And the winners are.... Here are my picks for 2021's best tablets

·13 min read

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Tablets come in all shapes and sizes. Wait, the shapes are pretty much the same, and the sizes aren't all that different, either. So how do you pick one? Read on, we've got you. (Photos: Acer, Amazon, Lenovo)
Tablets come in all shapes and sizes. Wait, the shapes are pretty much the same, and the sizes aren't all that different, either. So how do you pick one? Read on, we've got you. (Photos: Acer, Amazon, Lenovo)

The modern tablet occupies a weird space between phone and laptop. Most models are app-based, like a phone, but also have larger screens, like laptops. So it can be a challenge to figure out just where a tablet fits into your life, and consequently which model to buy.

For example, are you looking for something that's good for work? Something a little kid can use for games and learning and spilling juice on? How about one that's purely for entertainment: books, movies and the like? Good news: If you have a specific use-case, there's probably a tablet that's a perfect fit. And even if you don't, most tablets are so versatile, they can handle just about anything. (Some can even handle juice, after a fashion.)

With that in mind, let's take a look at some of the top tablets you can get right now. My selections below are based on a variety of factors, including price, personal experience and reviews (from both users and professionals alike). 

Read more: I tried 5 AirPods Pro alternatives, all priced $90 or less. Which ones were the best?

Can a tablet replace a laptop?

I get this question a lot, and the answer hasn't really changed over the years: Sort of. Virtually any tablet can pair with a keyboard to allow for word processing and the like, but in many cases you'll be squinting at a small-ish screen and tapping on small, cramped keys. (Also: Not many Bluetooth keyboards are large enough to accommodate a dedicated numeric keypad, something to consider if you work with spreadsheets.)

Sure, you can splurge on the iPad Pro 12.9 and roomier Apple Magic Keyboard, but now you've spent a minimum of $1,450. At that point, why not just buy a laptop, especially if productivity is your main goal?

Something else to consider: While Android, Fire OS and iOS are capable operating systems, they're not Windows. (They're not Mac OS, either.) If you rely on Windows or Mac software even a little, a tablet probably isn't your best bet. And there are certain web-based tools that won't work properly in a mobile browser. So if you're buying a tablet in hopes of getting your work done, make absolutely sure it's compatible with all your work tools.

What about Microsoft's Surface tablets, which run Windows? They're quite popular, but I honestly don't see the appeal. They're expensive and don't afford many tablet-y benefits. (Microsoft's app store offers only a fraction of the software available to Android and iOS users.) Plus, the keyboard is sold separately, which once again begs the question: Why not just buy a laptop? 

In fact, you might want to consider a convertible, a laptop with a touchscreen and 360-degree hinge. I won't say that's the "best" of both worlds, but it's certainly one of the most versatile options. I have one such model listed below.

With all that being said, here are my picks for Tablets of the Year.

Best tablet for kids: Amazon Fire HD 8 Kids

Do your worst, toddlers! The Fire HD 8 Kids comes in an abuse-proof foam case that also has a built-in stand. (Photo: Amazon)
Do your worst, toddlers! The Fire HD 8 Kids comes in an abuse-proof foam case that also has a built-in stand. (Photo: Amazon)

Modern parents, you have it so easy. A single tablet can hold a mountain of children's books, to say nothing of games, movies, educational apps and more. That's especially convenient for long car rides, trips involving airplanes and so on. (My wife and I used to schlep heavy, overstuffed backpacks full of books; not fun.)

At the risk of gushing, Amazon's Fire HD 8 Kids tablet is a godsend — and better than an iPad in nearly every way. For starters, price: At $140 the Fire HD 8 Kids costs $360 less (!) than Apple's 8.3-inch iPad Mini; you could literally buy two and still come out ahead. What's more, Amazon's tablet goes on sale with almost amusing regularity: It's been marked down to just $90 no fewer than six times in the past year, and to $80 for Black Friday and the holidays. History will repeat itself, trust me.

Equally appealing, the Fire HD 8 Kids lives up to its name by arriving in a colorful, kid-proof case that's designed to withstand child abuse. In fact, Amazon backs the tablet with an unparalleled two-year warranty, one that covers accidental breakage. So if Junior sits on, drop-kicks or tries to flush the thing, you're covered.

Meanwhile, Amazon offers a free year of its Kids+ subscription service, which includes unlimited access to age-appropriate books, games, apps, videos and so on. There are front- and rear-facing cameras for fun with photos and video, and baked-in parental controls you can monitor and update remotely.

By the way, if you have older kids (in the 6-12 range), the Fire HD 8 Kids Pro has a more "grown-up"-looking case and more advanced parental controls. In nearly all other respects it's the same, including price and warranty.

Although Amazon offers 10-inch versions of both models, they cost $60 more. I don't see much advantage to the slightly larger screen, which will just be heavier and harder for little hands to hold.

I do consider the Fire HD 8 Kids a slam-dunk product, without question the best tablet for children, bar none.

  • Screen size: 8 inches

  • Storage: 32GB (expandable)

  • Special features: Kid-proof case and 2-year warranty

  • Price: $140

$140 at Amazon

Best budget tablet: Amazon Fire HD 8

The Fire HD 8 isn't the sexiest tablet in town, but it delivers incredible bang for the buck -- especially when it's on sale (which is often). (Photo: Amazon)
The Fire HD 8 isn't the sexiest tablet in town, but it delivers incredible bang for the buck -- especially when it's on sale (which is often). (Photo: Amazon)

This should come as no surprise; the Fire HD 8 is virtually identical to the Kids version, just without the case, Kids+ subscription and extended warranty. It sells for $90 much of the time, but once again discounts are commonplace: You can easily find the Fire HD 8 for $65 and occasionally for $60. I've even seen it hit $55 around the holidays.

Whatever price you pay, there's an embarrassment of tablet riches to be found here. The Fire HD 8 features a sharp (enough) display — iPads offer more pixels, but trust me when I say you won't notice in most apps — and something you can't get from any iPad model: expandable storage. If you fill up the included 32GB, just pop in an inexpensive microSD card for up to one terabyte more. (How inexpensive? Here's a 512GB card for just $20.)

Other Fire perks: USB-C connectivity, dual speakers, hands-free Alexa voice controls and support for something called Show Mode, which effectively turns the tablet into a poor man's Echo Show 8. If that's of interest, consider the Fire HD 8 Plus, which adds support for wireless charging. (You'll probably want the optional Wireless Charging Dock as well.)

Is it perfect? Not quite: The front and rear cameras are pretty low-resolution — fine for Zoom calls and such, but not great for shooting photos and video. I also don't love Amazon's short warranty, which expires after just 90 days.

But if you're primarily looking to consume entertainment — books, music, movies and TV, games and so on — this is simply an incredible deal. 

  • Screen size: 8 inches

  • Storage: 32GB (expandable)

  • Special features: Show Mode; Plus model supports wireless charging

  • Price: $90

$90 at Amazon

Best budget tablet for Apple fans: iPad 10.2 (2021)

The new entry-level iPad 10.2 looks the same on the outside, but inside it packs a faster processor and better front-facing camera. And right now, it's $30 cheaper. (Photo: Apple)
The 2021-edition iPad 10.2 looks the same on the outside, but inside it packs a faster processor and better front-facing camera. (Photo: Apple)

I get it. There's just something about the iPad. Give Apple credit for crafting a tablet that's really desirable despite the out-of-whack price. At least this entry-level model is reasonably affordable at $329, and Apple's recent refresh bumps the storage space to an impressive 64GB.

Also included: a new-and-improved wide-angle front camera that's great for shots. It supports Apple's new Center Stage feature as well, automatically adjusting to keep you in the frame even if you move around. The rear camera can be used for augmented reality (AR) games and apps, one area where Apple far outpaces the competition.

Another: All iPads are available with a cellular option, which adds to the price but definitely adds to the versatility as well. (That said, if your phone has a hotspot option, you can save money by leveraging that — for just about any tablet, really.)

You might think the smaller iPad Mini would be the "budget" iPad to pick, but it starts at $499. At $329, the new iPad 10.2 isn't exactly cheap, but I do think it offers some nice bang for the buck.

  • Screen size: 10.2 inches

  • Storage: 64GB

  • Special features: High-res front and rear cameras; support for Center Stage feature

  • Price: $329

$329 at Amazon

Best pure-Android tablet: Lenovo Tab P11 Pro

Pure Android: The Tab P11 Pro is an unabashed iPad Pro lookalike, with similar specs but a much lower price. (Photo: Lenovo)
Pure Android: The Tab P11 Pro is an unabashed iPad Pro lookalike, with similar specs but a much lower price. (Photo: Lenovo)

Although Amazon's Fire HD lineup runs a specialized version of the Android operating system, it doesn't provide access to the Google Play Store — meaning you might not be able to get every app you want. What's more, the Fire OS is unapologetically Amazon-centric, and not super-intuitive for those accustomed to Android.

Fortunately, if you want a "pure Android" experience, you can have it. The Lenovo Tab P11 Pro closely resembles the iPad Pro 11, with one key difference: The former sells for $500, while the latter starts at $799. Lenovo also offers two productivity-minded accessories for those with laptop aspirations: a pen for $70 and keyboard for $90.

Other noteworthy specs include a fingerprint-scanning power button, four JBL speakers, an ultra-high-resolution OLED screen and 128GB of onboard storage. Alas, there's no expansion slot here if you need more space, and Lenovo doesn't offer a cellular option for on-the-go connectivity.

Those limitations aside, the Tab P11 Pro ticks the important tablet boxes. If you want full-on Android in a spacious, productivity-minded screen, this is the one to get.

  • Screen size: 11.5 inches

  • Storage: 128GB

  • Special features: Pure Android OS; Dolby-enhanced quad JBL speakers

  • Price: $500

$500 at Lenovo

Best money-is-no-object tablet: iPad Pro

The current-generation iPad Pro is the cream of the tablet crop, but it'll cost you — especially if you deck it out with accessories. (Photo: Apple)
The current-generation iPad Pro is the cream of the tablet crop, but it'll cost you — especially if you deck it out with accessories. (Photo: Apple)

Apple's flagship tablet is a powerhouse, combining a lightning-fast processor, with a dazzling display and support for some great accessories — namely Apple's Magic Keyboard and Pencil stylus. Put those all together and you've got an amazing (and amazingly portable) tool for content creation: words, pictures, video, audio and more.

Just be prepared for sticker shock: The iPad Pro starts at $799 (for the 11-inch model; there's a 12.9-inch as well), while the keyboard and stylus add $299 and $129, respectively. If you want cellular connectivity in the mix (as opposed to just Wi-Fi), that's another $200 — plus the cost of service, natch.

So, yeah, what is arguably the world's best tablet setup comes with one of the highest tablet prices. You can accomplish a lot of the same tasks with less expensive hardware, but if money is no object, well, splurge away.

  • Screen size: 11 inches

  • Storage: 128GB

  • Special features: High-end front and rear cameras; optional cellular connectivity 

  • Price: $799

Starting at $799

Best tablet that's also a laptop: Acer Chromebook Spin 713

Spin to win: The Chromebook Spin 713 is a convertible laptop, offering a full-size keyboard for work chores and a full-on tablet mode for anything else. (Photo: Acer)
Spin to win: The Chromebook Spin 713 is a convertible laptop, offering a full-size keyboard for work chores and a full-on tablet mode for anything else. (Photo: Acer)

If your top priority is work, your best bet is a convertible: A tablet with a keyboard that's built in rather than detachable. You'll also want a larger-than-average screen, which makes work life easier while also affording a more spacious key layout.

The Acer Spin 713 is a decidedly premium Chromebook, with features like a 13.5-inch 2K touchscreen, backlit keyboard, metal chassis and so on. It runs the Chrome OS, of course, so you're limited to Google software and browser-based productivity tools, but it also affords full access to the Google Play Store and all the Android apps therein.

Here's where things can get a little confusing: The Spin 713 is available in a variety of configurations, with prices and specs varying quite a bit depending on where you look. At this writing, for example, Best Buy offers model CP713-3W-5102, which includes an Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM and 256GB of onboard storage, for $619, on sale from the regular $699.

Search Amazon, however, and you'll find the Acer Spin 713 from a number of different sellers, with prices ranging from around $390 to $640. I recommend buying from an authorized reseller: Best Buy, Staples, etc. That said, consider scaling back on the processor and storage unless you specifically need that kind of horsepower. Many Chromebook users rely on a cloud — rather than local — storage, so 256GB might be unnecessary. Likewise, an Intel Core i3 should be more than enough horsepower in a Chromebook; an i5 or i7 is overkill for most users.

  • Screen size: 13.5 inches

  • Storage: 256GB

  • Special features: High-resolution display; detachable keyboard included

  • Price: $699

$619 at Best Buy

Best tablet for students: Lenovo Chromebook Duet

You don't need a music-appreciation class to appreciate the Chromebook Duet, which is part tablet and part laptop. (Photo: Lenovo)
You don't need a music-appreciation class to appreciate the Chromebook Duet, which is part tablet and part laptop. (Photo: Lenovo)

Many elementary and middle schools want students to use Chromebooks, but kids of that age don't necessarily need a big screen or full-size keyboard. That's what makes Lenovo's Duet such an ideal fit: It's a 10-inch Chromebook that's also an Android tablet (or, at least, capable of running Android apps), and it comes with a detachable keyboard.

That gives the Duet an immediate leg up over Microsoft's 10.5-inch Surface Go 2, which starts at $399 and doesn't include a keyboard. That accessory adds $99-$129; Microsoft's pen will cost you $99. Lenovo now has the Duet for just $260, a $40 discount; their 500e Chrome Pen adds just $25.

Surprisingly, that low price doesn't come at the expense of features: The Duet's screen packs in 1,920x1,200 pixels, very impressive given the size. And depending on which version you choose, you'll get either 64GB of 128GB of onboard storage — but it's only about $20 more for the latter, so go that way if your budget allows. 

The keyboard will definitely feel a bit cramped for adult-size users, and the single USB-C port limits the Duet's expandability (though an inexpensive hub solves that). Even so, the Chromebook Duet definitely belongs on the short list for parents seeking an affordable school laptop — even if it's not technically a laptop.

  • Screen size: 10.1 inches

  • Storage: 64GB

  • Special features: High-resolution display; detachable keyboard included

  • Price: $260 (originally $300)

$260 $300 at Lenovo

OK, those are my top-tablet picks. What others would you add to the list? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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