It’s an iPad
Naming the best tablet for most people is either shockingly easy or shockingly hard, depending on what your definition of “tablet” is and whether you think it should be capable of fully replacing your laptop. That last question has become something of a doctrinal debate among technorati, but let me make it simple: most people want a tablet do to traditional tablet things.
“Tablet things” include browsing the web, watching movies, reading books, playing games. To do that stuff, you want a tablet that’s thin, light, and reliable. You want a good screen and a long battery life. You also want something that doesn’t cost as much as a full-on laptop because you already have a full-on laptop.
All of this makes the answer to our question incredibly easy. The best tablet for most people is the standard iPad, which starts at $500.
This article was updated on January 25th, 2019.
The best tablet for most people: iPad (2018)
The iPad is the best tablet for most people because it’s fast, reliable, good quality, and inexpensive. It was released in April 2018. By tech standards, that makes it long in the tooth, but don’t worry about that: iPads last a long time, much longer than phones, and this iPad is plenty fast and more than powerful enough for most tablet things.
As I said in our review, I still think the iPad is one of the best deals in tech when you measure out what you get against what you’re paying for. Because it runs iOS, it has a massive library of tablet-optimized apps and games. It is fast and simple to use, and it has a big-enough 9.7-inch screen and a battery you won’t have to recharge all that often. You can use Touch ID to log in, and there’s even an honest-to-god 3.5mm headphone jack for your headphones so you don’t have to go hunting around for dongles. It also works with an Apple Pencil, if that’s your thing.
Are there downsides? Sure. But I don’t think they matter that much to most people. The 2018 iPad is not the most advanced tablet you can buy. It doesn’t have the iPad Pro’s nearly bezel-less display and Face ID. It lacks a keyboard connector, and it has a processor that’s not as fast as the latest iPhones. It will not replace your laptop.
The biggest downside to the iPad is a limitation of iOS: it still doesn’t support multiple user profiles, so handing it unlocked to your kid means handing them access to your email and any work apps you’ve installed. But the iPad Pro has the same limitation, and competing tablets just can’t match the iPad’s fundamental quality or library of apps.
People take the iPad for granted. That’s fine. It means that it’s reached a level of stability and accessibility that few other tech gadgets have. Don’t overthink it: the iPad is the default for a reason. It’s great.
Money is no object: iPad Pro
While the iPad is the best tablet for most people, it is not the nicest or most impressive tablet. That would be the new iPad Pro. Apple released a new generation of the iPad Pro late in 2018, and it is a spare-no-expense device. It’s been completely redesigned as a flat slate with Face ID and bezels so small that there’s no room for a physical home button.
Both sizes (the 11-inch and 12.9-inch models) have big, beautiful screens with rounded corners and fast refresh rates. The iPad Pro’s A12X processor is so fast that it outpaces most consumer-grade laptops at everyday tasks. You can attach a keyboard to it, magnetically snap and charge the new Apple Pencil with it, and generally walk around knowing you have just about the most advanced piece of tech Apple has ever made.
But all of this comes at a price: $799 for the base 64GB 11-inch model, plus add-on prices for the keyboard and stylus. You could, if you really wanted to, spend over $2,000 on a kitted-out iPad Pro setup. Even if you just get the basic model, though, you’ll have a computer that’s more powerful than anything even remotely close to its thin size and minimal weight.
The theoretical benefit of spending that much is that the iPad Pro could be your only computer. But as Nilay Patel explains in his review, going iPad-only involves too many computing contortions for most people. You can do it, but it’ll be a hassle. The aforementioned multiuser limitation still applies here, for example. And though the iPad Pro has a standard USB-C port for charging and peripherals, it doesn’t work in a standard way with things like USB drives. There’s also no standard 3.5mm headphone jack, something that you might have accepted on your phone but might annoy you on a tablet you keep around the house.
Instead, the better reason to step up to the iPad Pro is to get the nicest thing that will also be more future-proofed than the regular iPad.
The rest of the tablet world is in a weird spot. Although there are still a few out there, Android tablets are quickly becoming a dying breed, and they aren’t likely to be well-supported going forward. The supposed replacement, Chrome OS tablets, are nowhere near ready for daily use yet. Microsoft, of course, has been pushing the Surface Pro (and, more recently, Surface Go) line for a long time. But even Microsoft has shied away from calling those devices “tablets” lately — probably because Windows is still much better as a laptop OS than as a tablet OS.
One set of tablets that might be worth a second look is Amazon’s Fire tablets. They’re based on a variant of Android, sure, but you should think of them as cheap, knock-around Amazon Prime machines. They could be good for kids or as an inexpensive living room tablet if you’re watching your budget.
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