Best tablets of 2021 | CNN Underscored


Tablets may have started out as luxury items — something people would break out to stream videos and scroll social media when their phones didn’t suffice and laptops were too bulky to take on the go. But more and more, tablets have become full-fledged laptop replacements, with even the most affordable options able to withstand heavy tasks.

That’s what makes the process of finding and purchasing a tablet such a difficult one, especially as the market continues to balloon. This year alone we saw new models of the iPad Pro, Galaxy Tab and Fire HD.

With that in mind, we tasked ourselves with finding the tablets that clearly stick out from the pack. While we regularly test tablets as they enter the market, over the past few months we put 12 of the top-performing models head-to-head, keeping the following in mind: Can you truly multitask? Can you stream from all your favorite sources? Does the screen resolution leave anything to be desired? And, all that considered, does its price reflect its performance? Here are the devices that rose to the top as we investigated these questions:

Like the seventh-gen model before it, the eighth-generation iPad quickly stood out as the best overall option during our testing. With it, you can send emails, chat in a group FaceTime and multitask between two apps without so much as a hiccup. This do-it-all tablet screams efficiency, allowing users to seamlessly transition from work-centric tasks (like creating a presentation or working in spreadsheets) to boredom-busting activities (think crisp, TV-like Netflix binges). It’s all thanks to the A12 Bionic chip inside, and iPadOS runs swimmingly. Better yet, you can pair it with the Apple Pencil for note-taking, and an attachable keyboard can make this device suitable for work. And at $299, it’s friendlier on your wallet than most tablets this powerful.

If you’re looking for a tablet that makes you forget you even own a laptop, the 2020 iPad Pro is the one for you. Simply put, it’s the fastest tablet we’ve ever tested. The Pro can handle the same tasks as the eighth-generation iPad, but with its added horsepower, you can toss in even larger tasks, like a massive Photoshop export with dozens of layers — something that would send most tablets to the spinning wheel of death. The iPad Pro’s vibrant display, paired with four incredibly loud speakers, makes it a true entertainment hub as well. The only reason it didn’t take the No. 1 spot is because its $749 price tag puts it a little out of reach for the average tablet shopper.

Android fans already know their options are limited when it comes to tablets, but that hasn’t deterred Samsung from releasing updates to its tablet lineup on a yearly cycle. In this limited space, though, the Tab S7 at $569.99 is the clear winner. It offers long battery life and enough power to keep up with whatever you can throw at it. Android apps as a whole leave a lot to be desired when used on a tablet, but with Samsung DeX, you can turn the tablet into a laptop-like device, complete with trackpad support and windowed Android apps.

And while opting to spend less usually means severely sacrificing performance, that’s not the case with the $109.99 Fire HD 8 Plus. This budget-friendly tablet can handle a host of everyday tasks, including streaming movies and TV shows, light emailing, plenty of content consumption, e-reading and even some light gaming. The only downside here is Fire OS, which limits you to solely using Amazon’s Appstore. While it has a limited selection, the core apps across streaming, social and games are all here, so that’s not a deal breaker.

8th-Generation iPad

Jacob Krol/CNN

8th-Generation iPad

In comparison to the seventh-gen iPad, the eighth-gen iPad introduces a faster processor. It keeps the classic design and a quality display. But we found that the A12 Bionic chip inside boosted performance and improved the experience with iPadOS 14.

We threw a lot at the eighth-gen iPad throughout a full day of work. During our testing, it had no trouble handling lighter workloads, like firing off emails, browsing the web, typing, streaming content and even light gaming. Rendering video edits in iMovie or making minute changes to a series of photos in Photoshop did result in the tablet slowing down. The eighth-gen handled multitasking like a champ, even with three apps — Pages on the left, Safari on the right and Messages floating above — running simultaneously.

The eighth-generation iPad is best for everyday tasks (think emails and web browsing, with a sprinkling of gaming on the side). Anything more technical, though, and you’ll want to opt for the more powerful iPad Pro or the forthcoming iPad Air.

And while we can bog you down with aspect ratios and other tech jargon, we’ll get straight to the point: The iPad’s display quality shines. Text is sharp and bold, meaning you won’t have to strain while reading, whether you’re on your couch or at the beach. We had an enjoyable experience using the eighth-generation iPad to make FaceTime calls, watch movies, browse the web or read a book, even in harsh lighting conditions. That’s thanks to its True Tone capabilities, meaning the iPad will adjust the color temperature of the display based on your environment.

The display accurately reproduces colors and doesn’t turn vibrancy up to 10. So nothing gets washed out, making streaming content a thoroughly enjoyable experience. When watching “Avengers: Endgame,” for instance, we were struck by how everything on-screen really popped — the glowing orange and yellow of explosions, and the stark reds, blues and whites of the characters’ getups. While an immersive experience, our only gripe is that the screen is not truly edge-to-edge.

But those noticeable edges around the display aren’t going to waste, as the tried-and-trusted home button is a main control on the eighth-generation iPad. The familiar UX employs a single click to bring you back home and a double click to pull up multitasking. You’ll also find a camera up top in a vertical position, which can make for awkward selfies and FaceTime calls when using the iPad horizontally. (The iPad Pro uses this same placement for the front camera, but our budget and Android pick have it in the best spot: on its side.)

Arguably the most exciting addition lives on the left-hand side. The Smart Connector gives you a dedicated connection for accessories like a Smart Keyboard or the Logitech Combo Touch. No more frustrating pairing or needing to charge multiple devices, so you can easily pair accessories to enhance productivity. Trackpads and mice are also fully supported by iPadOS as an input, along with touch, a keyboard or a pencil.

You don’t have to worry about being tethered to an outlet, either. We got close to 11 hours of active use with the eighth-generation iPad. Heavier days with lots of calls and streaming did result in close to nine and a half hours, though. During our more formulaic battery test — in which we set the brightness to 50%, turned on airplane mode and looped a video until the device died — we found the device lasted nine hours and 30 minutes. That’s an additional two hours compared to the previous-generation model.

Any way you slice it, the eighth-generation iPad continues to deliver an exceptional blend of performance and value. We’d be willing to bet that this tablet will fit your needs perfectly, whatever they may be, and at a price point that won’t break the bank.

Jacob Krol/CNN

Apple has really let the iPad Pro mature and grow over the years. Now it can fully replace a laptop for most consumers.

The iPad Pro boasts ultra-impressive processing power, thanks to some stellar technology (an A12Z chipset and AI core, to be exact). That means, in real time, the Pro will adjust its processes to make it more responsive and efficient. In return, it creates faster experiences on the tablet. It’s one of the reasons the iPad Pro outperformed every other tablet we’ve tested.

This tablet is truly up for any and all tasks. Exporting photos happens in milliseconds. Saving and sharing a PDF seems effortless. And we can go on: rendering 4K movies, exporting massive photos from Photoshop and exporting data all went off without a hitch, and at a brisk pace.

The large display gives you plenty of room to multitask. With it, you can fit email on one side, a workflow app like Trello on the other and comfortably have Slack hovering around for messaging.

While the seventh-generation iPad’s display performance is really impressive, the iPad Pro ups the ante with its ProMotion display. Basically, that gives the Pro a higher refresh rate, leading to a buttery smooth viewing experience whether you’re simply sorting through a spreadsheet or watching the latest episode of “Ozark.”

Picture quality is superb and bests the eighth-generation iPad, iPad Air and iPad Mini. Colors pop more, thanks to a higher resolution, and a wider range of color support leads to a pristine viewing experience. Like the seventh-gen iPad, the Pro has True Tone capabilities, meaning the Pro will adjust the color temperature of the display based on your environment.

The performance and display quality make it a true laptop competitor before you even take into account the available accessories. Pairing the iPad Pro with the Magic Keyboard, while costly, makes it feel like a true 2-in-1, or even a full-fledged computer. The trackpad is a perfect way to interact with flowing timelines and large spreadsheets. Plus, you can still interact with your finger, a pencil or even a keyboard. That functionality is supported on any iPad that runs 13.5, but it really shines on the iPad Pro, thanks to its unparalleled performance.

Simply put: The iPad Pro is a beast. The speed of the processor paired with iPadOS allows you to shred through exports, easily multitask with tons of apps and really accomplish anything without a hitch. Sprinkle the great display and accessories on top of all that and you have a winning recipe for a solid laptop replacement.

Jason Cipriani/CNN

When it comes to Android tablets, there aren’t many options. Samsung, for the most part, is the only company that consistently releases new Android-powered tablets every year. Amazon’s Fire tablets are Android-based but run a heavily customized version of the operating system that leaves support for Google’s apps and services behind.

Still, even in a limited field, the flagship-level Tab S7 shines. It’s running Android with full Google support and some Samsung customizations (dubbed the One UI interface). A Qualcomm Snapdragon 865+ processor powers the experience (which is quite snappy). It pairs that swift chipset with 6GB of RAM, which means it was up for plenty of multitasking.

The combination of processing power here was also enough to power Samsung DeX — which transforms the standard Android interface into a laptop-like interface — although we did experience some slowdowns in this mode. App compatibility, like Android apps on a Chromebook, was spotty, though it’s still handy for when you need to work in a different environment. You can automatically trigger it by connecting the S7 to Samsung’s keyboard accessory, which is sold separately for $199.

The Tab S7 features an 11-inch screen set in a 16:9 ratio. It’s a bit taller and thinner than, say, the 11-inch iPad Pro. It’s an LCD display and looked crisp and sharp when streaming movies, browsing the web and even cycling through photos. Better yet, it supports up to an iPad-rivaling 120 Hz refresh rate, which delivers a buttery smooth viewing experience. Now, the Tab S7 isn’t the only tablet Samsung dropped this year. There’s the larger Tab S7+ with a 12.4-inch Super AMOLED display — that higher-quality display is the core difference, but in our testing, it didn’t present itself as a clear winner by offering brighter colors or more vivid imagery. The two displays looked almost identical no matter the test.

Powering the S7 is an 8,000mAh battery. During our benchmark battery test that consists of playing a video on repeat with the tablet in airplane mode and screen brightness set to 50%, the S7 lasted 15 hours and 22 minutes. In other words, the S7’s battery will last all day and well into the next.

Tab S7 starts with 128GB of internal storage and even supports 5G connectivity on the cellular model. It supports 45-watt fast charging via the USB-C port and comes with an S Pen stylus in the box.

Compared to previous Galaxy tablets, the Tab S7 offers a more complete package. From battery life to performance to display quality, there’s no real comparison. If you want a premium Android tablet, the Tab S7 is your best choice.

Jason Cipriani/CNN

From the moment we unboxed Amazon’s Fire HD 8 Plus, we noted its modern design, similar to that of the Kindle Paperwhite. The rounded edges are a worthwhile improvement over the dated and very boxy design of previous Fire HD tablets.

The front-facing camera has been moved so that it’s at the top of the screen when you’re holding the tablet in landscape mode — one of the few tablets to do so — and in turn, it makes your video calls look better.

Arguably the biggest addition to the Fire HD 8 Plus is wireless charging. You can place the 8-inch tablet on any Qi-compatible wireless charging pad, or order the tablet along with Amazon’s own wireless charging stand for $139.99. And there’s no cause for separation anxiety while charging as, once in the stand, Show Mode is activated, converting the tablet into a makeshift Echo Show smart screen. You can interact with Alexa, just like you would any other Echo device, asking for weather updates, controlling smart home devices and posing random questions or requesting jokes.

We’ll be honest: This isn’t the fastest tablet we’ve ever tested, but it is powerful enough to handle common tablet tasks. For example, you won’t have a problem using Amazon’s Silk browser to shop on your favorite sites, hold Zoom video calls and scroll through your social media feeds. You can even do some light gaming — just don’t expect to be wowed by how fast games load or how the graphics look.

In our battery life tests, the Fire HD 8 Plus lasted nearly 10 hours, which is more than enough for binge-watching your latest Amazon Prime Video series on a cross-country flight, with enough juice left over to get in a couple of hours with your favorite Kindle reads as you settle into your hotel later that night.

The biggest hurdle you’ll have to overcome is learning how to navigate Amazon’s Fire OS. It’s Android-based but leaves out any Google services. That means you won’t find Google’s Gmail or YouTube apps, for example, and are forced to use Amazon’s own app store and its limited selection (although, many big-name apps, including Netflix, Minecraft, Disney+ and Instagram are available). The interface has a steep learning curve, but once you adapt to its layout, you shouldn’t have any issues.

Even though apps may take longer to load, multitasking isn’t the smoothest and the lack of Google apps can be annoying, the Fire HD 8 Plus is by far the best tablet we’ve used anywhere near this price point. And the fact that it doubles as an Echo Show while charging provides added value to a device that would normally be nothing more than a paperweight waiting to juice up.

Tablets can vary a lot in what they aim to accomplish and deliver, but we wanted to take a look at a diverse variety of devices. After sorting through dozens of expert reviews (including our own) and applying our own knowledge of the tablet market, we drew up a list of 12 devices to compare. These ranged wildly in price from $109 to $999. But before we took price into account, we wanted to objectively test qualities that we expect from a good tablet.

Every device was scored on the following properties: design, display, battery life, performance, software, speakers, connectivity, ports, accessories and warranty. The categories we considered key were weighted greater, namely design, display, battery life and performance. A tablet is a largely visual device, seeing as it’s one big screen, so display and design are important. And performance determines how smooth your experience is going to be and what you can do on the device. Of course, better battery life means you don’t have to put the device down to charge as often.

With each tablet, we ran out the battery from full to empty while playing a movie with screen brightness set to 50% and airplane mode engaged. We multitasked with numerous apps, streamed shows and movies, listened to music, played games of various intensities and more. Plus, we looked into the quality of the display and actual construction of a tablet. In terms of design, we looked into the shape and portability, how it feels in the hand and more nuanced aspects like bezel-to-display ratio. Finally, we considered and tested available ports and connected various other tech via Bluetooth.

Take a look at our in-depth category breakdown below.


  • Portability: We considered the dimensions, thickness and weight of the tablet. A lighter, smaller tablet that can fit in more containers or be more easily held scored better here.
  • Build quality: We took notes on how the tablet felt in our hands. We looked for tablets that weren’t too heavy and had features like rounded edges and quality materials that felt better to hold.
  • Materials used: We researched the material composition of the tablet. We compared whether tablets were made of plastic or metal and glass, and what kind of metal was used (e.g., stainless steel versus aluminum).


  • Screen size: We measured the bezel ratio, aka how much of the tablet’s surface is composed of the actual display versus bezels (sections without a display).
  • Resolution: We checked what screen resolution the tablet had in terms of pixels composing the width and height of the display.
  • Vibrancy and contrast: We tested an array of visuals (both still and moving) with bright colors and dark tones mixed throughout. We checked for any blending, how bright a color could get and how dark a tone could be.
  • Quality in everyday use: We took qualitative notes on how the tablet’s display held up in everyday activities under different light conditions, checking properties such as whether glare impeded the display and how clear it was in the dark.

Battery life

  • Performance on the Underscored battery test: We put the tablet through our standard battery test. Specifically, we ran out the battery from full to empty while playing a movie on airplane mode with the screen brightness set to 50%, recording exactly how long the tablet lasted.
  • Qualitative use: We took qualitative notes on how the tablet performed at various battery levels. We noted how well it could be used to multitask, stream movies and do other activities at high battery level and very low battery level.


  • Processor and RAM: We recorded the exact processor inside the tablet and how many GB of RAM were available.
  • Benchmarking tests: We ran GeekBench 5 tests on all devices when possible as well as a series of exports and renders.
  • Everyday use across entertainment and productivity: We pushed the tablet to its limits on multitasking, video streaming and gaming, if such a limit could be reached.


  • Software: We rated the capabilities and variety of the software that comes preinstalled on the tablet with iPadOS, Android or Fire OS. If a tablet came with a lot of bloatware, as in extra, unnecessary apps, we docked it. It was also a bad sign if the tablet had trouble running software that it came with.


  • Speakers: We listened to the same playlist on each tablet, consisting of various genres spanning jazz, rock, pop, rap, classical and EDM, among others. Between tablets, we compared properties like soundstage, bass and vocal and instrumental clarity.


  • Connectivity: We rated the consistency of the tablet’s connectivity to both the internet via Wi-Fi and various connected Bluetooth devices.


  • Power/data: We examined which ports the tablet featured for data and/or power transfer (i.e., USB Type-C, Micro USB or Lightning connectors). For example, USB Type-C allows for faster charging than Micro USB, so a tablet that utilizes the former would score better in this category.
  • Headphone jack: We checked whether the tablet included a headphone jack (and whether it worked) and awarded a point if it featured one. It’s all about user’s choice, and opting to include an audio jack delivers more value.
  • Proprietary ports: We noted any ports that are unique to the tablet’s brand and the function(s) of these ports.


  • Warranty: We researched the warranty/warranties available for each device. Warranties that were longer and/or covered more issues or damage scored better.

We gave each tablet a score in each subcategory listed above. The combined scores of each subcategory comprised its respective category’s maximum potential score. As mentioned earlier, we weighted design, display, battery life and performance as the most important features. Read on to see our exact point composition.

  • Design had a maximum of 20 points: build quality (10 points), portability (5 points) and materials used (5 points).
  • Display had a maximum of 20 points: screen size (5 points), resolution (5 points), vibrancy and contrast (5 points) and quality in everyday use (5 points).
  • Battery life had a maximum of 20 points: performance on the Underscored battery test (10 points) and qualitative use (10 points).
  • Performance had a maximum of 20 points: everyday use across entertainment and productivity (10 points), processor and RAM (5 points) and benchmarking tests (5 points).
  • Software had a maximum of 10 points: software (10 points).
  • Speakers had a maximum of 5 points: speakers (5 points).
  • Connectivity had a maximum of 5 points: connectivity (5 points).
  • Ports had a maximum of 6 points: power/data (3 points), proprietary ports (2 points) and headphone jack (1 point).
  • Accessories had a maximum of 5 points: accessories (5 points).
  • Warranty had a maximum of 5 points: warranty (5 points).

iPad Air 3rd Gen ($469, originally $499;

The $499 iPad Air sits in the middle of the iPad lineup. It’s faster and more sleek-looking than the seventh-generation iPad, but it’s not as quick as the iPad Pro. It’s kind of a stepping-stone between the base and the top-of-the-line models — but for most, it’s notably more powerful than the seventh-generation iPad. That’s why, given the price difference, we think the decision rests between the seventh-generation iPad and iPad Pro.

iPad Mini 5 ($394;

The iPad Mini 5 still serves a niche as an ultra-portable yet powerful iPad, but with 7.9-inch screen size, the iPhone 11 Pro Max is closing in from behind. It’s a packed device that runs iPadOS 13 really well and, even on a tighter display, supports considerable multitasking. We just think for most people, the iPhone might be serving most of the use cases and opting for the seventh-generation iPad will give you more versatility and, ultimately, more bang for your buck.

Fire HD 10 ($149.99;

The $149.99 Fire HD 10, while fairly affordable, is simply outclassed by the $119.99 Fire HD 8 Plus. With a 10.1-inch screen, you’re certainly getting a decent display. However, the tablet is a little unwieldy in thickness and size compared to the more portable Fire HD 8 Plus. The 10 is also running an older chip architecture, resulting in a step down in performance and speed. And last but certainly not least, the Fire HD 8 can wirelessly charge. Overall, the Fire HD 8 Plus is a superior purchase for $30 less.

Galaxy Tab S6 ($649.99;

Samsung’s Galaxy Tab S6 is a terrific Android tablet that lets you mix productivity and entertainment. It’s fast and premium all around, but we feel that even at its $649.99 price point, the device doesn’t let you get as much done as a competing operating system.

Galaxy Tab S6 Lite ($349.99;

Samsung’s Galaxy Tab S6 Lite offers an Android experience with a slow but steady performance and exceptional battery life. Its headlining feature is the included S Pen stylus that works seamlessly with Samsung’s suite of productivity apps. The Tab S6 Lite ultimately falls short of being a top pick because its slower performance doesn’t live up to its $349.99 price tag.

Surface Go 2 (starting at $399;

Microsoft’s Surface Go 2 looks just as good as the previous generation and runs a full-fledged version of Windows 10. Its display is sharp and crisp, and battery life is more than enough to get through a day of work. But the entry-level model isn’t something we would recommend to anyone, due to the impact its slower processor and storage has on overall performance. In the end, you’ll have to spend $629 for a more powerful model. The Go 2 is perfect for someone who has a strong desire to remain within the Windows 10 ecosystem with Microsoft’s hardware, but it’s going to cost you.

Read more from CNN Underscored’s hands-on testing:

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