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30 May 2020

5 top tablet features to get you through lockdown

Find out how to turn your iPad into a second screen, along with reviews of three tablets you might want to consider

When you're confined to your home, a tablet could be your saviour - for vital communication, providing a rich source of entertainment and even helping you to work remotely.

Besides being able to browse the web or download thousands of different apps, tablets have many talents that you might not be fully aware of. We show you how you can make the most of one - from reading free library books to casting your photos on to your TV.

We've included links to Android, iOS and Amazon Fire editions of app we mention, where possible, so if you're using your tablet to read this, you can head straight to the app detail and download page.

Skip straight to our top tablet recommendations for 2020

Five handy ways to get the most from your tablet

1. Read magazines, newspapers and books

The size of a tablet's screen means you can comfortably use it as an ebook reader or listen to audio books, using apps such as Audible Kindle (Android | iOS | pre-installed on Fire) or Kobo (Android | iOS). Apple and Google also have their own book stores pre-installed on most iPads and Android tablets.

If magazines are more your thing, then apps such as Readly (Android | iOS | Fire) gives you access to a huge range of titles for a monthly fee - currently £7.99, although a free two-month trial lets you sample the service.

If you don't want to sign up for a subscription service, many magazine publishers offer apps that let you download digital editions of their paper magazines. There are also various apps that pull together magazine libraries, allowing you buy individual issues or subscribe to individual magazines, including Zinio (Android | iOS), Kindle Newsstand (Fire) and Apple's own News+ store. The latter two also offer digital subscriptions to various UK newspapers.

Many local libraries allow you to borrow ebooks and audiobooks free of charge through services such as BorrowBox (Android | iOS | Fire) or OverDrive (Android | iOS | Fire). Check your local council's library web page to see whether this is available in your area.

2. Stay in touch with video calls

A useful free app is Facebook Messenger (Android | iOS | Fire). As well as allowing you to make video calls, it also lets you send messages, photos and audio files. The only drawback is that other people must also have the app installed for you to be able to contact them.

Another free app for both types of tablet is Skype (Android | iOS | Fire). iPad and iPhone owners can use FaceTime - a great alternative that's already built in to the operating system - and calls are also free over a wi-fi connection.

The Google alternative is Meet (Android | iOS), but it's not available on Amazon Fire tablets.

3. Mirror your tablet on your TV

Although it's convenient to watch media on a tablet, there are times when you might want to enjoy viewing content on a bigger screen. A technique known as screen mirroring lets you do this on your TV - whatever is displayed on your tablet is replicated on your TV screen, be it a film or your family photos. This is ideal for watching streaming services, if your smart TV doesn't yet have the appropriate app.

However, unless you have a newer TV with built-in AirPlay or Cast functionality, you'll need a plug-in device to allow your tablet to connect with your larger screen. For iPad owners, the best option is the Apple TV 4K box. But beware - it's expensive, at around £180. It's also not suitable for Android or Windows tablet owners, who might want to consider the much cheaper Roku Express (£25) streaming device.

A further option that will work with any device is the Google Chromecast (£25) or the pricier Chromecast Ultra (£60), which also supports 4K content. Amazon Fire tablet users can also mirror content using a Fire TV stick - the cheapest is £39.99.

See more in our guide on how to buy the best streaming device.

4. Photo slideshow

Looking at photos of family, friends and happier times can be a great morale booster. You can easily turn your tablet into a digital photo frame that will cycle through all your favourite images in slideshow format.

There are lots of apps that help you do this, but one of the simplest ways is to use Google Photos (Android | iOS). This free service saves all your photos from Android and iOS devices to cloud storage. You can then organise, edit and view them on any device that's configured to the same Google account. Select the 'slideshow' option from the menu and your tablet will display the pictures in a never-ending loop.

The iPad's built-in Photos app has a similar feature; simply select the photos you want and then tap on the Slideshow button to start.

You might want to find a spot for it where it can be plugged in, as showing images in a loop will eventually drain the battery. Some tablets come with a charging dock that makes it easy to stand the tablet up when it's not in use.

A bonus feature that's really useful in Google Photos is shared albums, which let other contributors add their own photos. You can share the album to other family members and they can add their own images, so you can get up-to-date images directly into your newly created digital photo frame.

5. Apple's two-screen solution

If you're working from home, it can be useful to have a second computer screen. iPad owners can use their tablet to act as an additional display for their Apple Mac desktop and laptops by employing a facility known as Sidecar that wirelessly links the two.

Click the AirPlay icon in the Menu bar on your Mac and choose the option to connect to your iPad, which should now show an extension screen. You can then move windows to it and use it like any other display. For other tablets, whether you can do this depends on your model and setup - so look on your tablet manufacturer's website to find out whether it's possible.

Tablets for every budget

If you don't yet have a tablet or you're in the market for a new one, here are Android and Fire options to help you make a start.

Amazon Fire 7, £50

It's one of the cheapest big-brand tablets you can buy, starting at just £50. It's basic, but it's also nice and compact, and there are plenty of apps to choose from in the Amazon App Store.

Read the Amazon Fire 7 review for the verdict from our lab.

Samsung Galaxy Tab A8, £139

This is Samsung's cheapest tablet. It has an 8-inch screen, putting it nicely in the middle of the smaller and larger alternatives offered above. It might not have the fanciest specs or a huge amount of storage, but you can also add extra memory by inserting a micro-SD card.

Read our Samsung Galaxy Tab A8 review to see how it fared.

For more, see all our tablet reviews.