iPad Air 2 with keyboard
In Apple's increasingly-confusing iPad lineup, name changes have become a regular occurrence. The one that led to the most confusion, though, was rebranding the direct successor to the iPad Air 2 (and all previous 9.7-in iPads) as the iPad Pro 9.7. The name itself meant little, apart from the fact that it came alongside a $100 price hike: All previous 9.7-in models started at $499, but the Pro 9.7 jumped up to a $599 base price.
The "Pro" branding suggested a higher-end experience, but it was essentially smoke and mirrors to distract buyers from the fact that they were forking over an extra Benjamin for the iPad Air 3. (While the Pro 9.7 had plenty of upgrades from the Air 2, they're about what we'd expect for the same price point, considering it launched 18 months after its predecessor.)
While it won't support Apple's official keyboard cover and stylus (Apple Pencil), an iPad Air 2 with a quality third-party keyboard accessory provides a similar experience for much less money. And despite launching in late 2014, the Air 2 doesn't handle like an obsolete or highly-bogged-down tablet. (Its A8X chip is a variant of the A8 silicon found in the still-fairly-fast iPhone 6.)
The iPad Air 2 currently starts at $399 for 32 GB storage, but shop around and you may find it for significantly less (especially if you're open to a refurbished or gently used model).
Top keyboard recommendations include Microsoft Universal Mobile Keyboard (non-foldable version), Logitech Ultrathin Magnetic Clip-On keyboard cover and ClamCase Pro (which injects MacBook Air styling into the iPad).
- Buy iPad Air 2 on Amazon
Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 9.7 with keyboard
If you want something speedier than the iPad Air 2 and aren't attached to iOS, Samsung's Galaxy Tab S2 9.7 is an affordable Android-running alternative. (It even has the same screen size, aspect ratio and resolution as the iPad.) Despite launching in mid-2015, the Tab got a processor bump last year, and runs snappily by today's standards.
It arguably has a better display than the iPad Pro's: Its Super AMOLED panel delivers the deepest blacks you'll see on a tablet. And while you lose the all-metal build of the iPad line (it has a metal frame surrounding a plastic back), the tablet is 11-percent lighter and 8-percent thinner than the iPad Pro 9.7 and Air 2.
When paired with Samsung's official keyboard cover, it even gains trackpad support with cursor input – something no iPad offers.
The biggest caveat is that Samsung is rumored to launch the Galaxy Tab S3 in a few weeks, at Mobile World Congress 2017. If you can hold off a while, you may get either a newer tablet for the same price or this model at a discount.
The Galaxy Tab S2 starts at $400. The official Samsung keyboard cover adds $150.
Microsoft Surface Pro 4 with Type Cover
After six generations of iPads without any official keyboard or stylus accessories, why did Apple suddenly reposition its tablet as a pen-based laptop convertible? Look no further than Microsoft's Surface. The product's success forced the industry to rethink the convergence between tablets and laptops, a once-sketchy formula that's grown more convincing with each new generation.
Microsoft will likely have a successor to the Surface Pro 4 within the next few months, so this isn't the time to buy it at full price. But if you can snag a deal (there are plenty of sales at the time of publication), you get a large Windows 10 tablet that transforms into a very capable laptop.
Remember that unlike Apple's tablets, the Surface can run full desktop software, including the "real" (non-mobile) versions of productivity stalwarts like Photoshop and Lightroom.
On the flip side, though, the Surface's laptop internals mean it has fans – which seem to run early and often – in everything but the underpowered entry-level model. You also get a larger and less-wieldy tablet than you would in the iPad. (It's more a direct rival to the iPad Pro 12.9 than the compact 9.7.) Windows' selection of tablet apps is also nothing special.
The Surface Pro 4 technically starts at $900, with the keyboard cover adding another $130-160. But don't pay those prices now; Best Buy and Amazon currently offer them for less.