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17 November 2020

How to buy the best tablet

Whether you're after an Apple iPad, Amazon Fire, Android or Windows tablet, we'll help you find the best tablet for your needs. We explain what to look out for, including size, screen quality and battery life, plus what you should expect to pay.
Buying a tablet
Michael Passingham

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 our reviews is so important.

Before you delve into our tablet reviews, it’s worth narrowing down your must-haves and your budget.

Looking for a great tablet on a budget? Take a look at our pick of the best cheap tablets.  

Video: How to buy the best tablet

How to choose the a tablet screen size

  • 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 the latest TV programmes.
  • 8 inches Still great for one-handed use, but typically a little heavier. There are more premium models available at this size, including the Huawei Mediapad M5 8 and iPad mini.
  • 9-11 inches These tablets are big, and are only really suitable to use with two hands for long periods of time. There are 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, iPad Air and iPad Pro 11-inch.
  • More than 11 inches These very large tablets are designed for getting work done and are best used with a keyboard, a stylus or both. Think the iPad Pro 12.9 and Microsoft Surface Pro.

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 videos 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 or more 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 an iPad Pro or Microsoft Surface Pro and all the accessories. You can also bag an iPad Air in this price range.

Which operating system should I choose?

There are four different tablet operating systems to choose from, each with different strengths.

iPadOS

iPadOS (the tablet version of 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.

Heart set on one of Apple's iconic tablets? Take a look at our advice on which iPad you should buy to suit your needs. 

Android

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.

Fire OS

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

Windows 10 should be reassuringly familiar to anyone who has used a PC in the past 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.

What our lab testers look for in a tablet

What apps can I get on my iPad, Amazon Fire or Android tablet?

You should absolutely consider which apps you want to be using before you take the plunge, particularly if you have a favourite video service or other utility that you’d be lost without on your tablet.

Fortunately, the four biggest app stores all have online versions so you can have a look at the apps that are available. The only exception is the Apple App Store, which can only be searched using the App Store app itself. You can get around this by searching online for the app you want followed by ‘app store’, so if you want to check if the app store has iPlayer, search ‘iPlayer app store’ and the first link should show you a preview of the app.

The links below take you to each of the web versions of the other big app stores.

If you already own an Android smartphone and you’re looking at buying an Android tablet, the app selection will be largely the same. There is one major exception, which is WhatsApp, that can only be used on a smartphone. The issue with this is that while the selection of apps is the same, most of them won’t have been optimised to run on a larger screen. This isn’t necessarily a huge problem, especially if you’re only looking for video streaming apps, for example, but some games and other apps may have large buttons or oddly laid out text in a larger screen format.

The same is true of iPads if you already own an iPhone. If an app exists on iPhone, it almost certainly exists as an iPad app. The difference is that far more apps are optimised especially for tablets, so while the app will exist, it may have been enhanced to be easier to use on a bigger screen.

Which streaming services are available for my iPad, Amazon Fire or Android tablet?

Below, we’ve listed the most popular catch-up and streaming services in the UK, and their availability on various tablet operating systems. Availability correct as of 27 April 2020.

All4 Android, iOS, FireOS, and Windows via web browser.

Amazon Prime Video Android, iOS, FireOS, and Windows via web browser.

AppleTV iOS and Windows via web browser (Chrome and Firefox).

BBC iPlayer Android, iOS, FireOS, and Windows via web browser.

BritBox Android, iOS, and Windows via web browser.

Disney+ Android, iOS, FireOS, and Windows via web browser.

ITV Hub Android, iOS, FireOS, and Windows via web browser.

My5 Android, iOS, FireOS, and Windows via web browser.

Netflix Android, iOS, FireOS, and Windows via web browser.

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, 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 find 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.

iOS

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 2019 10.2-inch iPad dropped in price by £20 when the 2020 model launched.

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

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.

Fire OS

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.

Windows 10

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. 

Ready to buy? Take a look at all our tablet reviews to find the right model for you.

View all Tablets