After spending more than 110 hours over the past two years researching and testing tablets, we think the best full-featured Android tablet for most people is still the Nvidia Shield Tablet K1. Other Android tablets are thinner or less expensive, but the K1 offers the best combination of speed, display quality, and features for the price. Its hardware is a few years old, but it continues to be more than fast enough for what most people use a tablet for. That said, if you’re not already invested in Android, an iPad is a better tablet in general.
The resolution of the K1’s 8-inch screen is high enough (1920×1200) to provide a very crisp image, but not so high that it wastes battery life on unnecessary additional pixels. The tablet has a Tegra K1 processor, 2 GB of RAM, a microSD slot for expansion, and a Mini HDMI output for gaming on your TV. The fast processor and 2 GB of RAM are enough to run Android smoothly, and the microSD slot helps make up for the K1’s puny 16 GB of internal storage. The K1 runs an uncluttered version of Android 7.0 Nougat with Nvidia’s added gaming features.
If you want a cheap tablet for watching videos, reading, or browsing the web, Amazon’s Fire HD 8 tablet is great. It doesn’t have access to the Google Play Store or any of Google’s apps, but it costs less than $100 and makes it easy to access Amazon content (especially for Prime members). Amazon’s Fire OS (based on Android) runs very well, and the Fire HD 8 offers better battery life than the Shield K1 or Pixel C. The display is only 1280×800, but that’s fine for a budget media tablet. Amazon’s app store is not as extensive as the Play Store, but it does have free versions of many apps and games that cost money on other Android tablets. The Fire HD 8 also has more extensive parental controls than other tablets, making it a great family device.
The Samsung Galaxy Tab S3 is the best Android tablet you can buy, with a handy S Pen stylus and a vibrant 9.7-inch Super AMOLED display. The Tab S3 has a sleek glass and aluminum frame like the Galaxy S7; its Snapdragon 820 is plenty powerful, and the 9.7-inch Super AMOLED screen is nicer than the iPad Pro’s LCD. The Tab S3 runs Android 7.0 with Samsung’s TouchWiz optimizations, but some of the changes allow the S Pen to do cool things including system-wide handwriting recognition and quick screen-captures—and unlike Apple’s Pencil, it never needs to be recharged. The Tab S3 also has the best multitasking features of any Android tablet we’ve tested, but Android still lacks tablet-optimized apps—for the price, the iPad Pro is a better choice for most.
Few people really need a tablet, but if you’re reading this, you probably want one because of what they’re good for: watching video, browsing the web, reading, checking email and social networks, and playing games. They’re great for media consumption, but some people even manage to get most of their work done on one.
Tablets are also great first devices for kids. Both the Google and Amazon stores have a large selection of kid-friendly content, and you can give your kids individual accounts, so each can access only the content you’ve selected for him or her. Kids are also less likely to need exceptional performance, making a more-affordable tablet a good choice for them.
But if you aren’t already committed to Android, the iPad line offers a better combination of hardware, software, and accessory ecosystem. Compared with their Android counterparts, iPads currently have better build quality, a smoother and more responsive UI, better long-term OS support, larger available internal storage, far better cameras, and much more tablet-optimized software. Many Android tablet apps still feel like stretched phone apps, while iPad apps have been designed to take better advantage of the tablet’s screen size. Even the Pixel C, which feels like a match for the iPad in hardware quality, just doesn’t have the tablet-specific apps that iPads do.
If you have an older Android tablet that’s slow in day-to-day use, you might want to upgrade. The faster processors and increased RAM of the latest tablets make them much more responsive for gaming, content creation, and general use, and newer tablets often have better, higher-resolution screens than older ones. Your older tablet also probably won’t get the latest version of Android (7.0 Nougat), so you won’t be able to take advantage of the latest software features, including split-screen side-by-side multitasking, the ability to reply to notifications directly from their notification cards, and longer battery life.
On the other hand, if you have a recent tablet that can get an update to Marshmallow or Nougat, and you’re mainly using the tablet for Web browsing, email, streaming video and audio, or other lightweight tasks, you’re probably fine sticking with it. As always, if you’re happy with what you already have, you don’t need to upgrade.
As an alternative to a tablet, you may want to consider getting a larger phone the next time you upgrade. An Android phone with a 5.7-inch screen will let you do the same things as a 7-inch tablet. The screen will be smaller, of course, but in many ways it will be just as usable as a tablet—even more so at times, thanks to its better portability.
A good tablet must have a high-resolution screen, a powerful CPU, and at least 2 GB of RAM. Every tablet will feel slower over the next two to three years as apps grow larger and demand even more CPU power and RAM, and as the Android operating system adds new features, so you want to start out with solid hardware.
A microSD slot is nice because many Android tablets have limited internal storage to keep prices low, and you’ll need plenty of room if you plan to sync movies and other media to your tablet. Android 6.0 and later versions let you combine a microSD card seamlessly with your internal storage, so you don’t have to move items between the tablet’s internal storage and the microSD card.
The tablet’s battery should be able to last for roughly a day’s worth of active use. Even though most people won’t use a tablet straight through an entire day, this kind of battery life means you won’t have to recharge your tablet every night.
We also think that it’s better to have as close to a stock version of Android as possible. Samsung, LG, and many other vendors like to put their own software UI on top of Android and to include their own apps alongside the stock Android apps—these can include duplicate apps for photos, Web browsing, music, email, calendar, and video. More often than not, these apps are worse than the stock Android versions, and you have no way to completely remove them. A stock version of Android gives you only the official Android apps, and it lets you customize the look and feel of your tablet to what you want, rather than what a vendor wants. It should also mean that you get faster OS updates and security patches, though in the Android world that’s never guaranteed.
We’ve tested 11 tablets over the past two years, drawing from an ever-decreasing pool of contenders: We started with seven candidates in 2015, but looked at just two in early 2016 and two more in late 2016. There just aren’t many models being released that meet our criteria. We used each for general tasks such as browsing the web, checking email, watching movies, and listening to music. We also played games, took photos, and edited documents stored in Google Drive. We spent at least a week with each tablet, but some, including the Pixel C, have been a regular part of our digital lives for months.
The Nvidia Shield Tablet K1 is designed for gamers, but it’s the best tablet for non-gamers, too. The 8-inch screen’s resolution is high enough to reproduce detailed images and smooth fonts, though expensive tablets like the iPad or Galaxy Tab S3 have brighter, more vibrant displays with higher resolutions. The K1’s CPU is fast, and software updates have kept it responsive, even though the tablet’s components are more than two years old. The K1 has only 16 GB of storage, but you can add storage via the tablet’s microSD card slot. The Shield runs a nearly stock version of Android 7.0 Nougat. Other tablets in this price range are slower, have poor displays, or run clunky, skinned versions of Android.
The K1, a slight refresh of the original Shield Tablet from 2014, debuted in November 2015 for $100 less than the original Shield. At nearly 14 ounces and a third of an inch thick, the K1 isn’t nearly as small or slim as Apple’s iPad mini, but few models are—most companies have stopped selling tablets with 7- to 8-inch screens in favor of large-screened smartphones (aka phablets).
A 32-bit Nvidia Tegra K1 processor makes the Shield Tablet K1 competitive with other prices in this category, even two years after the original Shield launched. The tablet’s 2 GB of RAM isn’t a lot, but it’s enough that the tablet runs smoothly. It helps that the K1’s stock version of Android 7.0 is faster than the heavy skins used by Samsung and LG.
The 8-inch screen’s 1920×1200 resolution is great for watching movies and sharp enough for reading, although the colors are a little muted. Some pricier tablets have higher-resolution screens, but unless you’re looking at them side-by-side with the K1, you’re unlikely to notice the difference. Increasing resolution also increases battery drain (because the GPU and CPU have to work harder to drive the extra pixels) and uses more RAM.
If you plan to install a lot of apps or store a decent amount of media, the K1’s 16 GB of storage isn’t enough, but a microSD-card slot helps. When you insert a microSD card, you have the option of formatting it as internal storage, and if you do, the card is treated as an extension of your built-in storage—you don’t have to worry about shuffling data between the card and the tablet’s internal storage. And microSD cards are cheap: Our favorite microSD card gives you 64 GB for less than $30 or 128 GB for under $60.
The K1 uses a 32-bit Tegra K1 processor that’s much faster than the budget processors in most Android tablets, and it’s optimized for gaming. In real-world use, the K1 is responsive when switching between apps or pages on the home screen. The K1’s 2 GB of RAM is sufficient for most uses, though you might notice some slowdowns when multitasking.
The most interesting aspects of the K1 are its gaming capabilities. Nvidia designed the tablet to play both Android games and certain games running on your desktop PC—assuming you have an Nvidia GeForce GTX 650 GPU or better (sorry, no AMD cards). In this setup, your PC handles the heavy processing work for the game and then streams the video over Wi-Fi to the tablet, letting you play on the tablet or on a TV (via an HDMI connection from the tablet). Using the tablet with an HDMI cable connected is a bit of a hassle, so if you’re playing on the TV, you’ll probably want to keep the tablet plugged into a charger and control the game with the Shield Controller (sold separately).
The K1 can also play games streamed from Nvidia’s GeForce Now (previously called Grid) servers—again, letting you display the games on your TV, if you like. Using a Mini-HDMI-to-HDMI cable, we were able to stream games such as Borderlands 2 and Dirt 3 from Nvidia’s servers, through the K1, to a TV without installing the game on a home computer or tablet. We did notice occasional frame hiccups, but far more often than not, the play felt as smooth as playing locally (in other words, not streaming). The K1 won’t replace a dedicated gaming console, but it’s a good way to play games on the go, or to easily bring your PC games into your living room. The K1 also has one-touch streaming to Twitch.tv.
The version of Android on the K1 is very close to stock, so it’s not overloaded with unnecessary software. Nvidia added a few features to support the tablet’s gaming capabilities, but the OS feels otherwise identical to what you’d get on a Google device. Even better, the K1 received an update to Android 7.0 in early 2017. That’s remarkable commitment to device updates from Nvidia.
Sam Byford at The Verge says of the K1, “I couldn’t think of an Android tablet I’d rather buy.” He finds the same faults with Android tablets that we do, and agrees that the iPad offers a better experience, but he feels the K1 is the best choice for those set on an Android model.
Engadget liked the K1 in late 2015, saying it “still lives up to every word we wrote about the original [in 2014].” In that review of the original Shield, reviewer Sean Buckley writes, “It’s not only the best Android gaming device on the market, but also a fine tablet, too.” He noted that the original Shield Tablet “is delightfully fast, offering one of the smoothest, most stutter-free experiences I’ve ever had with an Android tablet,” and gives it good marks for “clear, balanced colors, great contrast and wide viewing angles.”
Mark Walton of Ars Technica calls the K1 “one of the best small Android tablets around.” He did express concerns about the tablet’s battery life, but calls it Android’s “budget tablet champ.”
Andrew Martonik of Android Central says the K1 is “a new value proposition” thanks to Nvidia dropping $100 from the price of the old Shield while keeping the features and performance.
The K1’s battery life is good, at just over 7 hours of active use on a single charge. It’s not as long as you can get from some other tablets, but most people use a tablet for an hour or two here or there, rather than for a full workday at a time. Android tablets have a bad habit of rapidly draining their batteries when not in use, though the updates to Android 6.0 and 7.0 have somewhat mitigated this: Unlike most of the other tablets we tested, the K1 still had power left after 48 hours on standby mode. Though if you leave the tablet sitting around for a week, it’ll probably run out of juice.
Unlike the original Shield, the K1 doesn’t come with a charger or a stylus—part of the reason the K1 costs $100 less than its predecessor. Most people already have a Micro-USB cable and charger lying around, but if you don’t, our guides to the best USB wall charger and best Micro-USB cable will help you get what you need to charge the K1 (and all your other USB-charged devices) at full speed for less than the cost of Nvidia’s official charger. The previously included stylus is now a $20 add-on, but without a slot on the tablet to hold the stylus, it’s easy to lose.
The K1 is much bulkier than other tablets with a 7-inch or 8-inch display, at almost a centimeter thick and weighing 13 ounces (360 grams). The sharp angles on the tablet’s edges also make it slightly awkward to hold in one hand, but if you use two hands, the K1 feels just fine.
The K1’s screen is good, but it doesn’t fully saturate blue or red (colors are only noticeably washed out in images with very saturated blues and reds). It’s not as accurate or bright as the display on the more expensive Galaxy Tab S3.
The K1’s cameras are just okay. In general photos aren’t crisp, and bright areas of images taken with the rear camera have some smearing. That said, the cameras on every Android tablet we’ve tested are outclassed by the camera on even the first retina-screened iPad from 2012. You can take photos with an Android tablet, but you really shouldn’t rely on it as a camera.
We’d like to see Nvidia offer more than 16 GB of internal storage, especially considering that iPads now come with up to 256 GB of storage. On the other hand, a 128 GB iPad (5th generation) costs $430, while you can get a K1 and a 128 GB microSD card for under $250. The downside to this approach is that microSD cards are slower than integrated storage—we’d prefer a tablet with more internal storage and a microSD card slot.
Finally, Nvidia hasn’t talked about future updates for the Shield Tablet K1. It’s aging well, but the K1 is based on a two-year-old design. It’s unlikely it will be updated beyond Nougat. A newer Shield tablet was apparently cancelled in August 2016 without ever being announced.
Most people use tablets for streaming video, browsing the web, and reading. The Amazon Fire HD 8 excels at all three and is the best budget Android tablet we’ve tested. The Fire HD 8 starts at just $90 (with ads), but it lacks the powerful hardware or high-resolution screens of the Nvidia Shield K1 or Galaxy Tab S3. Like the Shield K1, the base model of the Fire HD 8 has only 16 GB of storage, but it accepts microSD cards. It uses Amazon’s services, not Google’s, which means no Google Play Store or Google apps by default (though you can add them, with effort, if you’re technically inclined).
The 8-inch display’s 1280×800 resolution is a lot lower than what you get on the Shield K1 or Galaxy Tab S3, but it’s good enough to watch video or get some reading done. (If you mainly plan on reading, the high-contrast e-ink screen on one of Amazon’s Kindle models makes those better as reading devices.) And the lower-resolution screen gives the HD 8 amazing battery life: With a few hours of use per day, this tablet can last most of a week. That’s longer than the Galaxy Tab S3, and LaptopMag notes that it’s even better than the previous generation Fire HD 8.
A $90 tablet still involves a lot of compromises, but Amazon has refined its tablet formula over the years. Despite a low-end, quad-core processor and only 1.5 GB of RAM, the tablet still manages solid performance for basic tasks. As CNET explained, “Apps loaded reasonably quickly and the device didn’t feel sluggish.”
This is thanks in part to Amazon’s Fire OS, a version of Android that’s optimized for content consumption. It provides easy access to Amazon ebooks, videos, apps, and music, without a ton of services and apps running in the background slowing things down. If you care about voice commands, the Fire HD 8 will soon—via a software update—be the first tablet with support for Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant. Fire OS’s extensive parental controls also make this a good tablet for younger children.
The Fire HD 8 works best with Amazon Prime, as subscribers get access to a selection of free music, books, and videos. If you aren’t a Prime member, you still get a selection of free apps from Amazon Underground, many of which cost money on Google’s store, plus any content in Amazon’s ecosystem you’ve purchased or uploaded (such as documents and music).
The flip side of this Amazon-service focus is that the Fire HD 8 doesn’t include the Google Play Store, Gmail, or any other Google service, and Amazon’s app store is much sparser than Google’s, despite the availability of free apps and games.. (With a little tinkering, you can get the Google Play Store on the Fire HD 8 and make it much more like a standard Android tablet.)
The $90 base model of the Fire HD 8 also includes ads on the lock screen, which you can disable for $15. That’s a tolerable tradeoff when you need a media-consumption tablet on the cheap.
Amazon sells a 7-inch Fire tablet for just $50, but it has a lower-resolution screen, slower processor, and less storage. It’s worth spending $40 more for the Fire HD 8. CNET sums it up well: “You just won’t find [another] tablet with these features and performance at this price point.”
Most people who have $600 to spend on a tablet should get an iPad Pro, but if you insist on Android, the Samsung Galaxy Tab S3 is the best you can get. It’s priced to compete with the iPad Pro, and it’s actually better in some ways. It has a vibrant 9.7-inch Super AMOLED display with HDR that’s more than a match for the display on any other tablet. The S Pen stylus has been redesigned to be more comfortable and accurate as well. Samsung’s version of Android 7.0 Nougat isn’t as good as the stock version on the Google Pixel C (our previous upgrade pick), but it’s optimized for the S Pen and has cool multitasking tricks. However, like all Android tablets, its app ecosystem falls short of Apple’s.
The Tab S3 has a 9.7-inch Super AMOLED display with a 4:3 aspect ratio, just like the iPad. It’s a beautiful display with accurate colors, perfect viewing angles, and excellent high/low brightness levels. It’s also the first tablet with support for HDR video, not that there’s much of that available right now. The four speakers pump out loud, clear audio. “There’s no arguing that the Tab S3 is remarkable for media consumption,” according to Android Authority.
Unlike previous versions of Samsung’s S Pen stylus, the one that comes with the Tab S3 is the size of a regular pen. That makes it very comfortable to use, and the finer tip of the redesigned stylus allows for highly accurate interaction with the screen. The S Pen is ideal for things like sketching, taking notes, and taking screenshots. Unlike previous S Pens, it’s too large to be docked in the tablet, so you have to carry it separately. Still, this is by far the best stylus experience on Android—vastly better than buying a clunky capacitive stylus and using it with a regular touchscreen. It’s superb for taking notes and annotating documents.
The Tab S3 runs Android 7.0 Nougat with the TouchWiz Android skin on top, and for once there’s good reason for Samsung to modify Android. The S Pen is tightly integrated with the software, allowing you to record GIFs from your screen, copy almost any text on the device, and use handwriting input wherever you want. This tablet has the standard Android split-screen app mode, but Samsung has kept its own “pop-up view” in addition to that. Pop-up view lets you shrink apps down into floating windows, like on a desktop PC. As I say in the Android Police review, “The combination of split-screen and pop-up view works surprisingly well.” It helps compensate for Android’s lack of tablet-optimized apps. This is the best Android tablet for multitasking we’ve ever tested.
The Galaxy Tab S3 feels faster than the Shield K1 and on par with the Pixel C, our previous pick for high-end Android tablet. However, the S3’s battery life is weaker than the Pixel C’s. It’s good enough to last more than a day of heavy use or two of lighter duty. The Tab S3 is only 6mm thick, so there’s not as much space for battery in there. The slender frame is all glass and aluminum, like the Galaxy S7, a step up from Samsung’s previous plastic tablets. Engadget says, “It’s not the most inspired or exciting design, but it succeeds in making the tablet feel classier and more expensive.”
Samsung makes a keyboard case for the Tab S3 in addition to a regular case. The keyboard case costs an extra $130 and connects to the tablet via pogo pins on the edge. The keys themselves feel nicely tactile, but the layout is too compact to be comfortable for long periods. It’s not worth the price.
Price is the Tab S3’s biggest flaw. The $600 tablet has just 32 GB of storage, though it does have a microSD card slot. Most people looking for an Android tablet should get something cheaper like the Shield K1. And most people who want a high-end tablet are still better off with an iPad Pro, because iOS has so many more tablet-optimized apps than Android does, even after all this time.
Many of the Android tablets we’ve tested over the years have been discontinued, and few Android tablets are worth your money at all.
Amazon sells several other Fire tablet variants in addition to the HD 8 we recommend as a budget pick. There’s the $50 Fire with a 7-inch display. The price is right, but the display isn’t very good. The HD8 is only a little more and it offers a better display, more storage, and longer battery life. The Fire HD 10 moves to a 10.1-inch display, but the resolution is only 1280×800. It doesn’t look as good as the HD8, and it’s far more expensive at $230. That’s too much for a tablet without access to the Play Store.
The Google Pixel C was our previous upgrade pick, and it’s still a good Android tablet. It’s fast and gets updated directly from Google, but it doesn’t have as many distinctive features as the Galaxy Tab S3. There’s no stylus, and apps can’t use windowed mode, which makes multitasking harder. And despite the fact that it’s a year old, it’s still expensive, at $500. We only recommend the Pixel C if you care about fast Android updates above all else.
The Asus ZenPad S 8.0 offers a lot of performance for your dollar: The base model costs less than $200 and has 2 GB of RAM and 32 GB of storage; for $300 you get 4 GB of RAM and 64 GB of storage. However, the ZenPad S 8.0 didn’t get an update to Android 6.0 Marshmallow until after Google released Android 7.0, and the Marshmallow update has to be installed manually, so we’re not optimistic about this tablet’s update prospects.
The Huawei MediaPad M3 has a great 8.4-inch 2560×1600 display. It’s light and well-built, but it runs Huawei’s older Marshmallow-based Android software, which has a lot of awkward interface elements and clunky features that require constant babysitting. Huawei’s Nougat update on phones has been much improved, so we’ll take another look at this tablet when and if it’s updated.
Samsung’s Galaxy Tab A 10.1 offers a cheaper way to get a tablet with S Pen support, but it’s the older S Pen, which is smaller and less comfortable than the Tab S3’s version. The display is high resolution at 1920×1200. The Tab A is limited to 16GB of internal storage, so a microSD card is a necessity. It’s cheaper than the Tab S3, but still rather expensive for what it is, at $350 with the bundled S Pen. It ships with Android 6.0, and there’s no word on when or if it will be updated.
Android Nougat, released in August 2016, offers among its features a new side-by-side mode for running two apps at once. This mode will make tablets that get the Nougat upgrade more useful than they currently are for many people—and, of course, more useful than tablets that never get the update, which will be most of them.
Lenovo also announced a new 8-inch tablet, the Tab 4 8 Plus, and a new 10-inch tablet, the Tab 4 10 Plus. Both variants, which will run on Android Nougat, have a 1920×1200 resolution, a Snapdragon 625 processor, up to 4 GB of RAM, and up to 64 GB of storage. The 8-inch Tab 4 Plus will be $200 and the 10-inch model will be $250 when they ship in May 2017.
Asus launched its 9.7-inch ZenPad 3S 10, which has a 2048×1536 display, a 5,900 mAh battery, and a MediaTek processor (which we’ve found to underperform in the past). We’ll look into it soon.
Originally published: November 11, 2016