Currently, tablet computers are available with three main operating systems – iPad OS, Android, and Windows. The first consideration a student needs to make is whether their course choice requires the use of specific software that is limited to a particular operating system – for example certain medical courses will require Windows software which somewhat limits choice. For those students that plan to have multiple devices, such as a laptop and a tablet, this is not so much of a concern. A second consideration is portability – many high-end tablets are large and cumbersome, and while they may be useful for artwork or multitasking, they may not be the best choice for basic note-taking or for recording lectures. Many of the options that will be discussed offer the ability to attach external peripherals such as keyboards and mice, which makes them more suited for writing assignments or as a full laptop replacement.
When it comes to entertainment, even the most basic and low cost devices offer compatibility with a range of streaming services and are able to play games, make video calls, or use social media and the internet – the only considerations are screen size, resolution and battery life.
Depending on intended usage, other considerations include available storage or storage expandability (some graphics software requires huge amounts of storage for images and files), the range of connectivity options (All have Wi-Fi and Bluetooth but some also offer LTE using a SIM card for full on the go internet connectivity), design (size, weight, style), and of-course cost.
Best tablet for students
Best iPad OS Device – iPad Air 2020
- Stunning 10.9-inch Liquid Retina display with True Tone and P3 wide colour
- A14 Bionic chip with Neural Engine
- Touch ID for secure authentication
- 12MP back camera, 7MP FaceTime HD front camera
- Available in Silver, Space Grey, Rose Gold, Green and Sky Blue
The new iPad Air 2020 is available in a range of configurations and colours from a basic Wi-Fi only 64GB version to a Wi-Fi and Cellular 256GB model. It is a sleek device made of metal and glass with a large 10.9” screen with an excellent resolution, brightness and contrast. The new A14 Bionic chip from Apple is the fastest for an iPad to date, and currently this model even outperforms the iPad Pro versions which are available at significantly higher cost. Apple have finally changed their charging port from the lightning port to the standard USB-C, making it compatible with more chargers and other accessories than before.
For security, there is a touch-ID enabled power button (fingerprint sensor) which is very fast to react for easy login and for online payments. There is a front 7-megapixel camera for Facetime and other video conferencing applications, and a rear mounted 12-megapixel camera. This model lacks the four-speaker setup offered by the Pro models; however, the sound output is still excellent with good clarity and volume. Unfortunately, this device does not have a 3.5mm headphone socket so you are basically limited to using Bluetooth headphones if private listening is your thing.
A vast range of cases, keyboards and other accessories are available, both from Apple and other low-cost manufacturers making this device fully customisable with probably more options than any other device. One of the optional extras that may be essential for students is the Apple Pencil which is excellent both for notetaking and artwork, however this a costly option and some other models include a touch pen for free.
As with all Apple devices, the interface is streamlined and battery life consistent at around 10 hours. One of the most important considerations with any tablet is the range and quality of the available applications. This is one area where Apple devices have the edge over the competition – the app store has more applications than any other. Not only is there a greater range of applications, but most of them are also better optimised for use on a large screen. When used on a large screen tablet, most android applications look like stretched out phone apps and there are very few that are optimised for a bigger screen.
User reviews of the iPad Air 2020 are overwhelmingly positive. Some users have bemoaned the lack of a 3.5mm headphone jack and the need to either buy an adaptor or use wireless sets, however this has been standard in recent years with many manufacturers.
Best Android Device – Samsung Galaxy Tab S7 / S7+
- Stunning display immerse yourself in work and play with the 11” Galaxy Tab S7 4G Tablet thanks to the superfast refresh rate which creates an ultra-smooth viewing experience
- Productivity from creating amazing works of art, to annotating the latest project proposal for work, Galaxy Tab S7 4G Tablet, equipped with the redesigned S Pen, help you do it all
- PC-like experience Galaxy Tab S7 4G is your powerful new go-to Tablet, whether you’re working from home or on the go Activate the Samsung DeX mode and add the Book Cover Keyboard*, and you’re ready to power through your work *Book Cover Keyboard sold separately
- Next-level sound Dolby Atmos sound and quad speakers tuned by AKG take the Galaxy Tab S7 4G audio experience to the next level
- Connected, wherever you are from streaming shows to crafting presentations, take it on the go and get stuck in wherever you are with Galaxy Tab S7 4G Tablet LTE requires nano SIM connectivity Nano SIM sold separately Actual network speed may vary based on distance and network quality
These two models are technically virtually identical with the only major difference being the screen size and technology which is 10.9” on the S7 and 12.4” on the S7+. The smaller model uses an LCD panel whereas the larger opts for an AMOLED display, which is marginally better. The main decision here is portability – the larger model is somewhat cumbersome. Both displays are excellent with high resolutions comparable to the iPad range.
The chassis is made of aluminium which is a matte finish and what Samsung calls “Mystic” and these units are available in a range of colours. These are well made tablets with a premium feel that are exceptionally thin. One of the main advantages of these units is the long battery life. The S7 version can run a video-loop playback test for around 14 hours which is almost fifty percent faster than the Apple iPad Air.
Both devices feature the fastest Snapdragon processor available in any tablet. This offers a slick experience with minimal lag in any conditions and is more than up to the job. Both display sizes have a 120hz mode which makes scrolling through websites and data a far smoother experience than displays with only a 60hz mode. Various storage capacities are available from 128GB to 512GB. The 128GB models have 6GB or RAM and the others have 8GB. All versions have Bluetooth 5.0, Wi-Fi and GPS, and there are versions available with both LTE and 5G at additional cost. Unlike the Apple offerings, storage is expandable via Micro SD card up to 1TB. These units have four speakers tuned by AKG and Dolby Atmos. Sound quality is very good as are volume levels which are more than adequate when viewing videos.
These devices are excellent for notetaking and are both equipped with touch pens that are included in the price. The performance is similar to that experienced with the Apple pencil and they can be attached magnetically to the rear of the device. Optional keyboard cases are available from Samsung, although they are quite expensive. These tablets have an innovative feature known as DEX mode which transforms the device user interface into something that is similar to a laptop. External displays can be attached, and this is an excellent feature for productivity, although support at present is limited and not all applications work in this mode.
The main limitation with these devices is not due to the hardware but the Android operating system which lacks applications that run well on large screens. The Android tablet market has been somewhat subdued in recent years and developers have been reluctant to port their software to the larger form factor screens with the result that some apps look like phone apps that have been stretched.
Users report that these units are well made, fast and have excellent displays. Some have commented on the lack of decent applications. These are recent devices so there is limited feedback on reliability at present.
Best Windows Device – Microsoft Surface Pro 7
- FREE Upgrade to Windows 11 - The Windows 11 upgrade will be delivered to qualifying devices late 2021 into 2022. Timing varies by device. Certain features require additional hardware - more information found on Microsoft Windows store.
- Next-gen laptop with the versatility of a studio and tablet, so you can type, touch, draw, write, work and play more naturally
- More ways to connect, with both USB-C and USB-A ports for connecting to displays, docking stations and more, as well as accessory charging
- Choose from two colours Platinum or matte black and pair with a signature type Cover, surface Arc Mouse and surface Pen (accessories sold separately)
- Other features: Windows 10 Home. High-resolution PixelSense Display with touchscreen and fast, secured, password-free sign-in with facial recognition and Windows Hello
Available in a range of configurations including Intel i3 / i5 and i7 processors and a variant with AMD Ryzen R7 the Surface Pro 7 is a 12” device running Windows 10 Home. This means it is compatible with most business software and for certain students that need to run specialist software this may be the only choice unless they have an additional device. Windows software typically takes up more storage space than apps so the basic 128GB versions are probably best avoided for those that intend to do a lot of creative work, although a storage card can be added if required. Some of the processor options and those units with only 4GB RAM may be a bit slow in everyday use so its best to opt for versions with higher specifications if your budget will allow. This device is significantly heavier than the other tablets featured in this comparison.
The PixelSense display is bright and has a responsive touchscreen. Both front and rear basic cameras are present but with fairly low resolutions which are adequate for videoconferencing and occasional snaps. The speaker configuration is basic and not in the same class as the iPad Air or the Samsung Galaxy S7 models. Battery life is quoted at 10.5 hours; however, this is very dependant on use and users report that in practise it is significantly lower.
Available in platinum or black colour schemes this is a well made and slim device that, in contrast to the other devices in this review, has additional ports other than the one used for charging (USB-C, USB-A) which means that devices such as external displays can be connected at the same time as the unit is charging. There is a good range of optional accessories including keyboards, mice, and the Surface Pen, however these are often costly, and none are included unless bought as part of a bundle deal. If, for example, you require a tablet, keyboard, and pen with a model with decent specifications then this will easily be the most expensive of the tablets discussed. One interesting feature is the presence of a kickstand.
Some users have reported that these tablets are prone to crashing (a common windows problem). And that they run very hot. Others have commented that for the specifications these units seem excessively priced when compared to other devices. Some of the optional devices have attracted criticism including the keyboard with users complaining that it has a flimsy trackpad and keys with a very small amount of travel. There are some concerns regarding the durability of these devices with several reports of failures within 12 months and unless a backup is regularly performed this will mean a loss of data as the hard drives are not removeable.
Best Budget Options
There are various Android tablets available at lower cost that will be useful for basic internet browsing and possibly taking voice notes etc, however they usually do not have dedicated pens for direct handwriting input or drawing. Third party stylus type devices are available at a low cost that offer some functionality in this regard, however there will be issues with responsiveness which is an issue especially when things need to be done quickly. If you choose to opt for something at a lower cost the following models are worth a mention;
Amazon Fire HD8
- 8" HD display, twice the storage (32 or 64 GB of internal storage and up to 1 TB with microSD card) + 2 GB RAM.
- Up to 12 hours of reading, browsing the web, watching video and listening to music.
- Now with USB C for easier charging. Fully charges in under 5 hours (with included cable + adaptor).
- 30% faster thanks to the new 2.0 GHz quad-core processor.
- Enjoy your favourite apps like BBC iPlayer, Netflix, Disney+, Now, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube and more through the Amazon Appstore (Google Play Store not supported). Subscription fees may apply.
Incredibly good value for money and offers good features and a reasonable screen. Very light and compact with a range of covers available and with expandable storage. Unfortunately, even though these are Android tablets, they use Amazon’s proprietary operating environment and do not have access to the Play store (although there are ways around this) so applications are limited. This is one to consider only if you have another higher spec device to do serious work on.
Samsung Galaxy Tab S6 Lite
- More freedom in your hands: write, sketch, annotate. The new S Pen puts a world of possibilities at your fingertips
- Your family entertainment hub, to go: a huge 10.4” display, superb AKG sound, Netflix* and YouTube at a touch – that's your family entertainment sorted *Netflix subscription and app download required
- Designed for everywhere: light and compact, it’s the perfect take-anywhere tablet for life on the move
- Keep your home life in sync: connects effortlessly with your home to become your new family hub
- What's in the box: Samsung Galaxy Tab S6 Lite Wi-Fi 64GB Angora Blue, S Pen, USB Type C cable and Ejection pin
Similar to the Samsung Galaxy Tab S7, this device also includes a pen and is available at a lower cost, however most specifications are lower and it is a slightly older device so software support may not be for as long as the newer devices. Battery life is not quite as good either.
Huawei MediaPad M5 lite
- Display: 10.1 ", 1200 x 1920 pixels
- Processor: Kirin 659 2.36GHz
- Camera: 8 MP
- Battery: 7500 mAh
A fully featured 10” tablet with a full HD screen available in a range of configurations including a top model which offers 4GB RAM and 64GB storage which is also expandable. This unit has slightly wide bezel. Performance is excellent as is the sound quality. Keyboards and other accessories are available, and it is attractively priced.
If you enjoyed this article you might also like to read about Best Drawing Tablets for Beginners