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A few years ago, it was easy to scoff at the idea of using tablets for productivity. The hardware was too weak, and the software was too limited, so turning a tablet into a work device made sense only for a few fringe users.
But things have changed since Apple released the first iPad in 2010. Processing power and memory have improved to allow for heavier workloads, and tablet software has grown more sophisticated, with better ways to switch between apps and more productivity apps to choose from. (Microsoft has even released Office for iPad, if that’s a hard requirement for your work.) Meanwhile, 2-in-1 Windows devices are blurring the line between tablets and laptops, so you can have a slim and portable device that doesn’t make you let go of your old workflow.
While it’s a lot easier now to use tablets for productivity, some are still better for work than others. Here are six tablets that are best-equipped for the job.
Apple iPad Air
Let’s get the PC diehards’ gripes out of the way: There’s no windowing system, no persistent taskbar for quick app-switching, no file manager, no USB ports, and no mouse or keyboard trackpad support. In other words, it’s not even remotely like a traditional computer.
That’s the point. The iPad Air’s simplicity turns it into a blank canvas for all kinds of productive tasks, whether it’s writing your thoughts in a minimalist text editor, editing movies, or re-touching photos. The best part of iOS is that it gets out of the way and lets you concentrate on what you’re doing. Even if you’re sticking to your laptop, there are plenty of ways to use the iPad as an additional tool.
One other thing: The iPad’s ecosystem is unparalleled, not just for apps, but for accessories such as keyboards, styluses, and music recording tools. The trick is to figure out how to bring the iPad into your work routine. Once you do that, it’s a tough tablet to beat.
Microsoft Surface Pro 3
Microsoft’s latest tablet sits on the opposite end of the spectrum from Apple’s iPad, unashamedly embracing its PC roots. It has a full-size keyboard and a trackpad for precise pointing and selection. The full-size USB slot lets you connect a mouse, an external hard drive or a printer, and there’s a pressure-sensitive stylus thrown in for good measure.
And of course, it runs full-blown Windows 8.1, with all the things you’d expect from a work laptop, including a file browser, a taskbar, and desktop programs. If you’re used to working in Windows, the Surface Pro 3 doesn’t require any change in workflow. And at 2.4 pounds with the Type Cover attached, it’s lighter than most laptops of similar size.
But is it any good as a tablet? It’s thicker and heavier than most, though the built-in kickstand helps compensate by letting you prop up the screen. The Windows Store has fewer tablet-optimized apps than its iOS and Android counterparts, but you can use the Web and desktop programs as crutches. You’ll need to keep your needs and expectations in check, but the Surface Pro 3 is the best choice if you want your laptop to act like a tablet sometimes.
Samsung Galaxy Note Pro
If you find an iPad too simple, but don’t all want the baggage of Windows, Samsung’s Galaxy Note Pro splits the difference. This extra-large tablet has a 12.2-inch display that allows for a full-size Bluetooth keyboard (both Logitech and Zagg make them specifically for the Note Pro), and it also includes a stylus for drawing and sketching.
On the software side, Samsung puts that big screen to good use by letting you run up to four apps on-screen at the same time. You can also run certain apps, such as a notepad and calculator, in pop-up windows. Between the multitasking and the file browser built into Android, you’ve at least got some of the accommodations of a proper PC.
But even here, there are limitations. Android has neither the extensive app selection of iOS nor the desktop programs of Windows, and Samsung’s split-screen feature works only with a handful of apps. You’ll likely have a better tablet experience on the Note Pro compared to any Windows device, but don’t expect the Note Pro to do everything your laptop can.
Lenovo ThinkPad 10
Think of Lenovo’s ThinkPad 10 as a “Surface Lite.” It has a smaller screen than Microsoft’s tablet, and a weaker Intel Atom processor, but it runs the same Pro version of Windows 8.1 and still has a full-size USB port, optional keyboard and optional desktop dock. It’s also a bit cheaper, at $829 with 4GB of RAM and 128GB of storage, and the tablet alone is about 0.4 pounds lighter.
Lenovo only falters on the little things. The ThinkPad 10 lacks the integrated kickstand you get with the Surface Pro 3, and the optional keyboard and trackpad stand has only one angle that leans too far back for tabletop use. So while it’s a fine option for a portable, business-centric Windows tablet, it’s not quite the laptop replacement that Microsoft’s tablet manages to be.
Asus VivoTab Note 8
On paper, Asus’ VivoTab Note 8 is the weakest on this list, with an Intel Atom processor, 2GB of RAM and an 8-inch, 1280×800-pixel display. It’s also somewhat chunky for a small Windows tablet, and it has an awkwardly placed Start button on the side of the device.
But what it lacks in tech specs, the VivoTab Note 8 makes up for with value. It’s currently on sale at the Microsoft Store for $249, with a free copy of Microsoft Office. It also includes a small active stylus with a built-in holster. As a quick and dirty way to throw Office, OneNote, and other essential Windows apps into your coat pocket, it works.
Dell Venue Pro 11 7237 (Security)
The security edition of Dell’s very powerful, super-secure Venue 11 Pro is a late arrival to this list (which is why it’s not mentioned in the accompanying video). It’s an expensive tablet at $1081, but it features an Intel Core i5 processor with Intel’s vPro technology, TPM (Trusted Platform Module) support, and a smart-card reader for enhanced hardwired security and remote management.
Those features will appeal to customers at the enterprise level, naturally, but businesses at any level will appreciate this Windows tablet’s speed and its fingerprint scanner. Dell offers a comprehensive collection of accessories: two types of keyboards, and a dock for converting the tablet into an all-in-one PC that can support a second display.
Yes you can!
Whether you use it as your primary mobile device or an adjunct to a full-blown laptop, the right tablet can help you be more productive—especially when you need to travel light.
Correction: An unintentional error introduced during editing resulted in this story reporting that the iPad Air does not support keyboards. The story has been corrected to report that the iPad Air does not support keyboards with trackpads.
Jared Newman has been helping folks make sense of technology for over a decade, writing for PCWorld, TechHive, and elsewhere. He also publishes two newsletters, Advisorator for straightforward tech advice and Cord Cutter Weekly for saving money on TV service.