With larger screens and better battery life than a smartphone, and smaller, lighter and cheaper than a laptop, tablets and e-readers make a lot of sense for many travellers. Entertainment, research, communication and much 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’s a lot of competition, especially in the Android market, but even between the different models in the Apple and Amazon range. These are our picks for the best tablets and e-readers for travel in 2017.
The need to carry a full-size laptop on your travels has been decreasing for years, and for many travellers, it’s gone completely. Tablet computers get faster, lighter and more useful with each new model, and they’re cheaper too — sometimes, a lot cheaper. For entertainment, web browsing, photo and video storage and most other travel tasks, a tablet is a good choice.
If you need to work while you’re travelling, we’d suggest checking out our laptops and hybrids recommendations instead. While the boundary between “work” and “leisure” gets blurred at the higher end of the tablet market, and you can do certain types of work on Android and iOS devices, they’re just not as powerful or useful as machines running MacOS, Windows or Linux.
Apple didn’t invent the tablet, but it definitely popularised it with the iPad. Starting out with a single model, there are now five different versions you could buy. Each one has its pros and cons for travel, but right now, there’s one that (just) squeaks ahead of the rest to take with you on the road.
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 somewhat different sizes, specs, prices and features, there’s something for every traveller. The hard part is deciding exactly which one.
Note that both of our recommended tablets have the option of an LTE-enabled model. If you don’t have a smartphone — or it’s locked to your cell company and can’t be used affordably overseas — it’s worth considering the extra expense. You’ll be able to use a local SIM card to get connected cheaply at your destination, and share that connection with any other Wi-fi devices you might happen to have with you.
Apple iPad Pro 9.7″
Apple’s first iPad Pro was easily the most powerful and useful tablet the company had made — but it was also the largest, heaviest and most expensive. Added a few months later, the smaller 9.7″ version is much more interesting for travellers — in fact, it’s our pick for the best of the Apple range.
It’s the right mix of size, weight, power and versatility, at a price that, although expensive, isn’t outrageous given what it can do. There are very few travel-related activities the iPad Pro can’t handle, and if you attach the optional keyboard, it’ll deal with writing and other light “work” tasks as well. If you’re of an artistic bent, you can even use the Apple Pencil to sketch and draw your surroundings as you travel… which sounds like a much better option than taking photos of it with a ten-inch tablet. For the rest of your requirements, the App Store is home to a vast range of travel apps and guides, and it’s rare to find a need that’s not covered.
Exactly the same size and weight as the iPad Air 2, it has a more powerful processor, less-reflective screen, better cameras both front and back, and support for accessories like those mentioned above. The base model is also $200 more expensive than the cheapest version of the Air… but that’s not a particularly useful comparison.
Storage space matters when you’re on the road. Fast, reliable Internet is hard to come by, so streaming music and movies is rarely an option. You’ll end up filling your device with apps, photos and entertainment before you know it. The base version of the Air 2 comes with 16GB of space, which simply isn’t enough. For $100 more, you get the 64GB version — but at that point, it’s not much less than the 32Gb iPad Pro. All of that to say, unless you want 64GB of storage or more, you’re better off with the extra speed and versatility of the Pro.
ASUS ZenPad 3S 10
If you’re looking for something a little easier on the wallet, check out the Asus Zenpad 3S 10 instead. It’s a high-quality 9.7″ tablet, with impressive technical specs and a premium feel, at a much more affordable price.
The Zenpad is around half the price of the same-size iPad Pro, has the same screen resolution and pixel density, and is thinner and lighter. It typically comes with 64GB of storage, double that of Apple’s base model, and you can add even more space later via a microSD card if needed. With 4GB of RAM, and a blazingly-fast processor and graphics card, there’s virtually nothing this tablet can’t handle. Watching shows, playing games, or just surfing the web, it’s very hard to make the Zenpad stutter.
The front and back cameras are decent, although not quite as good as those on the iPad Pro. They’re more than fine for video calls and taking the occasional photo in an emergency, however — and really, you shouldn’t be relying on a tablet for your holiday snaps anyway. If you’d like to use a stylus with it, factor in another $30.
The 5900mAh battery is impressive, and you’ll get through all but the longest of long-haul flights on a single charge. The inclusion of fast charging technology is also very welcome — you can get back up to around 80% in half an hour with a Quick Charge 3 charger (not included, sadly), which is super-useful on tight layovers.
Overall, this is a thin, powerful, ultra-light tablet, at a very reasonable price. Being able to add extra storage as needed is great for travellers, and although it could do with better cameras and inclusion of a fast charger, neither is a showstopper. If you’re after a very good tablet that won’t break the bank, buy the Asus Zenpad 3S 10. It’s our top pick in 2017.
Like several other types of device, the differences between tablets and e-readers have become blurrier in recent years. For us, though, the distinction is still quite clear: an e-reader is a reasonably cheap piece of hardware that’s largely or entirely devoted to the reading of electronic books. It has few other features, and battery charge is measured in weeks rather than hours.
You can, of course, read e-books quite happily on your phone or tablet, and many people do. If you’re not a big reader, this will likely work well — just download the Kindle or iBooks app, and away you go. For those who read a lot, however, the reduced eye strain, better visibility in sunlight and much longer battery life makes a separate e-reader worth carrying.
Nine years after it introduced the first Kindle, Amazon has well and truly won the e-book war. It’s dominated the market with the killer combo of an enormous book library and good, sometimes great, reading hardware. The company currently offers four different versions, with a range of features and costs, but for us, the decision is obvious: the Paperwhite is best.
Regularly priced under $100, the Paperwhite is a big step up from the most basic model. It has better battery life (six weeks vs four, if used for 30 minutes per day), almost double the screen resolution for sharper text and images and, most usefully for travellers, a built-in light for reading in the dark. Rather than a brightly-lit phone or tablet, the Paperwhite has a dimmer, “front-lit” screen that makes it easy to read without straining your eyes or disturbing those around you on overnight flights or in shared accommodation.
The touch controls are simple and responsive, and there’s enough storage onboard for thousands of books — more than many people will get through in decades. It’s slightly heaver than other models, but the Paperwhite’s 7.2oz (206gm) weight is still barely noticeable in a day bag, and easy managed with one hand.
While there’s the option of a 3G-enabled version, it’s not worth the money unless you regularly find yourself without Wi-fi for extended periods of time. Limited as it is to accessing Amazon and a few other sites, most travellers are unlikely to get much use out of cell connectivity on their Paperwhite, and it drains the battery much more quickly.
One piece of advice: like any other piece of fragile electronics, you’ll want to add a case to protect the e-ink screen from being crushed or cracked. We’ve seen too many broken Kindles on the road to suggest anything else.
All product images via respective manufacturers. Main image via Amazon.