How to Choose the Right Tablet
A tablet that’s as powerful as a conventional laptop but still slim and light enough to hold and tap with one hand was once the exclusive province of Hollywood’s imagination. But thanks to manufacturers’ ability to fit more powerful hardware into ever slimmer and lighter devices, it’s now possible to hold in your hand a tablet that can do almost everything your laptop does—and, in most cases, is even more portable. Think of it as an Apple iPad combined with the power and flexibility of the Windows 10 operating system.
Just as with any system, however, a Windows tablet requires you to make choices. How big and powerful do you want (or need) it to be? What sort of features are you looking for? And do you care about using it on the road, or will you only need it while you’re near a Wi-Fi connection? We’ll help you answer all these questions and more, and tell you which of the many Windows tablets on the market are our favorites.
First: Assess the Screen Size
Of course, just like the iPad line, with its range of sizes, computing power, and prices, there’s no single Windows tablet that fits everyone’s needs. As you begin shopping, you’ll note that they fall into a few different categories.
First are the inexpensive 10-inch models, designed to let you browse the Web and enjoy streaming a movie from Netflix or Amazon Prime. Because these budget-friendly devices usually rely on low-power processors and minimal storage, you’re better off getting one as a second or third device to serve alongside your laptop or smartphone. In other words, these aren’t the full-powered Windows devices that you might long for after seeing Westworld or another Hollywood fantasy. Asus and Lenovo have offered machines in this class over the years, and the Microsoft Surface Go is perhaps the current archetype.
Then there are larger 12-inch and 13-inch models designed to work in tandem with an included or optional stylus and docking keyboard. These give you a better way to take notes in class or type up an email or a term paper, and generally provide a well-rounded Windows experience. The best example of these is the iconic Microsoft Surface Pro, now in its seventh generation.
The Best Tablet Deals This Week*
*Deals are selected by our partner, TechBargains
Finally, there are premium and business systems, designed as productivity tools rather than media consumption devices. Dell and Lenovo have dabbled in these, in their Latitude and ThinkPad lines, respectively, and Microsoft’s Surface Pros also qualify in this space.
Tablet Processors: Parsing Low-Power
With Windows tablets running the gamut from low-power entertainment devices to potent tools for productivity, how do you know which one to buy if you plan to use your device for both types of tasks? As with conventional laptops, a lot comes down to the processor.
Intel’s current lineup of Celeron and Pentium processors include several chips built for low power usage and passive cooling. These are two necessary attributes for tablets, since they house nearly all of their components behind the screen, which itself generates heat.
These are typically designated with a “Y” somewhere in the chip’s model name, and they’re perfect for inexpensive tablets. They don’t require built-in cooling fans, and they offer usable performance that lasts for several hours on a single charge, or even a day or two of light use without visiting a power outlet. They lack the processing oomph you might want for applications like Photoshop, but they are ideal if you want to check Facebook and Twitter, then kick back with some YouTube videos or an episode of a Netflix show.
At the other end of the tablet-CPU spectrum are Intel Core i3, i5, and i7 processors that are also used to power full-fledged laptops. These chips are typically designated with a “U,” with the exception of certain 10th Generation chips. While these CPUs draw more power and require more cooling hardware, they offer a much higher level of capability, letting you get real work done. Tablets equipped with these processors are priced more like laptops (usually above $1,000), but you get performance to match the increased cost.
Settling in between these extremes are variants of Intel’s Core lineup with a “Y” designation. Like the Y series chips in the Celeron and Pentium lines mentioned above, the Core Y series models also keep cool without needing a built-in cooling fan, but they offer more muscle to drive productivity. A tablet-CPU outlier recently hit the street in the form of the Microsoft SQ1, a Qualcomm/ARM design that is, so far, exclusively in the Microsoft Surface Pro X, a tablet with some key limitations you can investigate at the link.
Features and Connectivity
Once you’ve determined which processor will fit your usage pattern, it’s time to move on to the features that make handheld PCs far more flexible than conventional laptops. Sensors previously seen in smartphones bring new ways to interact with your PC, with accelerometers, gyroscopes, and e-compasses providing positional awareness for both automatic screen rotation and new immersive applications.
There’s even a Windows tablet version of FaceID, the feature that lets you unlock your Apple iPhone or iPad Pro simply by looking at it. Called Windows Hello, it’s also available on laptops and desktops, but it’s most useful on tablets that don’t have a keyboard handy to enter a complex, secure password.
And let’s not forget touch. With capacitive screens that track five or 10 fingertips at a time, you can pinch, swipe, and tap your way through any task, even those that would have required a keyboard and mouse only a couple of years ago. Many tablets also come with optional digital pens. Some are housed in “garages,” tiny holes in the tablet itself that secure the stylus and charge its battery. Others must be carried separately or attached via magnets to one of the tablet’s edges.
Then there’s the question of connectivity. With eminently portable designs, it’s only natural that some shoppers will want tablets that feature the same sort of mobile data that they enjoy on their smartphones. A few Windows tablets on the market have 4G and LTE connectivity (and thus require a separate data plan).
Most Windows tablets sold in the US stick exclusively to Wi-Fi, though. Wider availability of LTE tablets depends on American wireless carriers striking deals with manufacturers to offer easier methods of purchasing data plans, as they have with Apple.
Don’t Overlook the Convertible Hybrid
Finally, what if you simply can’t live without a real keyboard, but don’t want the hassle of carrying a separate one around? Some convertible laptops have keyboards that fold around the back, so you can use them as traditional clamshell laptops, as tablets, or at any position in between. We’ve only included detachable Windows tablets here; to learn more about screen-rotating convertibles, read our roundup of the best 2-in-1 laptops.
The switch from a laptop to a tablet doesn’t come without issues, though. The thin confines of a tablet make worries about heat buildup all the more important—especially when that heat is literally in hand. Touch screens add a new opportunity for frustration when taps and touches won’t register properly, and the opportunities offered by docks and accessories also open up the chance to lose a valuable part of your PC while out and about—say what you will about tablets, but you’ll never misplace your keyboard while using a laptop.
So, Which Windows Tablet Should I Buy?
We’ve waded through the current tablet offerings, and tested and compared dozens of tablet PCs to discover what works and what doesn’t. Here are our top picks for Windows tablets. If you’re not married to the Windows 10 OS, read our report on the 10 best tablets overall, as well as our roundup of the best Android-based models.
Where To Buy
Best For Outdoors Professions, Computing in Bad Weather:
Dell Latitude 7220 Rugged Extreme Tablet —
Best For Business Travelers, On-the-Go Presenters:
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Tablet (3rd Gen) —
Best For Power Users, Creative Professionals:
Microsoft Surface Book 2 —
at Microsoft Store
Best For Style-Conscious Frequent Travelers:
Microsoft Surface Pro 7 —
at Microsoft Store
Best For Enterprise Deployment, Business Presenters:
Dell Latitude 5290 2-in-1 —
at Dell Technologies
Best For Enterprise Deployment, Business Executives:
Dell Latitude 7200 2-in-1 —
at Dell Technologies
Best For Workstation Users, Engineers:
HP ZBook x2 —
Best For Students, Users Seeking Maximum Portability:
Microsoft Surface Go —
Best For Travelers Often Away From Stable Wi-Fi:
Microsoft Surface Go With LTE Advanced —
at Microsoft Store
Best For Future-Looking Microsoft Fans:
Microsoft Surface Pro X —
Microsoft Windows 10
Pros: Improved Cortana voice-responsive digital assistant.
Faster start-up. Enhanced software and device ecosystem. Updated interface for Start menu.
Better gaming features.
Included progressive music, news, and video apps.
Cons: Now sports a hefty price-tag.
Bottom Line: Windows 10, known for being a free upgrade, takes the features of Windows 7 and 8 and blends them into a fast, feature-loaded operating system with excellent touch support and the Cortana digital assistant.
The latest update adds yet more polish.