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The best tablets for 2018: Our top picks

Tablet sales may be declining, but there are still plenty of viable use cases and many models to choose from. Here's our pick of the best.

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Image: ipopba, Getty Images/iStockphoto

For many people, the tablet era began in 2010 with the launch of the original 9.7-inch iPad. But tablet devices have a much longer history than that. For example, I recall seeing Bill Gates show off the first prototype Windows tablet at Comdex in Las Vegas a decade before Steve Jobs took to a San Francisco stage to declare the first-generation iPad "our most advanced technology in a magical and revolutionary device at an unbelievable price".

Still, it was undoubtedly the iPad that gave a massive boost to the tablet market, which appears to have peaked in 2014:

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Image: Statista / Data: IDC

Why the subsequent decline? One clue may be found back in 2003, when Steve Jobs, quizzed about whether Apple would enter the tablet market, had this to say: "We have no plans to make a tablet. It turns out people want keyboards". Sure enough, according to IDC's latest estimates, 'slate' tablets (with no keyboard) will exhibit -6.2 percent growth (CAGR) between 2017 and 2022 compared +9.6 percent for tablets with detachable keyboards:

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Image: IDC

As our list of top tablets shows (see below), few devices these days lack a keyboard option, and unless your use case overwhelmingly involves content consumption rather than content creation or editing, you're likely to want to use one at some point. (If your tablet vendor doesn't offer a keyboard, there are plenty of third-party Bluetooth offerings.) However, the more content creation you do, the more likely you are to favour a notebook PC of some sort over a tablet-first device.

Other factors implicated in slowing tablet sales include a more sedate pace of innovation compared to smartphones, for example, leading to slower product refresh rates. The gradual increase in smartphone screen size, and the advent of convertible 2-in-1 laptops, may also have squeezed tablets out of many buying decisions.

None of this means that the tablet is heading for extinction. However, as product designers and manufacturers explore different combinations of functionality and form factor, tablets are definitely settling into less populous niches.

SEE: 20 pro tips to make Windows 10 work the way you want (free PDF)

What are those niches? We've mentioned content consumption, for example by 'sofa surfers' at home, who will also use their tablets for online shopping (this is basically the business model for Amazon's affordable range of Fire tablets). Mobile knowledge workers who do a mixture of content consumption and light content creation/editing on the road may go for a bigger-screen tablet, probably with an attachable keyboard, while creative types will appreciate the (usually optional) stylus available on some devices. Tablets are also a natural fit for vertical markets, including education, healthcare, travel, retail, banking and finance, and more -- for an idea of the scope for tablets in business, see IBM's extensive list of enterprise iOS apps.

Use cases requiring rugged tablets -- industrial, construction and military, for example -- are served by specialist vendors such as Panasonic, Getac and Xplore.

Here's ZDNet's current list of the best slate tablets and 'tablet-first' detachables on the market. Operating systems represented are iOS, Android and Windows -- no Chrome OS tablets made it onto the list at this time, although we expect that to change before too long.

Product Screen size (inches) Weight (g) Stylus Keyboard OS
Apple iPad Pro 10.5
US / UK / AU
10.5 469 (477+LTE) Apple Pencil Smart Keyboard iOS
Samsung Galaxy Tab S3
US / UK / AU
9.7 429 (434+LTE) S Pen Tab S3 Keyboard Cover Android
Apple iPad 9.7 (2018)
US / UK / AU
9.7 469 (478+LTE) Apple Pencil

Smart Keyboard

iOS
Microsoft Surface Pro 2017
US / UK / AU
12.3 770-784 Surface Pen Type Cover Windows 10
Apple iPad mini 4
US / UK / AU
7.9 299 (304+LTE) no 3rd party iOS
Apple iPad Pro 12.9
US / UK / AU
12.9 677 (692+LTE) Apple Pencil Smart Keyboard iOS
Huawei MediaPad M5 8.4
US / UK
8.4 316 no optional Android
Samsung Galaxy Book
US / UK / AU
12 754 S Pen included Windows 10
Amazon Fire HD 8
US / UK / AU
8 369 no

3rd party

Fire OS
Huawei MediaPad M5 10.8
US / UK
10.8 498 M-Pen (Pro model) optional Android
Amazon Fire HD 10
US / UK / AU
10.1 500 no

Fire HD 10 Keyboard Case

Fire OS
ASUS ZenPad 3S 10
US / UK
9.7 466 Z Stylus

3rd party

Android
Microsoft Surface Pro 4
US / UK / AU
12.3 766-786 Surface Pen Type Cover Windows 10
Amazon Fire 7
US / UK / AU
7 295 no

3rd party

Fire OS

Outlook

Outside of the above list, there are plenty of interesting developments in the slate/detachable tablet space. Microsoft recently launched the Surface Go, which targets the affordable end of the detachable space: a 10-inch Windows 10 device, the Surface Go starts at $399 -- to which you'll need to add another $100 for a Type Cover keyboard and $100 more for a Surface Pen, if required. Market leader Apple is expected to launch a new generation of iPad Pros later this year, while second-placed Samsung has just unveiled a new flagship Android tablet, the Galaxy Tab S4. Chrome OS may make strides this year following the launch of Acer's education-focused Chromebook Tab 10 and HP's detachable Chromebook x2. We may also see more interest in Microsoft's Arm-based Always Connected PCs -- especially as the Windows on Arm platform matures and devices based on Qualcomm's Snapdragon 850 chipset reach the market.

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