.99 it doesn’t scale much beyond our budget pick. For the money, you’re better off sticking with a Fire HD 8 Plus. It’s also more portable.

Galaxy Tab S6 Lite ($349.99; samsung.com)

Samsung’s Galaxy Tab S6 Lite offers an Android experience with a slow but steady performance and exceptional battery life. Its headlining feature is the included S Pen stylus that works seamlessly with Samsung’s suite of productivity apps. The Tab S6 Lite ultimately falls short of being a top pick because its slower performance doesn’t live up to its $349.99 price tag.

Surface Go 2 (starting at $399; amazon.com)

Microsoft’s Surface Go 2 looks just as good as the previous generation and runs a full-fledged version of Windows 10. Its display is sharp and crisp, and battery life is more than enough to get through a day of work. But the entry-level model isn’t something we would recommend to anyone, due to the impact its slower processor and storage has on overall performance. In the end, you’ll have to spend $629 for a more powerful model. The Go 2 is perfect for someone who has a strong desire to remain within the Windows 10 ecosystem with Microsoft’s hardware, but it’s going to cost you.

Read more from CNN Underscored’s hands-on testing:

We spent weeks testing tablets: Here are the top 3 you should buy