Tablets make a lot of sense for travelers. Entertainment, research, communication, and more are easily dealt with on a device that fits into a small bag and doesn’t have to cost a fortune. The last few months have seen the introduction of some exciting new models, and improvements to many others.
While most people who work while traveling are still better off with laptops, the line between those and high-end tablets is increasingly blurred. You can now buy tablets that will let you get real work done while still being lighter and having better battery life than most laptops.
From low-cost models for watching movies and keeping the kids entertained to serious powerhouses that’ll handle any workload you throw at them, we’ve rounded up the options across the range.
Whatever your needs and budget look like, these are the best tablets for travel in 2021.
- Size: 8.0 x 5.4 x 0.4 inches
- Weight: 12.5 ounces
- Battery Life: Up to 12 hours
- Storage: 32 or 64GB, plus microSD slot
- Runs on: Android (FireOS)
- Size: 9.8 x 6.8 x 0.3 inches
- Weight: 1.1 pounds
- Battery Life: Up to 10 hours
- Storage: 32 or 128GB
- Runs on: iPadOS
- Size: 9.2 x 7.2 x 1.0 inches
- Weight: 19.4 oz
- Battery Life: Up to 12 hours
- Storage: 32-64 GB, plus microSD slot
- Runs on: Android (FireOS)
- Size: 9.7 x 6.9 x 0.3 inches
- Weight: 1.2 pounds, plus Type Cover
- Battery Life: Up to 10 hours
- Storage: 64 or 128GB, plus microSD slot
- Runs on: Windows 10
- Size: 9.6 x 6.1 x 0.3 inches
- Weight: 1 pound
- Battery Life: Up to 13 hours
- Storage: 64 or 128GB + microSD slot
- Runs on: Android
- Size: 11.5 x 7.9 x 0.3 inches
- Weight: 1.7 pounds, plus Type Cover
- Battery Life: Up to 10.5 hours
- Storage: Up to 1TB, plus microSD slot
- Runs on: Windows
Best on a Budget: Amazon Fire HD 8 (2020)
Amazon has dominated the low-cost tablet market for years, offering devices that are surprisingly useful for not much money. Recently upgraded, the Fire HD 8 is no exception. 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 1280×800 resolution is quite low these days, it’s ok for most purposes and gives better battery life than higher-spec screens.
You’ll pay slightly more to double the inbuilt storage from 32GB to 64GB, and while not absolutely necessary, it’s 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 microSD slot onboard for adding extra storage later.
Alexa voice assistant support is built-in, and unusually for an inexpensive device, the tablet is 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.
A welcome addition in the latest model is USB C charging. The 5W wall charger in the box will fully charge this tablet in five hours, but you can do it in under three hours if you have a 15W charger lying around.
The biggest caveat? There’s no access to the Google Play store by default, although there are certain unapproved methods for adding it. While most apps you’re likely to care about are available on the Amazon app store, it doesn’t have as wide a range and you may find your favorite game or tool 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 2021. It’s also available in a Plus version, which has wireless charging and extra RAM for greater performance. You can buy this model by itself, or with a custom wireless dock that will be useful around the house but unlikely to make it into your carry-on.
Finally, if you plan to watch a lot of movies and are after something with a bigger screen, higher resolution, and faster processor, it’s worth considering the Fire HD 10 instead. Very reasonably priced for what it is, we covered the larger model in detail here.Buy on Amazon
Best General-Purpose: Apple iPad
Apple has dominated the tablet market since the first iPad, and continues to do so in 2021. 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 10.2″ 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 2021, 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.
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 Smart Keyboard. Although you’ll need to buy it separately, it opens up new opportunities for doing at least light work from the road without having to pay double for the iPad Pro.
There are better options if you’re on a budget or have more intensive work requirements, but for general travel use, it’s hard to fault the latest iPad.Buy on Amazon
Best for Kids: Amazon Fire HD 8 Kids Edition (2020)
The sheer volume of games, apps, and shows aimed at kids is incredible. 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. 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. Especially given the price, it’s the ideal option for traveling kids.Buy on Amazon
Best for Work & Play: Microsoft Surface Go 2
Microsoft’s Surface Go 2 is an interesting device that straddles the border between casual use and real work. With a 10.5″ screen and sub-$400 starting price, it sounds very much like a normal tablet until you realize it runs Windows 10.
The Pentium Gold processor inside the base model of the Go 2 isn’t going to set any speed records, but you can still run most Windows apps and even play a few basic games without the machine becoming unusably slow.
That said, we’d still recommend upgrading to the Core M3 model instead. The processor is dramatically faster, and since the upgrade comes with double the RAM and extra, faster storage as well, the end result is a much quicker machine.
The 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. The keyboard is optional, but if you’re planning to do any amount of typing on it, it’s definitely worth buying.
Battery life is rated at up to ten 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 1920×1280 display both much better than you’d expect from any Windows machine at this price point.
Since storage is somewhat limited, being able to add a microSD 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 10S 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. If you want to be connected anywhere you go, there’s a model with an LTE modem built-in.
So what’s not to like? The price tag, mostly. Sure, it starts at $399 RRP, but for that you’ll only get the base version with 4GB of RAM, a Pentium Gold processor, 64GB of sluggish storage, and no Type cover.
Those specs aren’t enough to run most Windows apps well, and if you’re planning on using it only as a tablet without keyboard or trackpad, you’d be better off buying an iPad.
By the time you make it a good productivity machine with a keyboard, faster processor, and double the RAM and storage, you’ll have spent over $700. That’s not 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 considering.
Best for Value: Samsung Galaxy S6 Lite
Looking for a tablet from a major manufacturer that does everything well, at a price that won’t break the bank? Check out Samsung’s Galaxy S6 Lite, a recent model that ticks all the right boxes and includes some handy extras for good measure.
The tablet is available in a small range of colors, with either 64 of 128GB of storage and a microSD slot that handles anything up to a 1TB card. The 10.4″ screen is more than large enough to comfortably watch your favorite shows, at a slightly-unusual 2000×1200 resolution that’s a touch higher than Full HD.
The combination of a midrange Exynos processor and 4GB of RAM is powerful enough in all common situations, with only the occasional stutter in demanding games.
Like most tablets, the cameras are functional rather than good, but still fine for video calls and the occasional photo if you’re desperate. Similarly, the stereo speakers do a decent job indoors or in quiet locations, but you may want to switch to headphones in noisier environments or for extra bass.
The inclusion of the Samsung S Pen stylus is a welcome addition, adding handwritten notes and sketches to the list of things you can use the tablet for. Small icons for things like notes and annotations appear automatically when you hold the pen close to the screen.
There’s a headphone jack (at a time when many models are shipping without one) and USB C charging port. Battery life is good, lasting around 13 hours, although the 15W charger in the box takes a while to power the tablet up again afterward.
Samsung pitches this model as a competitor to the base iPad model, and it’s not hard to see why. A similar size, weight, and price, the Galaxy 6 Lite is a reliable all-purpose device that fully covers the needs of most tablet users at a price they can afford.
While those on a strict budget will probably still opt for Amazon’s Fire 8 or Fire HD 10 (above), the Galaxy Lite 6 offers plenty to those with a bit more to spend. Running the latest Android 10, with a faster processor, better cameras, and a stylus thrown in for good measure, this is the best value-for-money Android tablet you can buy right now.Buy on Amazon
Best for Serious Work: Microsoft Surface Pro 7
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 if you get the base model, you’ll notice the slow CPU and storage 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 10.5 hours, battery life is noticeably longer. There’s both a USB C and older USB-A port for plugging in your accessories, a welcome inclusion at a time when manufacturers seem to be in a hurry to rip the latter 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.
The i5 version of the Surface Pro 7 with 8GB of RAM and 256GB is the sweet spot of performance versus price, and what we’d recommend for most people.
Just like the Go, our recommended configuration is a noticeable jump from the starting price, especially since the keyboard cover still isn’t included by default. We’d really like to see Microsoft start bundling it in the future.
Even so, 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.
Main image via cuncon, other images via respective manufacturers.