Of course, just like the iPad line, with its range of sizes, computing power, and prices, there’s no single Windows tablet that fits everyone’s needs. As you begin shopping, you’ll note that they fall into a few different categories.
First are the inexpensive models with 10-inch screens, designed to let you browse the Web and enjoy streaming a movie from Netflix or Amazon Prime. Because these budget-friendly devices usually rely on low-power processors and minimal storage, you’re better off getting one as a second or third device to serve alongside your laptop or smartphone. In other words, these aren’t the full-powered Windows devices that you could rely on to replace a conventional laptop PC.
Then there are larger 12-inch and 13-inch models designed to work in tandem with an included or optional stylus and docking keyboard. These give you a better way to take notes in class or type up an email or a term paper, and generally provide a well-rounded Windows experience. The best example of these is the iconic Microsoft Surface Pro.
Finally, there are premium and business systems, designed as productivity tools rather than media consumption devices. Dell and Lenovo have dabbled in these, in their Latitude and ThinkPad lines, respectively, and Microsoft’s Surface Pros also qualify in this space.
Windows Tablet Processors: Parsing Low-Power CPUs
With Windows tablets running the gamut from low-power entertainment devices to potent tools for productivity, how do you know which one to buy if you plan to use your device for both types of tasks? As with conventional laptops, a lot comes down to the processor.
Intel’s Celeron and Pentium processors include several chips built for low power usage and passive cooling. These are two necessary attributes for tablets, since they house nearly all of their components behind the screen, which itself generates heat. They don’t require built-in cooling fans, and they offer usable performance that lasts for several hours on a single charge, or even a day or two of light use without visiting a power outlet. Low-power processors like these have limits, though, which make them best suited for inexpensive tablets. They lack the processing oomph you might want for applications like Photoshop, but they are ideal if you want to check Facebook and Twitter, then kick back with some YouTube videos or an episode of a Netflix show.
At the other end of the tablet-CPU spectrum are Intel Core i3, i5, and i7 processors that are also used to power full-fledged laptops. While these CPUs draw more power and require more cooling hardware, they offer a much higher level of capability, letting you get real work done. Tablets equipped with these processors are priced more like laptops (usually above $1,000), but you get performance to match the increased cost.
More and more Windows tablets are ditching Intel chips in favor of ARM-based alternatives from companies like Qualcomm and MediaTek. They include the earlier Microsoft Surface Pro X and late-2022 Surface Pro 9 (SQ3), tablets with Qualcomm Snapdragon processors. We haven’t seen any recent tablets that use processors from AMD.
Windows Tablet Security and Connectivity
Once you’ve determined which processor will fit your usage pattern, it’s time to move on to the features that make handheld PCs far more flexible than conventional laptops. Sensors previously seen in smartphones bring new ways to interact with your PC, with accelerometers, gyroscopes, and e-compasses providing positional awareness for both automatic screen rotation and new immersive applications.
There’s even a Windows tablet version of FaceID, the feature that lets you unlock your Apple iPhone or iPad Pro simply by looking at it. Called Windows Hello, it’s also available on laptops and desktops, but it’s most useful on tablets that don’t have a keyboard handy to enter a complex, secure password.
And let’s not forget touch screens. With capacitive screens that track five or 10 fingertips at a time, you can pinch, swipe, and tap your way through any task, even those that would have required a keyboard and mouse only a couple of years ago. Many tablets also come with optional digital pens. Some are housed in “garages,” tiny holes in the tablet itself that secure the stylus and charge its battery. Others must be carried separately or attached via magnets to one of the tablet’s edges.
Then there’s the question of connectivity. With eminently portable designs, it’s only natural that some shoppers will want tablets that feature the same sort of mobile data that they enjoy on their smartphones. A few Windows tablets on the market have 5G and LTE connectivity, and can be added on to your mobile phone plan.
Don’t Overlook the Convertible Hybrid
Finally, what if you simply can’t live without a real keyboard, but don’t want the hassle of carrying a separate one around? Some convertible laptops have keyboards that fold around the back, so you can use them as traditional clamshell laptops, as tablets, or at any position in between. We’ve only included detachable Windows tablets here; to learn more about screen-rotating convertibles, read our roundup of the best 2-in-1 laptops.
The switch from a laptop to a tablet doesn’t come without issues, though. The thin confines of a tablet make worries about heat buildup all the more important—especially when that heat is literally in hand. Touch screens add a new opportunity for frustration when taps and touches won’t register properly, and the opportunities offered by docks and accessories also open up the chance to lose a valuable part of your PC while out and about. (Say what you will about tablets, but you’ll never misplace your keyboard while using a conventional laptop.)
So, Which Windows Tablet Should I Buy?
We’ve waded through the current tablet offerings, and tested and compared dozens of tablet PCs to discover what works and what doesn’t. Below are our top picks for Windows tablets. If you’re not married to Windows, read our report on the best tablets overall, as well as our roundup of the best Android-based models.