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With larger screens and better battery life than a smartphone, and smaller, lighter, and generally cheaper than a laptop, tablets make a lot of sense for travel. Entertainment, research, communication, and more are easily dealt with, all on a device that fits easily into a small bag and doesn’t have to cost a fortune.
There hasn’t been much happening in the tablet market in the last few years, but 2018 has seen the introduction of some exciting new models, as well as improved versions of many existing devices.
While most people who need to work while traveling are better off with laptops, the line between those and a high-end tablet has become increasingly blurred, and you can now buy machines that perform equally well as both.
Apple didn’t invent the tablet, but it definitely popularised it with the iPad. Starting out with a single model, there are now several different versions you could buy. Each one has its pros and cons on the road, but there’s one that squeaks ahead of the rest in 2018.
If you thought the iPad range was getting fragmented, it’s nothing compared to the Android world. With dozens of different models available, all with different sizes, specs, prices, and features, there’s something for every traveler. The hard part is deciding exactly which one.
- Best on a Budget: Amazon Fire HD 8
- Best General-Purpose: Apple iPad (2018)
- Best for Keeping Kids Entertained: Amazon Fire HD 8 Kids Edition
- Best for Portable Productivity: Microsoft Surface Go
- Best for Battery Life: Lenovo Yoga Tab 4
- Best for Serious Work: Microsoft Surface Pro
Best on a Budget: Amazon Fire HD 8
Amazon has dominated the low-cost tablet market for years, offering devices that are surprisingly useful for not much money. The Fire HD 8 is no exception, and if you’re on a budget, it’s the best mix of performance and price out there at the moment.
The 8″ display makes this model easy to carry, while still being big enough to comfortably watch movies on. While the 12080×800 resolution is relatively low these days, it’s fine for most purposes, and gives better battery life than higher-spec screens.
You’ll pay slightly more to double the inbuilt storage from 16 to 32GB, and it’s absolutely worth doing if you plan to download a few shows to watch on the plane, or install a bunch of games. There’s also a micro-SD slot on board, for adding extra storage if you need it.
Alexa voice assistant support is built in, and unusually for an inexpensive device, it’s unlikely to break the first time you drop it on the table. Still, as with any piece of electronics, it’s worth picking up a case for it before you head out on the road.
The biggest caveat? By default, there’s no access to the Google Play store. While most apps you’re likely to care about are available on the Amazon equivalent, it doesn’t have as wide a range, and you may find your favourite game or tool just isn’t available there.
Still, with up to 12 hours of battery life, and available in a range of colors, the Fire HD 8 is easily the best budget travel tablet in 2018.
Best General-Purpose: Apple iPad (2018)
Apple has dominated the tablet market since the first iPad, and continues to do so in 2018. After the company updated the specifications of the base model earlier this year, it remains the best general-purpose option for most travelers.
It’s fast and reliable, with a vibrant 9.7″ screen that’s not annoyingly reflective under bright light. While it’s not quite the slimmest or lightest iPad of this size that Apple has ever produced, the size and weight isn’t something you’ll complain about.
Battery life is fine at ten hours, and while the design looks a little dated in 2018, it’s not enough that you feel you’re buying old technology.
Like most tablets, camera quality is mediocre at best, but using a device this size as your main camera is a bad idea anyway. In the rare case you do need to take a photo with it, it’ll be ok in good lighting, and awful otherwise.
The standard model is Wi-Fi only, but there’s also a version with LTE support that you can drop a local SIM card in for cheap access to cellular data as you travel.
A strong selling point of any iPad is access to the App Store, with its vast array of quality apps and games. Most are available on Google’s Play Store as well, but you’ll still tend to get the better apps first on iOS.
New this year is support for the Apple Pencil. Although you’ll need to buy it separately, it opens up new opportunities for artists — or just those who like to doodle — who don’t want to spend double the money on the iPad Pro.
There are better options if you’re on a budget, or plan to do more than very light work from the road, but for general travel use, it’s hard to fault the 2018 iPad.
Best for Keeping Kids Entertained: Amazon Fire HD 8 Kids Edition
The sheer volume of games, apps, and shows aimed at kids is incredible, and if you’re traveling with junior members of the family, there’ll likely be times you’re very happy about that fact.
While it’s all accessible on almost any phone or tablet you like, several companies make add-ons or specific versions of their products that are particularly kid-friendly.
Never ones to miss an opportunity, Amazon’s done exactly that, with a solid mix of hardware, software, and services that nudge it into first place in this category.
The size of the Fire HD 8 is ideal for little hands, and the same things that make the standard version our budget pick — 12-hour battery life, 32GB storage, low pricing — make it a great option for kids as well.
The most noticeable difference with the Kids Edition is the colorful (and very durable) bumper case that wraps around the tablet to protect it from drops, and there’s a lengthy two-year replacement guarantee for when even that isn’t enough.
On the software side, Amazon has built in the ability to restrict content to only things that are age-appropriate, along with usage limits, and lets you manage those settings either on the device or via a remote dashboard.
There’s also a year of Freetime Unlimited, Amazon’s service that provides access to 15,000+ movies, books, games, and educational apps for 3-12 year olds.
The company also markets 7″ and 10″ versions of its Kids Edition tablets, but the 8″ offers the best mix of price and specifications. For well under $150, it’s the ideal option for traveling kids.
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Best for Portable Productivity: Microsoft Surface Go
Microsoft’s Surface Go is an interesting device. With a 10″ screen and sub-$400 starting price, it sounds very much like a normal tablet… until you realise it runs Windows 10.
The Pentium Gold processor inside the Go isn’t going to set any speed records in 2018, but you can still run the majority of Windows apps, and even play a few basic games, without the machine becoming unusably slow.
The optional keyboard cover is surprisingly enjoyable to type on, and includes a trackpad so you’re not reduced to poking the screen at arm’s length. Battery life is rated at up to nine hours, and you’ll likely get around six or seven in the real world.
It’s an attractive device, with the build quality and bright, colorful 1800×1200 display both much better than you’d expect from any Windows machine at this price point. Since storage is limited, being able to add a micro-SD card is very welcome, since it’s the perfect place to dump photos, TV shows, and other stuff you need occasional access to on the road.
The adjustable kickstand makes the Go equally useful whether you’re writing emails, watching movies on the plane, or reading in bed, and if you buy the Surface Pen, it’s a pretty good graphics tablet as well. It runs Windows 10 S out of the box, which can only access apps from the Windows store, but there’s a one-way upgrade to Windows 10 Home available.
So what’s not to like? The price tag, mostly. Sure, it starts at $399, but for that you’ll only get the base version with 4GB of RAM and 64GB of slow storage, and no Type cover.
Those specs aren’t enough to run anything but the most basic of Windows apps, and if you’re planning on using it only as a tablet without keyboard or trackpad, you’d be better off saving $70 and buying an iPad.
By the time you make it a good productivity machine, with a keyboard and double the RAM and storage, you’ll have spent at least $649. That’s not totally unreasonable for a machine of this quality, but it’s a fair jump from that starting price.
There’s nothing else quite like it on the market, though, and that’s why it’s still easy to recommend. If you’re after an attractive, lightweight machine that does double duty as an entertainment device and true productivity tool, it’s very much worth a look.
Best for Battery Life: Lenovo Yoga Tab 4
Just after an inexpensive tablet that does the basics well and will get you through a long-haul flight without complaint? Lasting up to 20 hours between charges, and with most versions costing under $200, the Lenovo Yoga Tab 4 ticks all the right boxes.
The tablet is available in a few different configurations, ranging from an 8″ model with 2GB of RAM and 16GB of storage, all the way through to a 4GB/64GB “Plus” model with a faster processor, more storage, high-resolution 10″ screen, and LTE.
We’d recommend a model with at least a 10″ screen and 32GB of storage — most cost little more than the cheapest version, and you’ll get much more use out of them.
Don’t expect blistering performance from the non-Plus versions, but they’ll handle most entertainment tasks just fine and last forever while they do it. If you need more storage, there’s a micro-SD slot available, and a fingerprint scanner built into the power button.
Best for Serious Work: Microsoft Surface Pro
As good as Microsoft’s Surface Go (above) is, you’ll soon hit some limitations if you’re a full-time road warrior. The screen is a bit small to look at for several hours at a time, the battery life is a couple of hours too short, and you’ll notice the slow CPU as soon as you fire up Photoshop or have several tabs open in your browser.
If you want a tablet that can be a complete laptop replacement, you’ll need to step up to the Go’s big brother, the Surface Pro. With Windows 10 Pro and the latest generation processors, and configurable up to 16GB of RAM and 1TB of storage, performance is the match of any other travel-sized Windows laptop.
The 12.3″ screen is a more appropriate size for working on all day, and at up to 13.5 hours, battery life is noticeably longer. There’s even a USB-A port for plugging in your accessories, a welcome inclusion at a time when manufacturers seem to be in a hurry to rip them out entirely.
The typing experience remains enjoyable, even more than the Go for long typing stints since it’s closer to being a full-size keyboard, and it’s significantly lighter than almost any standard laptop on the market.
Just like the Go, the Surface Pro is relatively expensive for what it is, especially since the keyboard cover still isn’t included by default. Yet again, though, there’s nothing else out there with the same mix of performance, weight, and usefulness — its few competitors are similarly priced, but just don’t perform as well.
The i5 version of the Surface Pro with 8GB of RAM and 256GB is the sweet spot of performance versus price, and what we’d recommend for most people.
Main image via cuncon, other images via respective manufacturers.