Working, studying and spending more time at home than ever before leads to some unexpected market trends. The tablet market was dormant for years with Apple having an unparalleled lead over competitors yet once 2020 rolled in things began to change.
Android makers re-emphasized their efforts in the once-forgotten tablet sphere and we got plenty of interesting options in all price points over the past twelve months. Apple also kept improving its own iPads with its refreshed mini and high-end Pro models. We’ve gathered a bunch of our top picks for the best tablets of 2021 and are presenting them in no particular order.
iPad mini (2021)
Starting off the list is the smallest option - Apple’s sixth-generation iPad mini. Two years after its last mini tablet, Apple finally decided it’s time it offered a modernized makeover to the 8-inch slate. The design language is clearly inspired by the iPad Pro and Air models with sleek uniform bezels and no physical home button. The same A15 Bionic chip found in the iPhone 13 series is also on board and even more impressively Apple gave in and replaced its legacy Lighting connector with the far more capable USB Type-C one.
Add in four color options, support for the second-gen Apple Pencil and ample battery life and the mini looks like the best small tablet of the year. The few cons we had were the lack of a high refresh rate, that infamous jelly scroll effect and lack of HDR playback. While infinitely better than past years, iPadOS 15 still has its limitations (file management specifically) which may just be a deal-breaker if you’re not too heavily invested in the Apple ecosystem.
iPad Pro 12.9 (2021)
Objectively speaking Apple’s 12.9-inch iPad Pro (2021) can be viewed as the best tablet money can buy. Apple’s in-house M1 chipset alone makes this device a force to reckon with even though it’s still not optimized for tablet use. The raw power from the chipset allows for blazing fast 4K video exports, productivity tasks and mobile gaming at the highest settings all in a slim design with ample battery life at hand. The 1TB and above models come with a whopping 16GB RAM. Add in the updated Thunderbolt port and on-board 5G connectivity and you’ve got a viable laptop replacement.
Another big addition is the mini LED display which offers noticeable improvements over past iPads with its deeper blacks thanks to the whopping 2,500 independent dimming zones. The panel can also crank out over 1,000 nits of brightness. This is a truly excellent tablet with little to no compromises depending on your views of iPadOS and how far your budget stretches. We'd like to note that 18W charging on a high-end device with a large battery is still plain disappointing.
Samsung Galaxy Tab S7+
What the M1 iPad Pro 12.9 is to Apple’s ecosystem, the Galaxy Tab S7+ is to the Android world. It’s Samsung’s largest screen flagship tablet to date and it brings all the features you could ever want. Its 12.4-inch 120Hz AMOLED panel is one of the best ways to enjoy media, period. The quad speakers get loud, the bezels are slim and uniform on all sides and the brushed metal design looks and feels premium.
As with other Samsung devices, wireless DeX is a productivity game-changer with its desktop-like UI and we also appreciated the included S Pen in the package though its charging placement on the back of the device is not ideal. Bundling slow 15W chargers when you device supports 45W speeds isn’t cool and we’re yet to see if Samsung can match Apple’s class-leading software support. Those cons still don't stop us from recommending the Tab S7+ if you’re after the best tablet experience outside of Apple’s iPad line.
Samsung Galaxy Tab S7 FE
The top-of-the-line iPad Pro 12.9 and Galaxy Tab S7+ are the leading large-screen tablets of the market but their starting price points could deter some users who don’t have use-cases for all their premium features. Staying true to the “Fan Edition” name, Galaxy Tab S7 FE cuts some corners but still brings a premium build and a spacious 12.4-inch screen. Sure it’s an LCD instead of the glorious AMOLED on the Tab S7+ but on the flip side, it's still a massive portable screen suitable for productivity tasks, media consumption, gaming, drawing and note-taking since it does come with S Pen support.
Wireless DeX mode is a marquee feature that differentiates supported Samsung devices from the pack and makes tablets like the Tab S7 FE viable laptop replacements given you workload revolves around text editing, light photo touch-ups, emails and browser tasks. Battery life from the massive 10,090 mAh cell is decent given the large power-draining screen. The performance leaves a bit to be desired and keep in mind you’re getting different chipsets depending if you go with the Wi-Fi-only model (Snapdragon 778G 5G) versus the 5G model which has the older Snapdragon 750G 5G SoC.
Xiaomi Pad 5
Want a no-compromise tablet with a premium aluminum build, lucrative specs, active stylus support all without running your wallet dry? Xiaomi Pad 5 says 'Hi'. Xiaomi’s first tablet in a long while brings an enticing mix of specs: an 11-inch IPS LCD with a snappy 120Hz refresh rate, excellent quad speakers, flagship-grade Snapdragon 860 chipset, smooth MIUI 12.5 on top of Android 11 and a 22.5W or 33W fast charger depending on your region
Xiaomi Pad 5’s 11-inch display is a joy for binging TV shows, YouTube videos or sports matches. The panel brings both HDR10 and Dolby Vision capabilities and gets decently bright if you need it to. Battery life should last you for over 14 hours of web browsing or video watching, sustained performance from the SD 860 was excellent and it even takes surprisingly good-looking photos and videos if you need to. Xiaomi had to cut some corners here and we have to mention the lack of expandable storage, a fingerprint reader and absence of an onboard GPS module.
Realme’s first tablet entry is all about nailing the basic tablet necessities - a large enough screen to enjoy your multimedia, browsing and light gaming needs in a slim and light package with adequate battery life. Realme Pad has a decent 10.4-inch IPS LCD, quad speakers that get plenty loud and a clutter-free Android 11 interface. Add in a microSD card slot, headphone jack, optional dual-SIM LTE connectivity and affordable price point.
That being said you notice the price cuts in areas like the chipset choice (12 nm MediaTek Helio G80), bare-bones 32GB storage and basic 8MP snappers on the front and back. If you have your priorities straight and can live with these limitations then Realme Pad is a great option for what it’s priced.
Huawei MatePad Pro 12.6
We’ve already brushed over what tablet to get if you’re team Apple or rely more heavily on Google’s services but there’s also a third camp with Huawei and MatePad Pro 12.6 is the ultimate slate in that direction. The question is can you live with HarmonyOS and its limitations? For us the answer is yes but there are more than a few catches and you might not find certain apps that you are used on Google or Apple’s side.
That still doesn’t stop the MatePad from running some of the most capable hardware out there. The 12.6-inch OLED with a sharp 2,560 x 1,600 px resolution is excellent even though it refreshes at a pedestrian 60Hz rate. Performance coming from the Kirin 9000E 5G was on point and marched through all tasks with ease and the quad speakers here are excellent. Despite being just 6.7mm thin, MatePad 12.6 has a massive 10,090 mAh battery with excellent endurance scores in our tests and comes with speedy 40W charging out the box. The cameras are capable and the optional M-Pen stylus is a worthy rival to Samsung’s S Pen.
And just like that, we’ve come full circle to the HarmonyOS question - there’s a feeling of uncertainty with regard to future software updates and the App Gallery catalog still has room to grow. If you want to try something different and need top-notch specs to do so then the MatePad Pro 12.6 has you covered.
Honorable mention - Lenovo Yoga Tab 13
An Android tablet that can double as a portable monitor - that’s something you don’t see every day. Lenovo’s Yoga Tab 13 is one of the more unique tablets to come out this year and it’s all about that large screen experience. You get a 13” LTPS LCD panel with 2,160 x 1,350 px resolution and a 16:10 aspect ratio but the magic happens in its barrel-shaped bottom with a USB-C on one side and a micro-HDMI port on the other.
You also get a kickstand/handle and the back of the device is coated with Alcantara so it doesn’t move around if laid flat. But it’s not just an external monitor, Yoga Pad 13 is a high-end tablet on its own with a Snapdragon 870 chipset 8GB LPDDR5 RAM and up to 256GB UFS 3.0 storage. There’s a 10,200 mAh battery which is rated at over 12 hours of video playback or 8.5 hours of working in display mode. It runs regular Android 11 and supports an optional pressure-sensitive stylus.