Tablet buyers guide: Surface vs Android vs Apple iPad

Everything you should consider before buying your next tablet

Credit: Rob Schultz / IDG

Where early tablets were largely considered to be primarily intended for content consumption, modern devices are much more capable. There are more and more users for whom a tablet could conceivably replace their laptop or desktop and become the primary computer in their life.

In 2020, not everyone can get away with using a tablet instead of a laptop - but some people can. If that’s you, here are some things to consider before you throw your money at Microsoft, Apple or Samsung.

Screen Size

Depending on what you want to use your device for, screen size is definitely something you’ll want to consider before buying your next tablet.

Credit: Samsung

If you want to prioritize the portability of your new tablet, it might be worth looking at something smaller in size.

For example, around 8-inches. Alternatively, if you’re looking to do more multitasking, a larger sized tablet like the 12-inch iPad Pro or Surface Book 2 might be the best way to go. A larger screen can often make working on a tablet much more comfortable, especially if you're planning to draw or write on it using a stylus.

iPad sizes: 7.9-inches, 10.2-inches, 10.5-inches, 11-inches, 12.9-inches

Surface sizes: 10-inches, 12.3-inches, 13-inches, 

Samsung Galaxy Tab sizes: 8.1-inch, 10-inch, 10.5-inches, 12.4-inches

Accessories

Another thing you’ll want to look at when choosing your next tablet is the ecosystem of accessories involved and whether or not you’re willing to pay extra for them.

Credit: Samsung

The Apple Pencil might make for add-on to the experience of an iPad but it also adds an extra $145 onto the price-tag. In contrast, the S-Pen that comes with Samsung’s Tab S6 is free.

Don’t forget to factor in the cost of these accessories - as well as things like wireless keyboards or display-out docks - when it comes to calculating which tablet is going to offer your the most value for money. Be sure to look beyond the official accessory line-up as well. There are dozens of different accessory brands out there and some, like Brydge, actually offer hardware that's just as good if not better than what the manufacturer of your tablet might have to offer.

Relative to something like a conventional clam-shell laptop, tablets are at a slight disadvantage here - since they don't include a built-in keyboard or track-pad.

Storage Limits

As with buying a smartphone, storage size is one of the more important considerations when it comes to buying your next tablet. 

If you’re planning to put your tablet at the center of your content consumption experience, you have to make sure that the tablet you buy has an appropriate amount of storage space for your must-have apps plus any media content you plan to consume on it. 

Credit: Microsoft

More specifically, it’s also going to be worth assessing whether you want or need a tablet that allows you to break free of your device’s on-board storage limits via a Micro SD slot. If you do, Apple’s iPad range is going to be out of the question. 

Even in a time where cloud and streaming based services become more and more dominant, storage size remains an important consideration.

iPad storage: 32GB, 64GB, 128GB, 256GB, 512GB, 1TB

Surface storage: 64GB (Surface Go only), 128GB, 256GB, 512GB or 1TB

Samsung Galaxy Tab storage: 64GB, 128GB, 256GB 

App Support

Credit: Apple

If you’re keen to get the most out of your tablet, poor app support is one of the harder hurdles to overcome. At the end of the day, the absolute limits of what you can and can’t do with a tablet are as much set by the software as they are the hardware involved. 

Some software is only available on certain platforms. If you need an app that’s exclusive to iOS or Windows, you’re going to want a tablet that runs on that operating system.

What’s more, just because a certain app is on the platform you need it to be on doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to offer feature parity with the other versions of itself. The iPad version of Photoshop lets you do a lot of things but it can't quite match the PC or Mac edition.

Surface Pro XCredit: Microsoft
Surface Pro X

In more recent years, some Windows tablets like the Surface Pro X have shifted towards ARM-based processors, which also can have a significant impact on the kinds of applications they are able to run.

There are no shortcuts here. Do your research. If you don't, you could end up paying the price and stuck with a tablet that can't run the apps you need.

Cellular Connectivity

If you’re planning to get the most out of the mobility that tablets offer, you’re going to want to make sure you consider getting a tablet with cellular connectivity. These days, Apple, Samsung and Microsoft sell tablets with mobile connectivity.

Making use of that 4G (or 5G) connectivity does usually come with a cost to battery life but it can also allow for a more compelling and versatile computing experience that blends together the on-the-go capabilities of a smartphone with the more advanced applications and workhorse grunt found in a laptop or tablet. 

Credit: Samsung

A fun wrinkle to this can be found in the fact that some cellular-enabled tablets have support for phone calls and features like call forwarding. If you’re planning on using your tablet for work, this feature can allow you to create some distance between business and non-business hours.

iPad Pro vs Samsung Tab S7 vs Surface Pro 7

Reasons to buy an iPad Pro?

Apple iPad ProCredit: Apple
Apple iPad Pro
  • You can get your work done using iPad apps (or via a web browser like Safari)

  • You want a tablet that integrates well with an iPhone

  • You want to watch Apple TV+ content and other Apple services

  • You can live without a headphone jack 

  • You don’t need expandable storage

  • You want a tablet with the best processor 

Reasons to buy a Samsung Tab S7?

Samsung Galaxy Tab S7Credit: Samsung
Samsung Galaxy Tab S7
  • You can get your work done using Android apps (or via a web browser like Chrome)

  • You want to save money 

  • You want to take phone calls or call forward using your tablet

  • You don’t want to spend extra on a stylus

  • You want a tablet that’s integrated with Google Assistant

  • You want expandable storage

Reasons to buy a Surface Pro 7?

Surface Pro 7Credit: Microsoft
Surface Pro 7
  • You can get your work done using Windows apps or (via a web browser like Edge)

  • You want a tablet with a built-in kickstand

  • You want a tablet with real ports on it

  • You want a tablet that’s not too different from a laptop

  • You want to be able to customise the specs of your tablet

See also:

This article was originally published in December 2019 but updated in November 2020.

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Tags tabletsmicrosoft surfaceGalaxy Tab SiPad ProSamsung Galaxy Tab S6

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Fergus Halliday
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