How to buy the best tablet
By Michael Passingham
Whether you’re looking for an iPad, an Android tablet or an Amazon Fire, there’s a huge choice available to buy at a variety of prices. In this guide, we take you through some top tips on buying the best tablet for your needs, so you don’t need to spend a penny more than you have to.
The difference between a good tablet and a bad one can be stark. The worst models we’ve tested managed to fail in all key areas, with laggy and unresponsive software, awful screens and atrocious battery life.
And yet these poor tablets can cost the same, or sometimes more, than models that beat them in every way. That’s why checking reviews is so important.
Before you delve into our tablet reviews, it’s worth narrowing down your must-haves and your budget.
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Key tablet choices
- 7 inches – These are the smallest tablets you can buy, and often the cheapest as well. They’re the best for one-handed use, which, if your commute involves public transport, is essential. They’re a similar size to eBooks readers, so could be a good Kindle alternative if you want a device that can entertain you with both literature and Love Island.
- 8 inches – Still great for one-handed use, but typically a little heavier. There are more premium models available at this size, including the iPad Mini and Huawei Mediapad M5 8.
- 9-10 inches – These tablets are big, and are only really suitable to use with two hands for long periods of time. There’s a wide range of 10-inch tablets available, with budget devices, such as the Lenovo Tab E10, sharing the category with high-end models such as the iPad and iPad Pro 9.7.
- More than 10 inches – these very large tablets are designed for getting work done, and are best used with a keyboard, a stylus or both. Think the Microsoft Surface Pro and iPad Pro 12.3.
How much should I spend?
- Less than £100 – The cheapest of the cheap. These devices rarely score highly in our tests (with some exceptions), but can be fine for watching video and reading books, as long as you don’t mind a slow tablet made from plastic.
- £100-200 – The best-value models sit in this price range. They’re not always the fastest tablets around, but one costing around £150 normally ticks the boxes for speed and screen quality.
- £200-400 – The sweet spot of quality is around £300. Here, you’ll find premium models with sleek metal designs, sharp screens and great battery life. This is also the price range in which you’ll find both the iPad and iPad Mini.
- £400+ – This is how much you’ll need to spend if you want a specialist tablet, such as the laptop-style Lenovo Miix or Microsoft Surface Go. Think of spending closer to £800 if you’re buying a Surface Pro or iPad Pro and all the accessories.
Which operating system should I choose?
There are four different tablet operating systems to choose from, each with different strengths.
iOS is Apple's operating system, and is only available on iPads. If you've ever used an Apple iPhone, you'll be instantly at home with iOS, with its brightly coloured icons. It’s generally accepted as being simple and easy to use, and even the uninitiated should get to grips with it fairly quickly, thanks to its straightforward layout.
What’s more, there are loads of apps designed specifically for iPads, which makes for an excellent big-screen experience.
Android is the most popular tablet operating system, with models available in every price range. There are small differences between brands, but generally they all operate in the same way, with little difference from one Android tablet to another.
One of the benefits of Android is that it’s easy to customise and adapt to you own needs. The disadvantage is that there aren’t many apps that are specifically optimised for big screens, so it can often feel like you’re just using gigantic smartphone apps.
Available exclusively on Amazon-brand tablets, Fire OS is based on Android but looks completely different. It’s very much focused on Amazon’s own products, with plenty of apps that let you buy Amazon books, videos and more.
If you choose a tablet ‘with special offers’ in exchange for a £10 discount, you’ll also receive occasional messages encouraging you to buy things. The app store has a smaller selection than Android’s Google Play Store, but it still has the key apps most people use, including Facebook and Netflix.
Windows 10 should be reassuringly familiar to anyone who has used a PC in the last 20 years. It's the same old Windows we're all used to, just on a tablet.
This means you can run your Windows apps and programs, provided your tablet is powerful enough to handle them. And with the addition of a keyboard, using programs such as Excel and Word is almost on a par with the laptop experience. While Windows 10 has clearly been designed with tablets in mind, it can prove a little fiddly to navigate by touch on some devices.
How important is battery life?
How good a battery you need depends entirely on how you’ll be using your tablet. Tablets that manage more than 10 hours of video playback and web browsing score well in our tests. But if you only use your tablet in short bursts, such as watching some iPlayer before bed or reading an eBook on the train, a long battery life isn’t essential, unless you absolutely hate charging your tablet more than once a week.
On the other hand, if you’re buying a tablet/laptop hybrid, you’ll probably want all-day battery life to make the most of your thin and light work machine.
It’s best to ignore the manufacturer’s battery-life claims. We run our tests multiple times to get an accurate reading of what you can expect from each tablet’s battery.
How to get a good tablet deal
As with any tech product, if you shop around and wait for a good time to buy a tablet, you can save some serious cash. Here are some easy ways to get a good deal on each of the major tablet operating systems.
You won’t often see Apple products on discount, so the best way to save on an iPad is to buy an older-generation model, as these typically drop in price after a new version launches. For example, the 2017 9.7-inch iPad dropped to £299 in various retailers once the £319 2018 model went on sale.
If you’re a UK student with an email address ending ‘.ac.uk’, you could also bag an Apple bargain via its student-discounts programme. For more, see our guide on laptops for students and student discounts.
Android tablets typically drop at least £20 from their asking price after a few months on the market, but it depends on the manufacturer and retailer. For Android models, it’s simply worth shopping around.
You’ll normally find the best discounts on Amazon tablets… on Amazon. Periodically these tablets will have up to 20% lopped off their prices, and you can expect big discounts around Amazon Prime Day and Black Friday.
Because Windows tablets are treated more like laptops by retailers, and the fact that they’re generally more expensive, you can get some great deals after a model has been on sale for a few months. The Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.6, for example, started at £650 but dropped to £599 in some retailers a few months later.
Ready to buy? Take a look at all our tablet reviews to find the right model for you.