Tablets may have declined in popularity since they first hit the consumer electronics scene several years ago, but they're still the perfect device for certain lifestyles. Join New Atlas as we take a side-by-side look at this year's leaders.
Our 2016 lineup includes the 12.9-inch and 9.7-inch iPad Pro, the iPad Air 2 and iPad Mini 4 (grouped together because of their similar specs), the Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 (both 9.7-inch and 8-inch versions), the Sony Xperia Z4 tablet, Huawei's MediaPad M3, Google Pixel C and the Amazon Fire HD 8. While several of these are past years' releases, they are still on the list for best-in-class tablets.
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This crop of tablets ranges from small, easily-stashed screens to large surfaces better suited for tabletop use. On the mini side, we have the 7.9-inch iPad Mini 4 and the 8-inch Galaxy Tab S2, though the Fire HD and MediaPad M3 aren't far behind. The 12.9-inch iPad Pro is the hulk of the bunch.
Considering the range in size, it follows that there are significant weight differences. The biggest iPad weighs more than twice as much as the lightest in the lineup, the 8-inch Galaxy Tab S2.
Note that these are the Wi-Fi only weights: In some cases, Wi-Fi + cellular variants (see Cellular Connectivity, below) weigh more. The LTE versions of the iPad Mini, Tab S2 and the Sony Xperia each start off a few grams heavier than the Wi-Fi models shown here. It may not be a big difference, but it's worth considering if holding a feathery-light device is your priority.
The higher-end builds have metal unibodies, but there's plenty of plastic in the mix as well. Only the Tab S2 uses both: a metal frame with plastic backing.
With the exception of the playful Fire HD palette, we're looking at the typical selection of neutrals and metallics. The rose gold iPad Pro variant is only available on the 9.7-inch version.
A 9.7-inch display is the most common option amongst this representative selection of tablets; it also approximates the midpoint in the range.
The two extremes have the screen of the larger iPad Pro coming out 178-percent bigger than the Fire HD's display.
264 pixels-per-inch is the most common display resolution spec, but it's on the lower end of the spectrum. Only the budget Fire HD clocks in with a lower pixel density. The Huawei MediaPad packs in the thickest crop of pixels of all.
While many smartphone manufacturers have ditched IPS display technology, that's not the case with tablets. In this batch, only Samsung goes with AMOLED.
The tablets from Apple, Huawei and Samsung are equipped with this convenient biometric security feature. The tablets from Amazon, Sony and Google are fingerprint sensor-free.
Cellular data option
With the exception of the Pixel C and the Fire HD, all of these machines have two variants: Wi-Fi only or Wi-Fi plus LTE. While the LTE versions are more expensive, they set you free from a Wi-Fi connection. You can use your cellular data plan to surf, stream and share.
Apple tablets have the largest internal storage options, but you'll pay a premium to reach the higher tiers. The 32 GB size 12.9-inch iPad Pro is exclusive to Wi-Fi only options.
The entry level Fire HD 8 has a comparatively tiny 16 GB of storage, but it does sync with the cloud for unlimited storage of all Amazon-purchased content, and it has expandable storage as well (see below).
Apart from Pixel C and the iPads, the rest of these tablets have microSD slots for expandable storage.
Charging/data/video output port
These devices all charge via microUSB or USB-C/Lightning ports. They also support video out, though you'll need to purchase an appropriate HDMI adapter separately.
Tablets don't typically lend themselves to on-the-go photography, but if you'll be doing a lot of video chat, resolution on the front-facing camera worth consideration. Using a tablet for work occasionally demands higher-resolution photography as a stand-in for note-taking and scanning as well.
The 12.9-inch iPad Pro has the biggest battery in the bunch, though it's also pushing the most pixels on its display. For what it's worth, Sony is estimating the longest battery life for the Z4, at a supposed 17 hours of "general use."
There is not much to compare here, since all of the selected tablets have a headphone jack. But, it may alleviate concerns that this piece of hardware is going the way of the Dodo.
Most of these offerings have dual stereo speakers, but the Fire HD only has one, and the iPad Pros have two sets of stereo speakers (four speakers in total).
The Sony tablet is water-resistant, which is a major plus if you want a tablet to assist you through messy activities like cooking, crafting and working. If it gets cruddy, just give it a rinse.
Xperia Z4 has an IP68 water resistance rating, which means it is safe through submersion in up to 1.5 meters of water for up to half an hour. Still, Sony does not recommend using it underwater.
Active stylus compatibility
While you can purchase a third-party rubber-tipped stylus for any one of these machines (it will keep finger smudges on the screen at bay, and will let you navigate if you don't want to take off your gloves on a cold day) only the iPad Pro has active stylus support.
The optional US$99 Apple Pencil has tilt and pressure sensitivity and finer precision. You can put it to work drawing, scrolling and taking notes.
Paying attention to the operating system is important. Each OS has different capabilities that affect your day-to-day use of the machine.
All of the iOS and Android devices offer some form of split-screen multitasking, which is essential if you plan on using the tablet more like a laptop than a strictly mobile recreational device. In general, the later operating systems offer better multi-tasking support.
Since the Pixel C is made by Google, it offers the purest Android experience and is first in line for software updates. Android devices by other manufactures have additional skins which can occasionally detract from the experience, and they may not receive all updates. The Galaxy Tab S2, Xperia and MediaPad are all running the last-generation Marshmallow OS, though Sony has said the Z4 will receive the Nougat update.
The Fire HD 8 runs an Amazon-themed variation of Android that's ideally suited for multimedia consumers and Amazon Prime subscribers (for whom there are many content bonuses).
The iPad Pro and MediaPad are likely to be the fastest in this bunch, with the cheap Fire HD offering the weakest performance by a wide margin.
Apple products tend to trail behind the RAM amounts of its competitors, but the iOS operating system is efficient enough that this will usually go unnoticed. On the other hand, we wouldn't attempt to put the Fire's 1.5 GB of RAM through anything particularly demanding.
Tablet popularity has waned over the last couple of years, which is why some of the best tablets on the market are 1-2 year old holdovers. Only the latest Fire HD, 9.7-inch iPad Pro and Huawei MediaPad are new this year.
Tablets run the pricing gamut, making the purchasing decision anything from an afterthought to an investment. For example, the Amazon Fire is perfect for getting a high-tech multimedia toy on a budget, while the iPad Pro is more justifiable for someone who can use it as a full-fledged productivity tool.
Keep in mind that you may wish to purchase keyboard or stylus accessories, which will enhance the utility of your machine but drive up your overall spending. If that's the case, a 2-in-1 laptop/tablet might be more appropriate for you.
For more specific info on individual devices, check out New Atlas' coverage:
- 12.9-inch iPad Pro review
- 9.7-inch iPad Pro review
- iPad Air 2 review
- iPad Mini 4 review
- Huawei MediaPad M3 review