The best tablets of 2021

CNN —  

Whether you’re looking for a portable media experience or a powerful, lightweight laptop replacement for travel, a tablet can fit the bill. These increasingly do-it-all devices can handle work and play, and even replace a laptop. After months of testing, we’ve found four top picks, one of which should fit your touch-screen needs, whichever platform you prefer. Apple’s iPad can handle work and play, the iPad Pro can replace your laptop, Amazon’s Fire HD series is great for on-the-go streaming and Samsung’s Galaxy Tab series continues to push Android tablets further with their DeX productivity environment.

Best tablet overall

The 8th Gen iPad stood out as the best overall option in our testing thanks to a zippy processor that crushes play or work tasks with ease. This tablet mixes performance and value in a way that no other tablet can.

Best performance

The 2021 iPad Pro is the fastest tablet we’ve ever tested and it runs effortlessly through all sorts of tasks — Photoshop exports, video renders, gaming, productivity tasks and streaming all happen without a hitch.

Best Android tablet

The Tab S7 is a clear winner, with enough power to keep up with whatever you can throw at it and plenty of battery life. While Android isn’t quite on par with iPad OS, Samsung DeX brings Windows-like multitasking to the Tab.

Best budget tablet under $200

The Fire HD 8 Plus can handle a host of everyday tasks and access Amazon’s library of content, including streaming movies and TV shows, e-reading and even some light gaming. For $109.99, it can do a lot, but know that the Amazon App Store is limited.

Best tablet overall: 8th-Generation iPad ($299, originally $329; amazon.com)

8th-Generation iPad
Jacob Krol/CNN
8th-Generation iPad

In comparison to the seventh-gen iPad, the eighth-gen iPad introduces a faster processor. It keeps the classic design and a quality display. But we found that the A12 Bionic chip inside boosted performance and improved the experience with iPadOS 14.

We threw a lot at the eighth-gen iPad throughout a full day of work. During our testing, it had no trouble handling lighter workloads, like firing off emails, browsing the web, typing, streaming content and even light gaming. Rendering video edits in iMovie or making minute changes to a series of photos in Photoshop did result in the tablet slowing down. The eighth-gen handled multitasking like a champ, even with three apps — Pages on the left, Safari on the right and Messages floating above — running simultaneously.

The eighth-generation iPad is best for everyday tasks (think emails and web browsing, with a sprinkling of gaming on the side). Anything more technical, though, and you’ll want to opt for the more powerful iPad Pro or the iPad Air.

And while we can bog you down with aspect ratios and other tech jargon, we’ll get straight to the point: The iPad’s display quality shines. Text is sharp and bold, meaning you won’t have to strain while reading, whether you’re on your couch or at the beach. We had an enjoyable experience using the eighth-generation iPad to make FaceTime calls, watch movies, browse the web or read a book, even in harsh lighting conditions. That’s thanks to its True Tone capabilities, meaning the iPad will adjust the color temperature of the display based on your environment.

The display accurately reproduces colors and doesn’t turn vibrancy up to 10. So nothing gets washed out, making streaming content a thoroughly enjoyable experience. When watching “Avengers: Endgame,” for instance, we were struck by how everything on-screen really popped — the glowing orange and yellow of explosions, and the stark reds, blues and whites of the characters’ getups. While an immersive experience, our only gripe is that the screen is not truly edge-to-edge.

But those noticeable edges around the display aren’t going to waste, as the tried-and-trusted home button is a main control on the eighth-generation iPad. The familiar UX employs a single click to bring you back home and a double click to pull up multitasking. You’ll also find a camera up top in a vertical position, which can make for awkward selfies and FaceTime calls when using the iPad horizontally. (The iPad Pro uses this same placement for the front camera, but our budget and Android pick have it in the best spot: on its side.)

Arguably the most exciting addition lives on the left-hand side. The Smart Connector gives you a dedicated connection for accessories like a Smart Keyboard or the Logitech Combo Touch. No more frustrating pairing or needing to charge multiple devices, so you can easily pair accessories to enhance productivity. Trackpads and mice are also fully supported by iPadOS as an input, along with touch, a keyboard or a pencil.

You don’t have to worry about being tethered to an outlet, either. We got close to 11 hours of active use with the eighth-generation iPad. Heavier days with lots of calls and streaming did result in close to nine and a half hours, though. During our more formulaic battery test — in which we set the brightness to 50%, turned on airplane mode and looped a video until the device died — we found the device lasted nine hours and 30 minutes. That’s an additional two hours compared to the previous-generation model.

Any way you slice it, the eighth-generation iPad continues to deliver an exceptional blend of performance and value. We’d be willing to bet that this tablet will fit your needs perfectly, whatever they may be, and at a price point that won’t break the bank.

Best performance: iPad Pro (starting at $749.99, originally $799.99; amazon.com)

Apple has really let the iPad Pro mature, and the fifth-generation Pro, in either its 11-inch or 12.9-inch configuration, can replace your laptop if you’re willing to work within the limitations of iPadOS.

The M1 chip (yes, the same one that powers the MacBook Air, 13-inch MacBook Pro, 24-inch iMac and Mac Mini) is the star of the show on the iPad Pro, and it delivers ultra-impressive processing power. With an 8-core CPU, 8-Core GPU and 16-Core Neural Engine, the iPad Pro gives you a smooth experience, regardless of the task. The efficient, responsive chip is a core reason the iPad Pro outperformed every other tablet we’ve tested.

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This tablet is truly up for any task. Large photo exports happen in milliseconds. Saving a PDF happens instantly. We were able to render 4K movies, export massive photos from Photoshop and import and export data, all with MacBook-like speed and without a hitch.

Apple’s iPadOS gives you access to hundreds of thousands of apps via the App Store. While early iPad Pros fell short as laptop replacements given their lack of multitasking, Apple’s addition of side-by-side multitasking to iPad in iOS 9 made the iPad Pro a productivity contender. Coming this fall, the Pro will receive iPadOS 15, which includes a menu for managing multitasking. We’ve been using the beta and find the new approach more straightforward, plus added features like the useful Quick Note (which lets you create a note from anywhere in iPadOS) give the Pro a more laptop-like feel overall.

While the eighth-generation iPad’s display performance is impressive, the iPad Pro ups the ante with its ProMotion display; the higher refresh rate creates a buttery smooth viewing experience whether you’re simply sorting through a spreadsheet or watching the latest episode of “Ozark” or “Loki.”

Whether you opt for the 11-inch or 12.9-inch variant of the iPad Pro, the display gives you plenty of room to multitask. Those who opt for the 12.9-inch will be in for a real treat, as it’s a Mini LED display. Over 10,000 LEDs behind the glass create immersive images that can pop with vibrancy and simmer down to deliver deep blacks and contrast points. It’s stunning in that it can make text look inky, scale to game with high refresh rates and give this tablet the keen ability for movie editing in Luma Fusion. Mini LED is sadly only found on the 12.9-inch, while the 11-inch sticks with a classic Retina display.

To sum it up, picture quality bests the eighth-generation iPad, iPad Air and iPad Mini. Thanks to a higher resolution, colors pop more, and a more comprehensive range of color support leads to a pristine viewing experience.

Apple has added a neat trick for video calls — CenterStage always keeps you in focus via the front-facing camera and is a dynamic experience. As you physically walk around or move your head around, the iPad Pro will keep you in the shot. Better yet, it works on FaceTime, Zoom, Webex, Slack and Google Meet.

The performance and display quality make the Pro a laptop competitor, but pairing the iPad Pro with the Magic Keyboard, while costly, makes it feel like a true 2-in-1 or even a full-fledged computer. An iPad Pro with a Magic Keyboard and an Apple Pencil is more expensive than a MacBook Air, but you get a truly multi-mode experience that takes advantage of the full power of iPadOS. As the task demands, you can type, or use the Pencil (ideal for note-taking and drawing) or your fingers.

The iPad Pro isn’t the only iPad on the block that can do this, though — the eighth-gen iPad (our overall pick) and the latest iPad Air both support these features. The key difference is the processing power inside and better display, which makes the difference for anyone looking to use an iPad as their primary device.

One downside is the single Thunderbolt 3 USB-C port (the MacBook Air has two). It can do a lot, but you’re stuck with just one. To get the most out of it — or even to keep it charged while running an external monitor — you’ll need to pair it with a USB-C hub, like the Satechi or Hyper models designed specifically for the iPad Pro (though other USB-C hubs should work if you need more ports). This way you can hook up peripherals like SSDs, cameras and even external displays. We do use an iPad Pro as our daily driver, and hook it into a hub to access external storage and a large monitor.

Simply put: The iPad Pro is a beast and really excels as a multi-mode device that allows for a plethora of inputs. The processor’s speed paired with iPadOS allows you to shred through exports, easily multitask with tons of apps and accomplish anything without a hitch. Sprinkle the great display and accessories on top of all that and you have a winning recipe for a solid laptop replacement.

Best Android tablet: Samsung Galaxy Tab S7 Wi-Fi (starting at $729.99; amazon.com)

Jason Cipriani/CNN

When it comes to Android tablets, there aren’t many options. Samsung, for the most part, is the only company that consistently releases new Android-powered tablets every year. Amazon’s Fire tablets are Android-based but run a heavily customized version of the operating system that leaves support for Google’s apps and services behind.

Still, even in a limited field, the flagship-level Tab S7 shines. It’s running Android with full Google support and some Samsung customizations (dubbed the One UI interface). A Qualcomm Snapdragon 865+ processor powers the experience (which is quite snappy). It pairs that swift chipset with 6GB of RAM, which means it was up for plenty of multitasking.

The combination of processing power here was also enough to power Samsung DeX — which transforms the standard Android interface into a laptop-like interface — although we did experience some slowdowns in this mode. App compatibility, like Android apps on a Chromebook, was spotty, though it’s still handy for when you need to work in a different environment. You can automatically trigger it by connecting the S7 to Samsung’s keyboard accessory, which is sold separately for $199.

The Tab S7 features an 11-inch screen set in a 16:9 ratio. It’s a bit taller and thinner than, say, the 11-inch iPad Pro. It’s an LCD display and looked crisp and sharp when streaming movies, browsing the web and even cycling through photos. Better yet, it supports up to an iPad-rivaling 120 Hz refresh rate, which delivers a buttery smooth viewing experience. Now, the Tab S7 isn’t the only tablet Samsung dropped this year. There’s the larger Tab S7+ with a 12.4-inch Super AMOLED display — that higher-quality display is the core difference, but in our testing, it didn’t present itself as a clear winner by offering brighter colors or more vivid imagery. The two displays looked almost identical no matter the test.

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Powering the S7 is an 8,000mAh battery. During our benchmark battery test that consists of playing a video on repeat with the tablet in airplane mode and screen brightness set to 50%, the S7 lasted 15 hours and 22 minutes. In other words, the S7’s battery will last all day and well into the next.

Tab S7 starts with 128GB of internal storage and even supports 5G connectivity on the cellular model. It supports 45-watt fast charging via the USB-C port and comes with an S Pen stylus in the box.

Compared to previous Galaxy tablets, the Tab S7 offers a more complete package. From battery life to performance to display quality, there’s no real comparison. If you want a premium Android tablet, the Tab S7 is your best choice.

Best budget tablet under $200: Fire HD 8 Plus ($109.99; amazon.com)

Jason Cipriani/CNN

From the moment we unboxed Amazon’s Fire HD 8 Plus, we noted its modern design, similar to that of the Kindle Paperwhite. The rounded edges are a worthwhile improvement over the dated and very boxy design of previous Fire HD tablets.

The front-facing camera has been moved so that it’s at the top of the screen when you’re holding the tablet in landscape mode — one of the few tablets to do so — and in turn, it makes your video calls look better.

Arguably the biggest addition to the Fire HD 8 Plus is wireless charging. You can place the 8-inch tablet on any Qi-compatible wireless charging pad, or order the tablet along with Amazon’s own wireless charging stand for $139.99. And there’s no cause for separation anxiety while charging as, once in the stand, Show Mode is activated, converting the tablet into a makeshift Echo Show smart screen. You can interact with Alexa, just like you would any other Echo device, asking for weather updates, controlling smart home devices and posing random questions or requesting jokes.

We’ll be honest: This isn’t the fastest tablet we’ve ever tested, but it is powerful enough to handle common tablet tasks. For example, you won’t have a problem using Amazon’s Silk browser to shop on your favorite sites, hold Zoom video calls and scroll through your social media feeds. You can even do some light gaming — just don’t expect to be wowed by how fast games load or how the graphics look.

In our battery life tests, the Fire HD 8 Plus lasted nearly 10 hours, which is more than enough for binge-watching your latest Amazon Prime Video series on a cross-country flight, with enough juice left over to get in a couple of hours with your favorite Kindle reads as you settle into your hotel later that night.

The biggest hurdle you’ll have to overcome is learning how to navigate Amazon’s Fire OS. It’s Android-based but leaves out any Google services. That means you won’t find Google’s Gmail or YouTube apps, for example, and are forced to use Amazon’s own app store and its limited selection (although, many big-name apps, including Netflix, Minecraft, Disney+ and Instagram are available). The interface has a steep learning curve, but once you adapt to its layout, you shouldn’t have any issues.

Even though apps may take longer to load, multitasking isn’t the smoothest and the lack of Google apps can be annoying, the Fire HD 8 Plus is by far the best tablet we’ve used anywhere near this price point. And the fact that it doubles as an Echo Show while charging provides added value to a device that would normally be nothing more than a paperweight waiting to juice up.

How we tested

Tablets can vary a lot in what they aim to accomplish and deliver, but we wanted to take a look at a diverse variety of devices. After sorting through dozens of expert reviews (including our own) and applying our own knowledge of the tablet market, we drew up a list of 12 devices to compare. These ranged wildly in price from $109 to $999. But before we took price into account, we wanted to objectively test qualities that we expect from a good tablet.

Every device was scored on the following properties: design, display, battery life, performance, software, speakers, connectivity, ports, accessories and warranty. The categories we considered key were weighted greater, namely design, display, battery life and performance. A tablet is a largely visual device, seeing as it’s one big screen, so display and design are important. And performance determines how smooth your experience is going to be and what you can do on the device. Of course, better battery life means you don’t have to put the device down to charge as often.

With each tablet, we ran out the battery from full to empty while playing a movie with screen brightness set to 50% and airplane mode engaged. We multitasked with numerous apps, streamed shows and movies, listened to music, played games of various intensities and more. Plus, we looked into the quality of the display and actual construction of a tablet. In terms of design, we looked into the shape and portability, how it feels in the hand and more nuanced aspects like bezel-to-display ratio. Finally, we considered and tested available ports and connected various other tech via Bluetooth.

Take a look at our in-depth category breakdown below.

Design

  • Portability: We considered the dimensions, thickness and weight of the tablet. A lighter, smaller tablet that can fit in more containers or be more easily held scored better here.
  • Build quality: We took notes on how the tablet felt in our hands. We looked for tablets that weren’t too heavy and had features like rounded edges and quality materials that felt better to hold.
  • Materials used: We researched the material composition of the tablet. We compared whether tablets were made of plastic or metal and glass, and what kind of metal was used (e.g., stainless steel versus aluminum).

Display

  • Screen size: We measured the bezel ratio, aka how much of the tablet’s surface is composed of the actual display versus bezels (sections without a display).
  • Resolution: We checked what screen resolution the tablet had in terms of pixels composing the width and height of the display.
  • Vibrancy and contrast: We tested an array of visuals (both still and moving) with bright colors and dark tones mixed throughout. We checked for any blending, how bright a color could get and how dark a tone could be.
  • Quality in everyday use: We took qualitative notes on how the tablet’s display held up in everyday activities under different light conditions, checking properties such as whether glare impeded the display and how clear it was in the dark.

Battery life

  • Performance on the Underscored battery test: We put the tablet through our standard battery test. Specifically, we ran out the battery from full to empty while playing a movie on airplane mode with the screen brightness set to 50%, recording exactly how long the tablet lasted.
  • Qualitative use: We took qualitative notes on how the tablet performed at various battery levels. We noted how well it could be used to multitask, stream movies and do other activities at high battery level and very low battery level.

Performance

  • Processor and RAM: We recorded the exact processor inside the tablet and how many GB of RAM were available.
  • Benchmarking tests: We ran GeekBench 5 tests on all devices when possible as well as a series of exports and renders.
  • Everyday use across entertainment and productivity: We pushed the tablet to its limits on multitasking, video streaming and gaming, if such a limit could be reached.

Software

  • Software: We rated the capabilities and variety of the software that comes preinstalled on the tablet with iPadOS, Android or Fire OS. If a tablet came with a lot of bloatware, as in extra, unnecessary apps, we docked it. It was also a bad sign if the tablet had trouble running software that it came with.

Speakers

  • Speakers: We listened to the same playlist on each tablet, consisting of various genres spanning jazz, rock, pop, rap, classical and EDM, among others. Between tablets, we compared properties like soundstage, bass and vocal and instrumental clarity.

Connectivity

  • Connectivity: We rated the consistency of the tablet’s connectivity to both the internet via Wi-Fi and various connected Bluetooth devices.

Ports

  • Power/data: We examined which ports the tablet featured for data and/or power transfer (i.e., USB Type-C, Micro USB or Lightning connectors). For example, USB Type-C allows for faster charging than Micro USB, so a tablet that utilizes the former would score better in this category.
  • Headphone jack: We checked whether the tablet included a headphone jack (and whether it worked) and awarded a point if it featured one. It’s all about user’s choice, and opting to include an audio jack delivers more value.
  • Proprietary ports: We noted any ports that are unique to the tablet’s brand and the function(s) of these ports.

Warranty

  • Warranty: We researched the warranty/warranties available for each device. Warranties that were longer and/or covered more issues or damage scored better.

Other tablets we tested

iPad Air 3rd Gen ($469, originally $499; amazon.com)

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The $499 iPad Air sits in the middle of the iPad lineup. It’s faster and more sleek-looking than the seventh-generation iPad, but it’s not as quick as the iPad Pro. It’s kind of a stepping-stone between the base and the top-of-the-line models — but for most, it’s notably more powerful than the seventh-generation iPad. That’s why, given the price difference, we think the decision rests between the seventh-generation iPad and iPad Pro.

iPad Mini 5 ($399; amazon.com)

The iPad Mini 5 still serves a niche as an ultra-portable yet powerful iPad, but with 7.9-inch screen size, the iPhone 11 Pro Max is closing in from behind. It’s a packed device that runs iPadOS 13 really well and, even on a tighter display, supports considerable multitasking. We just think for most people, the iPhone might be serving most of the use cases and opting for the seventh-generation iPad will give you more versatility and, ultimately, more bang for your buck.

Fire HD 10 (starting at $149.99; amazon.com)

The new Fire HD 10 gets a lot right and fixes a lot from its predecessor — mainly a faster processor delivers a fluid FireOS experience that doesn’t choke under pressure. It’s 10.1-inch HD display is just fine for streaming, but at $149.99 it doesn’t scale much beyond our budget pick. For the money, you’re better off sticking with a Fire HD 8 Plus. It’s also more portable.

Galaxy Tab S6 ($649.99; samsung.com)

Samsung’s Galaxy Tab S6 is a terrific Android tablet that lets you mix productivity and entertainment. It’s fast and premium all around, but we feel that even at its $649.99 price point, the device doesn’t let you get as much done as a competing operating system.

Galaxy Tab S6 Lite ($279.99, originally $349.99; samsung.com)

Samsung’s Galaxy Tab S6 Lite offers an Android experience with a slow but steady performance and exceptional battery life. Its headlining feature is the included S Pen stylus that works seamlessly with Samsung’s suite of productivity apps. The Tab S6 Lite ultimately falls short of being a top pick because its slower performance doesn’t live up to its $349.99 price tag.

Surface Go 2 (starting at $399; microsoft.com)

Microsoft’s Surface Go 2 looks just as good as the previous generation and runs a full-fledged version of Windows 10. Its display is sharp and crisp, and battery life is more than enough to get through a day of work. But the entry-level model isn’t something we would recommend to anyone, due to the impact its slower processor and storage has on overall performance. In the end, you’ll have to spend $629 for a more powerful model. The Go 2 is perfect for someone who has a strong desire to remain within the Windows 10 ecosystem with Microsoft’s hardware, but it’s going to cost you.

Read more from CNN Underscored’s hands-on testing:

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