In the world of handheld consumer products there’s no doubt that the early to mid-2010s were the age of the tablet. With the first mast produced consumer tablet computer, the iPad, released in 2010, the once dominant iPad is no longer a sole champion in this highly competitive field. Each major consumer tech company has brought out its big guns at trade conventions, delivering keynote speeches and doing product demonstrations to convince us theirs is the best tablet out.
In this article I’ve listed the top tablets of 2015 and I’ll go into depth regarding what each one has to offer. If there’s anything I learned while embarking on this journey into tablet computers, it’s that there is no straight answer as to which tablet is objectively better than others, so to speak. Each company designs its products with certain objectives in mind given their respective restraints such as space, battery life, chip power, trends, and the ever present need to make your product quicker, thinner, faster, and more powerful than your competitors.
Also, not every company aims to attract the same audience either. Essentially what I’m getting at is that when deciding which tablet to buy don’t focus exclusively on which one has the better megapixels, more RAM, looks the best, is the cheapest, etc. Rather, a better strategy would be to first list out your needs relative to your own specific situation, and from there look for a tablet that best suits those needs.
iPad Air 2
The iPad Air 2 is the sixth generation of Apple’s flagship market defining iPad tablet series. It is the second generation iPad Air of course, it was released on October 22nd, 2014 with the clever slogan “Change is in the Air”. Apple fulfills the promise of its slogan by creating a device that is thinner and faster than its predecessor the iPad Air all while keeping the height and screen dimensions identical. If you saw the keynote for the iPad Air you’ll definitely recall how it was so thin that they were able to hide it behind a pencil, in dramatic fashion during the unveiling of the iPad Air 2 Apple CEO Time Cook shows a video where a pencil is practically sliced in half vertically and an iPad Air 2 is hidden behind the pencil. This just shows you how incredibly thin this tablet is.
The iPad is a unique case of barebones minimalism in terms of design, but just jam packed with groundbreaking technology on the inside. The iPad was built on this model and it’s why the iPad has been incredibly successful for Apple, in fact, they’ve sold more iPads in the first four years of its release that any other product in Apple history. What was once thought to be a fringe item, the iPad has sold more units in 2014 than the total amount of products sold by Lenovo, HP, Dell, and ACER. That’s a lot of iPads.
In terms of customer satisfaction the iPad has consistently been rated #1 with 100% customer satisfaction according to sources at Apple. The driving force behind what makes the iPad so great is the A8X chip created specifically for the iPad, it’s the iPad’s version of the A8 chip released for the iPhone 6 and 6+. This chip has 3 billion transistors, triple the amount found in the iPad 1. It is 180 times faster than the original iPad Air. With the A8X chip the iPad Air 2 can render console level graphics with ease. Another reason for this stellar performance is that the iPad Air 2 is the first device with over 1 GB of RAM.
In terms of camera features and inputs/ outputs the M8 coprocessor that has been built into the iPad Air 2 allows for stunning 43 megapixel panoramas, burst mode to capture action shots, time lapse mode, slow motion camera, dual microphones, and a new facetime camera that lets in 80 percent more light for improved face detection, burst selfies, and HDR resolution. These features are all exclusive to the iPad Air 2 and will not be available in earlier generations. Also, in terms of connectivity, the iPad Air 2 has Wi-Fi that is 2.8 times faster than before, and faster LTE, up to 150 bands of LTE.
When going through the specs and the features for the iPad Air 2 the question is always raised “how did they fit all of that into this ultra-thin device?” The iPad Air 2 is 6.1mm thin, 18% thinner than the iPad Air which is itself 20% thinner than the iPad before it. The trick is, the display has always been made of an LCD, a touch layer, glass and a micro thin layer of air between each of those layers. Noticing this issue, Apple came up with the ingenious idea to merge all of these layers into one seamless design, thus eliminating the thin layers of air and thus making the iPad Air 2 considerably thinner. Not only did this make the iPad Air 2 thinner, it also had the added benefit of reducing internal reflection and making images so sharp it feels like you’re touching the graphics directly. Afterwards, they added an anti-reflective coating to the glass, the first time that’s ever been done on a tablet, this reducing the reflectivity by 56% and making the iPad Air 2 the tablet with the lowest reflectivity.
Just as important as the hardware is the software and with the iTunes App Store you’re never going to have to worry about not finding the right app. Besides the millions of apps already on the App Store the iPad has 675,000 apps created exclusively for its platform taking advantage of its large screen and superior power.
The iPad is designed with everyone in mind. Apple wants kids to clamor over its products for the educational tools and video games, just as much as it wants adults to use it for productivity and work related projects. Because of this, Apple didn’t focus on just one thing but they wanted everything to be good enough for any type of activity. Also, and perhaps more importantly is the fact that the iPad was designed to be a standalone product that would be just as effective with or without accessories, so if you don’t like having to lug around extra items then this may be the tablet for you.
Surface Pro 4
Designed, developed and produced by Microsoft, the Surface Pro 4 is the fourth generation Surface tablet that was released October 26th, 2015. If you’re more comfortable with Microsoft products and/or you would like greater synchronization between your other Windows devices than the Surface Pro 4 will be perfect for you. The main conceptual difference between the Surface Pro 4 and the iPad series is that the Surface Pro is designed with accessories in mind, whereas the iPad is really designed to be a standalone product. Without the accessories you’re really not going to unleash the full capabilities of the Surface Pro 4.
The Surface pro 4 isn’t the thinnest tablet but it is a powerhouse of performance and portability. 98% of people using the Surface Pro 4 would recommend it to a friend, according to Windows sources. When conceptualizing their tablet, Microsoft had the ambitious goal of creating a tablet that could replace your laptop or desktop computer. That’s why they included a whopping 1 TB of flash storage and 16 GB of RAM in the Surface Pro 4, now that’s impressive. To keep all of these powerful components from overheating, Microsoft created a unique ventilation and cooling system specifically for the Surface Pro 4 known as the “Hybrid Liquid Cooling System”. This new cooling system includes heat pipes with flowing liquid to ease the burden on the internal cooling fan.
The screen is equally as impressive with 5 million pixels crammed inside its 12.3 inch display, that’s 227 ppi. This time around Microsoft put the LCD gates into the back panel to make the Surface Pro 4 thinner.
As a 2 piece tablet the keyboard is perhaps just as important for the entire experience as any other accessory. The “type cover” as it’s known is the thinnest one yet and this time the buttons are more prominent and easier to type on, also the trackpad is 40% larger than before. The second most important accessory is the pen stylus. The stylus comes in several different colors and so does the type cover. The stylus also comes in several different tip sizes so you can write in fine or broad strokes. The stylus does utilize a battery but with average use the battery should last you up to a year. I would’ve rather preferred a stylus that didn’t require a battery but this is the next best option I suppose.
Microsoft knew just how important the stylus is for users since roughly 50% of people rely on it so they included it, along with the type cover, in the box with the Surface Pro 4. The stylus is great for drawing, writing, note taking, and even for other actions that would traditionally be solely touch based the stylus can be used for improved precision and accuracy. Microsoft kept forgetful users in mind by making it so the stylus can be magnetically attached to the Surface Pro 4. In a real world environment like the bottom of a book bag or a suitcase pocket, it’s unlikely the magnetic force of the Surface Pro 4 will keep the stylus attached but if you’re primarily keeping it on your desk than it shouldn’t be an issue.
Fear not if you are upgrading to the Surface Pro 4 from an older generation Surface tablet as all of the new accessories created for the Surface Pro 4 are compatible with previous generations. The Surface Pro works great with Windows 8 and Windows 10 as well as all of the Microsoft programs that you would find on your desktop. If you’re a fan of OneNote you’ll love the new features created for the Surface Pro that take advantage of the precision stylus and the powerful chip on the Surface Pro.
With the Nexus 9 you’re not really getting much more than its predecessor, it seems like HTC really played it safe with this one rather than experimenting and pushing boundaries which is usually what they’re known for. The Nexus 9 is a 9 inch tablet running Google stock Android Lollipop.
Much like the iPad we’re working with a 4:3 aspect ratio, the soft touch on the back and the metal sides make for a good looking tablet that is highly reminiscent of the Nexus 7. The flat sides and the shape of the device make for interchangeable one or two handed use. The back of the Nexus 9 is very similar to the design of the phone, the camera protrudes slightly but the Nexus still lays flat on its back rather than tilting. The original Nexus had a design flaw with the buttons on the side of the device, these are used for locking the Nexus and adjusting the volume. The buttons were too flat and mushy, without looking at the screen it’s hard to tell if you’ve even pressed the button or not as there is no clicking sound. Luckily HTC noticed this issue early on and the Nexus 9 2.0 corrects this error. Otherwise the hardware looks good, the Nexus 9 has a sturdy composition and it feels good in the hand.
The display is 2048 x 1536 resolution with average sized bezels, this makes it slightly larger than the Nexus 7 or the iPad mini. The Resolution is sharp with over 280 ppi, there is very little color shifting, the image is saturated well and the screen looks great across multiple viewing angles. One minor error that you will notice in dark room situations is that there is a little bit of light leakage from the back of the device that will illuminate the edges, a trait usually seen in cheaper models. Like I said this is only noticeable in conditions where the room is very dark and the only light source is the Nexus 9, otherwise the screen is great.
One of the best features HTC added were the dual front facing speakers. These speakers have better sound than the iPad and Nexus 7, you can even hear them clearly from across the room. Considering no one listens to their tablet by flipping it over, or facing the bottom, besides hardware issues I can’t seem to cite another reason why all tablet makers don’t put speakers on the front of the device.
The 8MP camera on the back of the Nexus isn’t good for anything unless your smartphone is out of juice and there are no other decent cameras lying around. It takes fairly good pictures in bright conditions but even in barely low light conditions there’s a lot of grain and static in the photo.
The software experience is very smooth on the Nexus 9s 64 bit chip by Nvidia as well as its 2 GB of RAM. Unfortunately, rather than develop a custom experience for their tablet it the software on the Nexus does feel like a mobile experience but blown up, it would be great to see developers take advantage of the medium.
Galaxy Tab S2
The Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 was announced earlier this year and released on September 2015. It is available in several different variants but they all run on Android Lollipop 5.0.2. with a 1.9GHz quad core Cortex A57 chip, 3 GB of RAM, 32 or 64 GB of flash memory, and in an 8in or 9.7 inch display size.
The Galaxy Tab S2 has a super AMOLE display with LCD which Samsung says it delivers 94% more RGB. To make the screen look as good as can be use Adaptive Display mode or Reading Mode based on your activity. As opposed to previous versions the Galaxy Tab S2 has a 4:3 aspect ratio not the widescreen 16:9, thus making it more in line with other top tablets. Appearance wise it looks a lot like the Galaxy Note 4 since both of them have a metal frame around the edges and a plastic back, the S2 feels great and has a sturdy construction. There’s an ambient light sensor on the top, backlit navigation buttons on the bottom next to the home screen.
In regards to connectivity there’s WiFi, Bluetooth 4.1, and optional 4G LTE with some models. There’s also a fingerprint sensor to match the one on the Galaxy S6, replacing the swipe requirement to make signing into your device, and keeping it secure, a much less physically demanding task. The more time you spend trying to unlock your device, the less time you get to actually use it.
As with most tablets the cameras aren’t great but at least they’re there for desperate situations. The front camera is 2.1 MP and the rear facing camera is 8 MP. Pictures are grainy, the shutter speed is on the slow side, but it’s a tablet, what do you expect. If you insist on taking pictures with this at least you have some cool options to choose from like Panorama, Virtual Shot, Dual Camera, and HDR.
With the Galaxy Tab you have all of the great app options of the Google Play Store but you also have the added bonus of some Microsoft Office Apps like Excel, Word, and PowerPoint already preinstalled on the Galaxy Tab S2 as well as 100 GB of free OneDrive cloud storage for two years. Samsung also included some of its own features like Pop Up and Smart Manager.
Amazon Fire HDX 8.9
Starting with design it’s practically identical to its predecessor, every facet of the Fire HDX is made of plastic, it’s a very modest look with a glossy top, not the most fashionable tablet but it gets the job done. The display is the same as before, a 2560×160 display. The picture is very sharp and detailed and some subtle changes have been made to improve the overall quality of the image, such as enhanced color reproduction.
Amazon’s FireOS comes preinstalled, this OS is based on Android 4.4 KitKat and it has the same functionality. This tablet adheres to all things Amazon if you love Amazon and all of their products then you’re going to love the Amazon Fire HDX. Everything from shopping on Amazon.com to streaming music via their music player, watching movies, buying music, or using the Amazon apps, this device has it all. Conversely if you’re not really into the Amazon world then this device isn’t really going to be for you. Amazon is far behind its competitors in terms of having a robust App Store but they do have a lot of the major apps that you will find on the iTunes App Store and the Google Play Store.
The 2.5 GHz QUALCOMM chip and the 2 GB of RAM perform fairly well, web loads quickly and the controls are very responsive. The Fire HDX is great for reading books and magazines, as well as watching movies because of the hi resolution iridescent screen that really grabs your attention. The speakers on the Fire HDX are deplorable but the listening experience once you plug in your headphones is phenomenal. Amazon partnered with audio experts to deliver stunning surround sound for customers who were listening to content on their device via speakers or headphones.
The Camera is again 8mp but at least this tablet has an LED light flash. Video is pretty good at 1080p but not great, softer tones don’t get captured as well. Battery life on this version of the Fire HDX is better than before at 9.5 hours of continuous use that translates to a day and a half of regular use.