We spent 70 hours using five high-end tablets at a desk, on trains, on buses, and on planes to see if we could recommend any of them for in-depth work: tasks such as serious writing and editing, taking extended notes in Evernote, and answering volumes of email at greater length than we’d want to do on a phone. We also asked artists and other professionals how they’ve incorporated these pro-tablets’ styluses into their work. Though we don’t think a pro tablet is a great choice as a laptop replacement yet—issues like multitasking restrictions and software that hasn’t really been optimized for these devices are limiting—their active styluses can make them good choices as secondary devices for those who prefer drawing or writing to keyboard entry.
Our takeaway is that no single pro tablet is the best for everyone, and a nonpro tablet or an entry-level laptop may be a better fit for many people. But we can at least clarify what you get—and give up—with each of three major pro tablet platforms: iOS, Windows, and Android.
This guide has its roots in our months of work assessing tablets for our main tablet guides, which gave us insight into both iOS and Android devices. I’ve personally reviewed and used tablets and e-readers since the 2010 debut of the iPad. I’ve tested the original versions of the iPad, Microsoft’s Surface, Amazon’s Kindle and Kindle Fire, Samsung’s Galaxy Tab, and Google’s Nexus 7, as well as a long line of lesser tablets that nobody misses (for example, the Motorola Xoom and the Vizio Tablet). My everyday tablet is an iPad mini 4 with 64 GB of storage, but the mobile device I carry most often is a Nexus 5X Android phone. I should also note that most of my portable productivity happens on a really old MacBook Air.
Good tablets are reasonably priced—you can get a new iPad with 128 GB of storage for $430—so why would you want to pay something closer to the price of a laptop for a souped-up tablet? Most people won’t, but there are reasons you might.
One is that you’re frustrated by the challenge of creating and editing complex documents on a general-use touchscreen tablet—you can’t manipulate things on the screen using an instrument more precise than your fingertip, and the screen may be too small. Pro tablets generally offer a larger screen and the finer input control of an active stylus designed specifically for use with that device. Another is that you find the weight and battery life of a traditional laptop to be limiting: A pro tablet will weigh less and run longer on a charge. A third may be that the multitasking agility of a laptop eats away at your ability to focus—if you want to bear down on a document, spreadsheet, or graphic without having other apps in view to distract you, a pro tablet can be a more productive environment.
More compelling for some people—especially in the case of the iPad Pro and Microsoft’s Surface devices—is the promise of a much improved drawing and writing experience when compared with both traditional passive styluses (which have nowhere near the precision of a pen or pencil) or third-party active Bluetooth styluses, which generally work only with certain apps. Apple’s Pencil and Microsoft’s Stylus Pen offer more-accurate input (it’s possible to do fine drawing work and jot written notes at speed) and work in any app. This makes these models competitors not just for standard tablets, but as interesting portable alternatives to an external graphics tablet like those in the Wacom lineup.
Pro tablets do, however, require different trade-offs. Windows-based pro tablets such as Microsoft’s Surface Pro 4 allow you to run almost any traditional desktop app, but the desktop-class operating system isn’t yet optimized for tablet use and carries a higher risk of malware and sometimes stumbles at touchscreen or stylus input. Meanwhile, iOS and Android-based pro tablets are much less likely than a Windows device to get hacked, but the operating systems limit both the kind of apps you can install and what they can do—for example, the limited-access file system in Apple’s mobile operating system increases the hassle of getting data onto and off the device.
Compared with general-use tablets, pro tablets also often feature upgraded screens and audio systems, but unless you’re feeling spendy, we can’t justify buying a pro tablet just for a better movie-watching experience. Even the 9.7-inch iPad Pro’s screen, which DisplayMate says has the lowest reflectivity in the industry, is tough to view in bright lighting and sunlight, and if you’re doing serious media viewing, you’ll likely use headphones or separate speakers instead of a pro tablet’s own speakers.
Finally, it’s important to keep in mind the alternatives for each pro tablet. With the iPad Pro, your more powerful (and more expensive) alternative is a member of Apple’s line of laptops—though, as the company’s own “What’s a Computer?” TV ad reminds us, these don’t feature touchscreens or the capability to fold the keyboard out of sight. With Android tablets, you could instead get a touchscreen Chromebook that will soon gain the ability to run Android apps of its own, but that device will be bulkier and have shorter battery life. With Windows tablets, you might be happier with a “convertible” laptop that has a touchscreen and tablet features, along with a wider array of expansion ports and a better keyboard, but is heavier and thicker.
There’s a good chance that your choice of pro tablet will start with a decision about operating systems—one that you may have made long ago. For example, if you’re heavily invested in Apple’s ecosystem of hardware, software, and services, a Windows 10 tablet will be an awkward fit. So we didn’t set out to find the absolute “best” models and then rank them, as we do in most of our guides. Instead, we looked for the best representatives of each of the major platforms.
With that goal in mind, we began refining our requirements, starting with the things we like in an everyday tablet: battery life of 10 hours or more; weight under roughly 2 pounds; good durability; and a bright, clear, sunlight-tolerant screen around 10 inches or bigger.
We then looked for things that spending more for a pro tablet, compared with a general-use tablet, should get you: input alternatives beyond standard touchscreen interactions, including not just a keyboard but at least the choice of an active stylus; the option for at least 64 GB of storage; and less compromise compared with a laptop when it comes to apps and features. We also required base-configuration prices below $1,000, because at that price you can get quality convertible Windows laptops.
Beyond high prices, heavy weight, poor battery life, and small screens, dealbreakers included running an older version of Android and—with one exception—not supporting stylus input. Those restrictions led us to focus on Apple’s 12.9-inch and 9.7-inch iPad Pro models, Microsoft’s Surface Pro 4, and Samsung’s TabPro S. With some reluctance, we added Google’s Chromebook Pixel C, because it’s the closest thing Android has to a pro tablet, even if it lacks stylus support and maxes out at 64 GB of storage (just meeting our minimum, but not allowing for more).
I then put each of these tablets into service for at least a week as an everyday computer, using it for the same kinds of tasks for which I’d normally employ a laptop. That included typing with and without the tablet’s keyboard cover, as well as using each model on buses, trains, and planes. I focused on subjective observations over benchmark tests of performance or battery life, with the goal of getting an answer to the question: What does this thing do that a regular tablet or a laptop can’t?
I’m not a regular stylus user, so in addition to trying stylus input myself in various apps, I quizzed several professionals who’ve incorporated styluses into their daily workflows.
Apple’s pro tablet line has been the most visible since its September 2015 debut. The 12.9-inch iPad Pro is the most expensive iPad you can buy, currently starting at $799 for a model with 32 GB of storage (not enough, we think); if you go all out for 256 GB of storage and built-in cellular-data connectivity, the price swells to $1,129. Apple’s Smart Keyboard, our pick for a keyboard case for this model, costs an additional $169, and the Apple Pencil, our pick for an iPad Pro stylus, is another $99. Though we feel the limited multitasking features of iOS compromise its usefulness as a task-for-task laptop replacement, the Pencil stylus makes the iPad Pro a compelling choice for digital artists or those who prefer to take notes or mark up documents by hand.
The smaller, newer 9.7-inch iPad Pro offers some cost savings, currently starting at $599 for a 32 GB configuration and topping out at $929 for 256 GB and mobile broadband. At present, its smaller screen displays a wider range of colors and has a “True Tone” feature that automatically changes the color and intensity of the display to match ambient light and environment. The 9.7-inch iPad Pro’s back camera can also record video in 4K resolution, up from the 1080p HD resolution of the larger iPad Pro’s camera in video mode. (We suspect that an update to the 12.9-inch Pro, sometime in early 2017, will bring the same features to this model.) You’ll pay $149 for the Smart Keyboard for the 9.7-inch iPad Pro (our pick for this model, too); the same Apple Pencil is compatible with this smaller Pro.
Arguably the biggest differences between the iPad Pro models and other iPads revolve around the screens. The displays on both Pro models support Apple’s active Pencil stylus, which doesn’t work at all on non-Pro iPads, and provide picture quality that’s significantly better than that of their non-Pro cousins. Display-technology expert Raymond Soneira of DisplayMate praised the smaller iPad Pro’s LCD in a recent report, writing that his lab’s tests showed it was “by far the best performing mobile LCD display that we have ever tested, and it breaks many display performance records.” And, of course, the 12.9-inch iPad Pro has the largest screen you’ll find on any iPad.
If you use demanding apps—for example, for editing video—another significant difference between the iPad Pro models and other iPads is the A9X processor inside. Whereas Apple says the A8X chip in the iPad Air 2 and iPad mini 4 is 1.4 times as fast as the A7 chip in the original iPad Air, the company advertises the A9X as 2.4 times faster—with double that advantage in graphics performance, something that should be apparent in graphic-heavy apps and games but maybe not in many others. The Pro models also get you four speakers instead of two—they really do make a big difference for music and media—as well as a Smart Connector along one side to attach external keyboards and chargers (and not much else yet), and support for the Apple Pencil, making the iPad Pro the first mobile device from Apple to welcome stylus input since the Newton (but with much better results).
A naked 12.9-inch iPad Pro weighs amazingly little, just 1.6 pounds. The Smart Keyboard, however, adds .74 pounds, for a combination that’s about 5 ounces heavier than a 12-inch MacBook.
Over roughly a month of using a 128 GB 12.9-inch iPad Pro with a Smart Keyboard and an Apple Pencil, my primary impression was of how little the experience varied from using a normal iPad. Yes, the Pro felt snappier; yes, the giant screen was beautiful to look at, and better for some tasks thanks to its larger size; yes, the Smart Keyboard was a pleasure to type on, at least with the tablet parked on flat surfaces like desks and airline tray tables (it wobbled when used on a lap). And battery life was outstanding, as expected: After one test of 6 hours, 15 minutes of active use—and 66 hours, 36 minutes of standby time, according to iOS’s energy-usage screen—the battery gauge still showed 45 percent of a full charge left.
Similar to other iPads, the iPad Pro models still show the limits of an operating system originally designed for a phone. Being able to view two applications on the screen at a time is useful—the 12.9-inch Pro’s enormous expanse of LCD lets you see each of those two apps at almost iPad Air size—but from a productivity standpoint, it’s no substitute for the traditional desktop approach of being able to browse multiple open windows. Similarly, the lack of an accessible file system can make getting data on or off the device a chore. And Apple’s attempts to adapt iOS for the 12.9-inch Pro’s larger screen appear to have stopped with the aforementioned split-screen mode and adding a row of numbers to the on-screen keyboard.
It’s with the Pencil stylus that you really enjoy the benefits of the iPad Pro. Third-party apps must be updated to specifically take advantage of the Pencil’s capabilities (such as pressure sensitivity), though most apps in which you’d use the Pencil for drawing and annotating have already received such updates; and the Pencil still works in any app. I enjoyed using the Apple Pencil to draw sketches in Apple’s Notes app and in third-party drawing apps like Paper. In fact, if you get used to the Pencil for fine-grain input, switching to a non-pro iPad that limits you to poking the screen with the relatively blunt instrument of your finger may quickly become intolerable.
We heard as much from a few regular Apple Pencil users. As freelance writer and occasional cartoonist Michael Cohen put it: “The 9.7 inch iPad Pro with Apple Pencil and the Procreate app has been the most usable and satisfying digital drawing environment of all the ones I’ve employed over the years.” Cohen specifically noted the lack of any lag or latency between Pencil actions and what appears on the screen. And apps such as Procreate “[detect] not just Pencil movement on the iPad screen but Pencil angle, so the drawing illusion is enhanced.”
Cohen also notes that, unlike the external graphics tablets he’s used in the past, there’s no mental or visual separation between your input mechanism and the results: “I feel like I’m drawing directly on a sketchbook. Only the lack of friction makes me aware that I’m drawing on glass.”
Serenity Caldwell, a writer for iMore and author of The Wirecutter’s guide to styli, made a similar point. “I’m a longtime dabbler in digital art, having owned Wacom tablets since childhood, and have been wanting a great pressure-sensitive stylus for the iPad since 2010,” she wrote in an email, calling the Pencil “one of the best digital drawing tools I’ve used.” The result is that she doesn’t use her MacBook as much: “[The iPad Pro’s] portability means I don’t have to carry a Mac around if I want to get some initial sketches done, correct some photos, or ink a drawing or two.”
Artists aren’t the only people who will benefit, though. Note-taking and document markup make the Pencil appealing for John Bergmayer, senior counsel with the digital-rights group Public Knowledge. “I use OneNote to gather related materials and notes for trips, panels, and so on,” he wrote. “The pencil allows me to scribble anywhere, underline things and so on much more easily than just normal touch. It’s great.” Bergmayer uses the third-party app PDF Expert for “highlighting and notes on documents I have for research purposes.”
That said, if you don’t work with pixels for a living or regularly mark up documents, the $99 Pencil (that, oddly, doesn’t attach to the tablet, making it easy to lose) isn’t necessary.
Another issue facing users is that some apps haven’t yet been updated for the larger iPad Pro’s screen, so their text and interface don’t scale properly—when using the Facebook app, for example, I was stuck with a large-type version of the app.
“I think the thing that’s holding back the Pro apps is that they require much more work to create,” Iconfactory principal Craig Hockenberry wrote in an e-mail. “It’s hard for the average developer to justify these extra development costs when the price point for iOS apps is so low….Exacerbating this problem is the fact that many Pro apps fall into niche markets. There are enough people doing graphics and video work to make it feasible to put these products into the market,” he continued. “[But] something like a podcast editor or a script writing tool will have a smaller audience and need a higher price. When the customer has no way to evaluate the product, the barrier for entry is high as well.” (Hockenberry is referring to the fact that the iOS App Store doesn’t allow developers to offer trial versions of software.)
On the other hand, the current portable alternatives for people invested in Apple’s ecosystem are laptops that each have their own compromises. The MacBook Air used to be an easy entry-level recommendation, but given that it hasn’t seen a significant update in years, we think the Air has essentially reached the end of its life. The 12-inch MacBook is incredibly light and slim, but it’s expensive for the performance you get and its single port is limiting. The new 13-inch MacBook Pro without a Touch Bar is a solid all-around machine, but it starts at $1,500. And the MacBook Pro models that include the new Touch Bar—the only Mac laptops with TouchID thumbprint authentication to match what’s on every iPad—start at $1,800.
Our take: Unless you’re a graphics or video professional who needs the extra processing power and stylus support of the iPad Pro, or a serious iOS-productivity fiend, the iPad (5th generation) is likely a better alternative to a “real” computer: The iPad still gives you split-screen multitasking and works with external keyboards (even if those keyboards don’t have the Pro’s elegant Smart Connector). And its screen is the same size and resolution as that of the 9.7-inch Pro. As Susie Ochs writes in her Macworld review of the 12.9-inch iPad Pro: “If you find yourself wondering if you really need it…you probably don’t.”
But if you want an Apple tablet and need the better (or larger) screen, better cameras, Pencil support, and better performance of the iPad Pro models, they’re worth considering. You just have to choose between the two Pro models: The 9.7-inch model’s (for now) superior color fidelity makes it the better choice for graphics and video work, and its True Tone adaptive color intensity also deserves attention if you frequently shift between workplaces with varying levels of lighting. But for maximum document productivity, the 12.9-inch iPad Pro’s bigger screen wins out. The 12.9-inch model is also the one to turn to if the prices of Apple’s laptops have you reconsidering whether you need a machine running macOS over one running iOS.
Windows 10’s embrace of touchscreen input makes it a natural fit for tablets—something Microsoft has been trying to make happen since its doomed “Ultra Mobile PC” initiative. Historically, that’s required putting up with desktop-oriented interface elements that are too tiny for fingertips, but the advent of system-supported stylus input in the company’s first Surface tablet helped change that. In 2015 the much-improved Surface Pro 4 (including the more capable Surface Pen stylus) made it an obvious choice for us to see what Windows 10 can do nowadays. We followed up by testing Samsung’s Galaxy TabPro S, a cheaper and lighter device that will probably fit better as somebody’s secondary machine.
We also considered tablets from Lenovo and Huawei. But Huawei’s US distribution remains strangely weak compared with its presence in other markets. Lenovo continues to announce new models in its Miix lineup, but none were yet available when we last tested, and we won’t be bringing one in anytime soon based on our conclusions below.
The Surface Pro 4: A desk-first tablet
The Surface Pro 4 currently starts at an affordable $699 for a model with a 12.3-inch screen, 4 GB of memory, 128 GB of storage, and a low-power Intel m3 processor. But the price goes up to $1,799 if you max out memory (to 16 GB), storage (to 256 GB), and processor (to an Intel i7). Every model includes Microsoft’s Surface Pen stylus, but none include the Type Cover, a $130 extra. We tested a $1,599 configuration with 8 GB of memory, 256 GB of storage, and an i7 processor, plus a blue Type Cover. That’s more than we’d advise spending: The $1,299 configuration with 8 GB of RAM, 256 GB of storage, and an i5 processor still yielded excellent scores in PCMag’s benchmark tests. (We’d prefer paying less than that, but you can’t get a model with a 256 GB SSD for any less, and you can fill up 128 GB dismayingly quickly on a device with a desktop operating system.)
In terms of hardware, the Surface Pro 4 has some distinct advantages over a normal tablet. A USB port on the side lets you connect flash drives and cameras, and even charge another mobile device (phone or tablet) without fiddling with adapters. A Mini DisplayPort port lets you directly connect an external display. And you get a microSD-card slot, though it’s hidden behind the kickstand that flips out from the back.
The webcam above the Surface Pro 4’s sharp 12.3-inch screen doubles as a login mechanism: Microsoft’s Windows Hello feature can unlock the tablet automatically when Hello recognizes you, which it did for me after a minimum of coaching.
At 1.7 pounds without the Type Cover, the Surface Pro 4 weighs less than our 2-pound limit, but with the cover connected, the package weighs nearly 2½ pounds, at which point you’re effectively carrying a laptop. And the Pro 4’s battery life—Microsoft estimates 9 hours of video playback, and I got 6 hours, 11 minutes of playback with the device’s screen at half brightness as the tablet played a loop of music with four Web pages open—isn’t much better than what you’d get in a laptop with the same processor.
This meant that leaving the Surface Pro 4’s proprietary charger (which thoughtfully includes a USB port to allow you to charge a second device) at home was not an option during any day of work. At Google’s I/O developer conference, I had to recharge no later than lunch or risk having the tablet die in the afternoon. And just like a real laptop, the Surface Pro 4 has a cooling fan that revs up when the tablet is working hard.
The Type Cover is usually a pleasure to use—as long you use the tablet and keyboard on a flat surface. Its keys have a satisfying amount of travel and backlighting that automatically turns on in dim light (something the iPad Pro’s Smart Keyboard doesn’t do). But the touchpad in front of those keys is too quick to register stray hand contact as an attempt to right-click somewhere; I regularly had to hit the Esc key or tap far enough on the left side of the touchpad to cancel the resulting contextual menu.
Attempting to type with the Surface Pro 4 on my lap was much more frustrating. Whereas the iPad Pro’s Smart Keyboard has a flat base, the Pro 4’s kickstand has an open bottom: If the kickstand’s “leg” slid off my lap, the rest of the device soon followed. And when using the Surface Pro 4 as a pure tablet (with the keyboard folded behind the screen), the on-screen keyboard occupies over 40 percent of the display’s real estate in landscape orientation, and apps aren’t as smart about getting out of the keyboard’s way as iOS apps are.
Third-party software didn’t always function as expected. In my testing, Twitter’s app for the Surface Pro 4 was notably buggier than I’ve seen it on other platforms, and apps that require a conventional installer—as opposed to the one-click-install routine of programs in Microsoft’s app store—did not always play well with touchscreen features. For example, Slack’s Windows 10 client sometimes didn’t invoke the on-screen keyboard when I tapped in a text field.
Including a stylus—that magnetically attaches to the tablet itself, unlike Apple’s Pencil—as a standard feature is nice, but the Surface Pen made little difference in my writing-first experience of the tablet. I didn’t find much benefit to stopping what I was doing to pick up the stylus instead of using the touchpad below the keyboard—or just tap the screen. With the keyboard detached, however, the Pen is handy when selecting the smaller controls in Windows apps built for traditional mouse control.
On the other hand, Carolina Milanesi, an analyst with Creative Strategies who uses both a 9.7-inch iPad Pro and a Surface Pro 4, calls the stylus both a necessity (“it helped with navigation”) and an evolutionary leftover from the stylus-based Tablet PCs Microsoft tried and failed to popularize at the start of the 2000s.
As with the iPad Pro’s Pencil, the Surface Pen has more utility for those who depend on drawing apps, marking up Web pages in the Edge browser, or annotating PDFs in apps like Drawboard PDF. Milanesi said her research has found interest in the stylus among not just people who draw for a living but those who edit documents and blueprints, saying, “For those users, pen input is much more important and in most cases does not actually revolve around using the pen to write instead of typing.” Her own use, however, flips that around: “The reason why I reach for the pen or pencil the most is to jot down a quick thought or a note,” she wrote. “Basically it has replaced the Post-Its that were around my desk.”
A few weeks using the Surface without its keyboard did get me to warm up to the stylus a bit—and for tasks such as selecting text, there’s no question that I’d reach for the Pen before fumbling with fingertip selection. But because the Type Cover makes for a good screen protector (as its name suggests), I rarely found myself without the keyboard anyway.
Galaxy TabPro S: Software vs. hardware
The same software issues—and then some—affect the other Windows 10 pro tablet we tested, Samsung’s Galaxy TabPro S. The TabPro S has an $899 list price, widely discounted to $799, and comes with 4 GB of memory, 128 GB of solid-state storage, and an Intel Core m3 processor. That storage may fill up quickly, but Samsung doesn’t sell other configurations. The TabPro S includes a removable keyboard, but the company’s TabPro Pen stylus currently costs $80 extra.
Samsung’s entry in this field shows the same hangups when alternating between touchscreen and keyboard input as the Surface Pro 4; however, it also lacks support for Windows Hello. Our entry-level configuration also crashed with a blue-screen error once (a briefly shown error message blamed a display driver), and for a while, whenever I woke it from sleep with the keyboard attached it insisted on alerting me that “Your keyboard cover has been detected by reading the NFC tag. Turn off NFC in order to save battery power.” (The Settings button below that message revealed no way to turn off NFC—not that you’d really want to, as that’s an exceedingly low-power function.)
Samsung has, however, put together some sharp hardware. The tablet itself weighs only 1.51 pounds, although with the keyboard attached the total weight increases to 2.38 pounds. The keyboard, which doubles as a cover for the back of the tablet, is significantly more stable than the Surface Pro 4’s, as it creates a continuous surface for supporting the tablet. But it also feels flimsier overall and the keyboard isn’t backlit.
The TabPro S’s bright OLED screen looks terrific, but it also comes with a risk of screen burn-in in areas of the display with fixed graphics elements like the Windows taskbar. That’s something Ars Technica’s Peter Bright noted in a review that led off with this tablet’s throwback inclusion of an animated screensaver.
The TabPro S offers fewer ways to get data on and off the device than the Surface does: Its sole port is a USB-C port on the side. This does mean, however, that you should be able to use any USB-C charger. I was able to charge it (slowly!) with a generic USB charger and an adapter cable, but there’s enough variation in this new standard’s implementation that your mileage may vary depending on the charger you use. This makes battery life—estimated by Samsung at 10½ hours of video playback, but just 7 hours, 37 minutes in my music-playback test, and only a little better than the Surface’s in everyday use—slightly less of a concern as long as you have a USB-C cable handy, because you don’t have to lug around a proprietary charger.
Our take: After a month with each of these two Windows devices, I personally decided that what I really wanted was a convertible Windows ultrabook—as in, a laptop with a permanently attached keyboard I could still fold out of the way when I wanted to use the device as a tablet. (Many are available, but I’m waiting for one that charges via USB-C. Among the models introduced at IFA and now shipping, Lenovo’s Yoga 910 looks promising in its entry-level $1,050 configuration, which swaps the 13.9-inch 4K display of the standard, $1,280-and-up configuration for a 1080p screen of the same size.)
On the other hand, if you’ll spend most of your time in apps designed for Windows 10—those you can download from the Microsoft Store that were designed with touchscreen input in mind—a Windows tablet will be a better fit than a convertible by virtue of those apps expecting touch control instead of assuming a keyboard and touchpad will always be present. Of these two models we tested, we’d go with the Surface Pro 4. Its additional ports and microSD card slot give it much of a laptop’s data-transfer flexibility without as much weight.
The TabPro S, meanwhile, strikes us as more of a second computer, something you’d take on a trip to keep up with work, rather than a primary productivity tool (though its keyboard/stand setup is better for long typing sessions on your lap).
If you’re set on a Windows-based pro tablet, we think waiting for a new Surface Pro may be the best call, as we expect significant upgrades in spring 2017. (A switch to USB-C charging, which would give Microsoft’s tablet the same wide range of charging options as Samsung’s, would top our practical wish list. We say that even if it would mean giving up the current Surface’s proprietary breakaway charger, which drops free, much like Apple’s MagSafe, if tugged away by a passing human or pet.)
The Pixel C ranks as the current flagship among Android pro tablets. But that’s a weak title based on a narrow advantage (Google’s tablet offers the cleanest build of Android possible) and undercut by the absence of an active stylus and the convenient thumbprint authentication of Google’s own Android phones.
And the Pixel C retains the same flaws that have set back general-use Android tablets against the iPad: A selection of tablet-optimized Android apps that still badly trails that of iOS, and glitchy hardware that, in worst cases—like the botched system update that bricked a bunch of Nexus 7 tablets—can yield an inoperable tablet.
The Pixel C, introduced in September 2015, currently starts at $499 for a model with a 10.2-inch touchscreen and 32 GB of storage; a 64 GB edition sells for $599—we recommend the latter, as 32 GB of storage just isn’t much. At 1.14 pounds, the Pixel C is the lightest pro tablet we tested. A detachable keyboard adds $149 and 14 ounces. But there’s no support for a stylus to match what you get in either iOS or Windows 10; artists and annotators need not apply.
Unfortunately, the Pixel C offers next to nothing over other Android tablets. Without Nexus Imprint fingerprint unlocking, you have to tap in a numeric code or trace out an unlock pattern every time the screen dims. And when you’re using the tablet, you’re in the same one-app-at-a-time existence as in standard Android. The just-shipped 7.0 “Nougat” version of Android adds a split-screen mode, but you’ll likely find yourself unable to have two apps functioning at once until more apps are updated to work with Nougat’s multitasking interface.
“You usually end up with one live app (the app you’re using) and one frozen screenshot of an app (the app you haven’t touched in awhile),” explained Ron Amadeo, Ars Technica’s Android reporter and reviewer. “This all depends on how the app is written and whether the developer goes out of their way to support split screen, but for instance you can have Slack open in split screen, but you won’t see new messages arrive in chat if you’re working on the other side of the screen.”
Similarly, apps rarely do much to take advantage of the extra real estate the Pixel C’s 10.2-inch screen gives you compared with a smartphone or phablet, exhibiting the same wasted potential as apps on general-use Android tablets. As Amadeo put it: “Android tablet [apps] are just big Android phone [apps], which get totally outclassed by the tablet-native apps on iOS or the shrunken-down desktop stuff on Windows.” This might be fine if you were buying a tablet as a device to only browse the Web and read your email, but then you’d be better off with a much less expensive standard tablet.
We also had to return the first Pixel C we bought from Google’s store when it was dead on arrival. The second one generally worked fine but exhibited consistently weak Wi-Fi reception in my home.
One thing the Pixel C does get right, however, is power management. In my testing, I could easily get through a full workday and part of a second—I’d toss a charger in my bag for the second day, just in case. And the Pixel C’s USB-C port meant that I didn’t need to remember to pack the power adapter included in the box—I could, in theory, use any other power adapter or battery pack via a USB-C cable to recharge the Pixel C. (I could also trickle-charge the tablet from my Nexus 5X phone by plugging the cable into the phone and then the tablet.)
Our take: Considering that Chromebooks are about to be able to run Android apps in separate windows, the future of pro-level Android tablets looks to be migrating to touchscreen Chromebooks—ideally, we’ll see convertible Chromebooks that can fold into a tablet configuration (for example, the Chromebook R 13 that Acer introduced at IFA). That would make a weird bit of sense, considering that Amadeo’s reporting last year found that the Pixel C was supposed to be a Chrome tablet until Google scrapped the project to write an all-touch version of Chrome OS. For now, we can’t recommend any Android tablets in this professional category, even as some Android tablets represent an appealing value for casual use.
In May 2017, Microsoft announced its Surface Pro, an update to its Surface Pro 4 tablet (it has dropped the numeral at the end). It doesn’t have any new ports, and it looks similar to its predecessor, but Microsoft has given the new Surface Pro a seventh-generation Intel Core processor. It also claims the new model will deliver up to 13.5 hours of battery life on a single charge. It’s available for preorder starting at $800 (you’ll have to buy accessories for the tablet—namely, the Surface Pen and Surface Pro Signature Type Cover—separately). We’ll get our preferred configuration in for testing soon after its release in June, and update this guide when we do.
We like the idea of a pro tablet that would let you leave your laptop at home, but what’s out there isn’t compelling as a true laptop substitute. If you’re a graphics professional or you crave more screen real estate for working on multiple documents than smaller iPads allow, the iPad Pro makes sense; for most other situations, you may find that a cheaper tablet or a slightly more expensive laptop aligns better with your needs.
We also expect hardware changes that will make pro tablets a bit more appealing. If you can hold off for a bit, DisplayMate’s Soneira told us that he expects the next 12.9-inch iPad Pro and the Surface Pro 5 to offer the same wider color gamut as the 9.7-inch iPad Pro. And as USB-C ports show up across more non-Apple phones and tablets, your recharging worries should ease slightly—the same charger and cable will be able to charge any of your devices, and you may even be able to top off your USB-C tablet from your USB-C phone. Your odds of finding an external storage device or charger with a USB-C plug available should also increase.
(Photos by Michael Hession.)