The best cheap tablet: Amazon Fire HD 8
Most people use tablets for streaming video, browsing the web, and reading and the Amazon Fire HD 8 excels at all three and is the best budget Android tablet. It start with a price at $90, but it lacks the powerful hardware or high-resolution screens of the Nvidia Shield K1 or Pixel C. Like the Shield K1, the base model of the Fire HD 8 has only 16 GB of storage, but it accepts microSD cards. It uses Amazon’s services, not Google’s, which means no Google Play Store or Google apps by default (though you can add them, with effort, if you’re technically inclined).
The 8-inch one is good enough to watch video or get some reading done. (If you mainly plan on reading, the high-contrast e-ink screen on one of Amazon’s Kindle models makes those better as reading devices.) And the lower-resolution screen gives the HD 8 amazing battery life: With a few hours of use per day, this tablet can last most of a week. That’s better than with the Pixel C, and LaptopMag notes that it’s even better than with the previous generation Fire HD 8.
A $90 tablet still involves a lot of compromises, but Amazon has refined its tablet formula over the years. Despite a low-end, quad-core processor and only 1.5 GB of RAM, the tablet still manages solid performance for basic tasks. As CNET explained, “Apps loaded reasonably quickly and the device didn’t feel sluggish.”
That is thanks to the Amazon’s Fire OS, a version of Android that’s optimized for content consumption, which provides easy access to Amazon ebooks, videos, apps, and music, without a ton of services and apps running in the background slowing things down. If you care about voice commands, the Fire HD 8 will soon—via a software update—be the first tablet with support for Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant. Fire OS’s extensive parental controls also make this a good tablet for younger children.
It works best with Amazon Prime, as subscribers get access to a selection of free music, books, and videos. If you aren’t a Prime member, you still get a selection of free apps from Amazon Underground, many of which cost money on Google’s store, plus any content in Amazon’s ecosystem you’ve purchased or uploaded (such as documents and music).
The flip side of this Amazon-service focus is that the Fire HD 8 doesn’t include the Google Play Store, Gmail, or any other Google service, and Amazon’s app store is much sparser than Google’s, despite the availability of free apps and games.. (With a little tinkering, you can get the Google Play Store on the Fire HD 8 and make it much more like a standard Android tablet.)
The base model includes ads on the lock screen, which you can disable for $15. That’s a tolerable tradeoff when you need a media-consumption tablet on the cheap.
Most people willing to spend $500 on a tablet should get an iPad, but you’re here because you want an Android tablet, and the Google Pixel C is the best performer among them. It’s a significant step up from the Shield K1 thanks to an amazing screen, faster hardware, and newer software—this is the only tablet you can get right now that runs Android 7.0 Nougat, which finally makes Android feel like it’s supposed to be on a tablet—but it’s also more than twice as expensive as the Shield K1, and not necessary for most people. Its optional keyboard case makes it potentially interesting as a productivity tablet, but Android isn’t yet the right operating system for most pros.
The Pixel C uses an Nvidia Tegra X1 processor, which is newer and more powerful than the Tegra in the Shield Tablet K1. It has 3GB of RAM and either 32 or 64GB of built-in storage, but no microSD-card slot. The Pixel C is the fastest, most responsive Android device we’ve ever tested—notably faster than the Shield K1. Engadget was impressed too, saying, “It’s a freaking scorcher.”
Instead of a common aspect ratio like 16:9 or even 4:3, the Pixel C’s is about 1:1.4. It’s very similar, in terms of aspect ratio, to a sheet of A4-size paper, which makes it nice for reading vertically oriented documents. The 10.2-inch, 2560×1800 display is clear with very accurate colors, and it’s one of the brightest tablet screens we’ve seen, making it usable outdoors or under harsh lighting.
The Pixel C is the only tablet running Android 7.0 Nougat, and that’s a big deal. With Nougat, you can finally use two apps at the same time without relying on the buggy split-screen implementations used by companies like Samsung. Nougat’s split-screen multitasking works with almost all apps, and it’s very useful on the Pixel C. Russell Holly at Android Central calls multi-window on the Pixel C “amazing.” Ron Amadeo at Ars Technica was more measured, saying that Android tablets “suck a little less thanks to Nougat.” The large screen and square-ish ratio give you plenty of space to work in two apps at the same time, and the Pixel C is powerful enough to keep both running in the foreground without getting bogged down. Nougat has the potential to change the way you use an Android tablet, and the Pixel C is the only place you can get it right now. Without Nougat, the Pixel C was a nice tablet, but definitely not worth the price. Split-screen multitasking makes it a lot more appealing, and perhaps worth the price for Android enthusiasts, but still a tough sell for most people.
The Pixel C’s battery life is class-leading: It will last about two days with heavy use, even with that high-resolution screen. Nougat also improves Android’s low-power Doze mode. Doze, which is designed to prevent apps from draining the battery while the device is asleep, is crucial for tablets, since they tend to sit unused for longer periods than smartphones do. The Pixel C should be able to last for weeks in Doze mode if it’s not being used. Like recent Google phones, the Pixel C uses USB-C and supports fast charging.
Google skipped the plastic casing used on the company’s Nexus tablets, designing the Pixel C with a fully aluminum frame. Android Authority says, “This device certainly screams high quality,” but the thick aluminum sheet makes it heavier than other tablets in the same size category. The Pixel C weighs a little more than a pound, making it uncomfortable to use for extended periods unless you can rest it on a table or your lap.
Google’s optional keyboard case for the Pixel C connects via Bluetooth and charges from the tablet using induction—no wires!—when closed. The typing experience is about as good as on a midrange laptop, but Android still requires a lot of touchscreen interaction, so unless you plan to type a lot, you probably don’t need to spend $150 for the keyboard. Even if you need to type a lot, you may be better off with a conventional protective case along with one of our Bluetooth keyboard picks. (If you’re looking for a high-end productivity tablet, and you’re not married to Android, it’s worth considering the iPad Pro and the Microsoft Surface Pro rather than the Pixel C—our guide to pro tablets, including the Pixel C, is coming soon.)
The biggest flaw with the Pixel C is its price. The $500 base model Pixel C has just 32 GB of storage, or you can get 64 GB for $600, and neither version has a microSD card slot—a 128 GB iPad Air 2 is $500. If you’re wondering if the Pixel C is worth the cost, you should stick with the Shield Tablet K1.
Many of the Android tablets we’ve tested over the years have been discontinued, and few Android tablets are worth your money at all.
The Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 was our previous upgrade pick, and it’s still available. However, its price is still quite high, at $400 for the 9.7-inch model. Considering its older hardware and uncertain OS-update future, we decided that the Pixel C is a better premium pick. The Pixel already runs Android Nougat and has guaranteed updates from Google. We recommend the Tab S2 only if you absolutely need a very thin, light tablet and don’t mind Samsung’s older build of Android with TouchWiz.
The Asus ZenPad S 8.0 offers a lot of performance for your dollar: The base model costs less than $200 and has 2 GB of RAM and 32 GB of storage; for $300 you get 4 GB of RAM and 64 GB of storage. However, the ZenPad S 8.0 didn’t get an update to Android 6.0 Marshmallow until after Google released Android 7.0, and the Marshmallow update has to be installed manually, so we’re not optimistic about this tablet’s prospects for further OS updates.
The LG G Pad 7.0 has a 7-inch screen but only 1 GB of RAM and 8 GB of storage. The screen resolution is only 1280×800, so it’s not nearly as clear as the screens of other recent tablets. It does have a miniSD card for expansion, but the G Pad 7.0 is strictly a budget tablet, and it’s over two years old, so it probably won’t see another OS update.