You might think that Apple’s iPad has won the tablet wars, but think again. High-end iPads and Windows tablets dominate the top of the field with impressive tools for productivity, but Google’s Android operating system is very popular at lower price points. The least expensive new iPad will set you back $329. The range of Android tablets is much broader, with an option for every budget. Android tablets also sometimes show up with interesting and unusual features, such as E Ink screens.
In 2021, most Android tablet options fall in the budget category. You can find an endless array of no-name, plasticky sub-$100 slates sold at your local CVS or through mysterious “fulfilled by Amazon” drop-shippers. Acer, Asus, Lenovo, and Samsung used to deliver solid iPad competitors, but they’ve all slowed down their tablet production. The top name-brand Android tablet is the Galaxy Tab S7+.
Start With Software
Android tablet manufacturers rarely use the latest version of the OS, and software upgrades are even less common. Though most Android smartphones ship with Android 11, you’ll be hard pressed to find tablets running it. We recommend skipping over tablets running anything older than Android 10, with the exception of Amazon’s Fire lineup.
Speaking of Amazon, it and other large manufacturers like Samsung like to put their own spin on Google’s OS, adding a bevy of features, new app stores, and completely revamped user interfaces. It’s not for everyone, but those who are familiar with Amazon’s Fire OS or Samsung’s One UI should give the latest devices from each company a try. And if you’re already heavily invested in Amazon’s ecosystem, you might want to stick with one of the latest Fire tablets.
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Even if you don’t have the most recent OS iteration, Android continues to be the most configurable tablet operating system you’ll find. It’s a master multitasker, with an excellent notification system and top-notch integration with Google services like Gmail, Meet, and Google Maps.
Android is home to plenty of great apps, though there are far fewer tablet-specific versions than you’ll find on Apple’s App Store, and they tend to be updated less frequently.
Should You Buy a Cellular or Wi-Fi Tablet?
All of the major carriers offer a small selection of cellular-enabled tablets. It’s easy to find them on promotion when you’re upgrading your plan or bundled with a new smartphone purchase. Tablet data plans tend to run around $10 a month, although some carriers offer daily plans.
T-Mobile sells unlocked tablets, but some have very limited band support if you decide to switch carriers. AT&T and Verizon tablets are locked by default, but Verizon will unlock tablets 60 days after purchase, provided they’re paid off. If you’re thinking of switching to a different carrier in the near future, you’ll want to check out LTE band support to make sure your tablet will work without any hiccups.
Frequent travelers and car commuters will find cellular connectivity to be a must. If you’re the type who primarily uses your tablet for streaming at home, Wi-Fi connectivity will save you some money. Most carriers allow you to use your phone as a hotspot for those times when you’re not close to Wi-Fi, and many newer cars have LTE connectivity built in for road trips or keeping your child occupied while sitting in traffic. Of course, hotspotting will quickly burn through your phone battery, but that’s where power banks come in. You’ll want to check out your phone plan before making any decisions, though, because carriers limit the amount of data that can be used with a mobile hotspot.
Don’t Forget About Design
Performance on even the least expensive tablets is typically fine for media streaming or surfing the web. There’s also a slim chance you’ll see a software upgrade that offers a performance boost as well. What won’t change, however, is the build, so think twice before buying a tablet with a flimsy plastic body.
Low-cost tablets also tend to have dull 1,024-by-600 or 1,280-by-800 screens that can look grainy even to those who own budget phones. Higher-quality tablets are often in the 2,048-by-1,536 range, which is notably sharper.
There are plenty of bargain bin options out there promising the same Android experience as big names. Many of these off-label tabs are perfectly serviceable, but we recommend choosing a brand you can count on for software support and hardware quality control. For more, see our favorite budget-friendly models.
These are the best Android tablets we’ve tested. If you’re looking for a great phone to complement your new tablet, head over to our roundup of the best Android phones. Or if you want to look beyond the realm of Android, check out our roundups of the best tablets overall, which includes our favorite Apple options.