A Parent’s Guide to Tablets – Which One Is Right for My Family?

If you’re looking to pick up a new tablet for the kids this holiday season, you’re not alone. According to the 2015 CEA Holiday Retail Outlook Study, 65% of Americans plan to buy tech gifts this year, totaling nearly $34.2 billion, with tablets, smart phones, and laptops topping the list. It’s no wonder, then, that manufacturers are flooding the market with devices ranging from $100 to several thousand. How do you decide which one is right for your child?

Pre-School and Young Elementary

Easy to hold, easy to use
Kurio XTreme2: Easy to hold, easy to use

For the littlest members of your household, the keyword is protection, both for your child and for the tablet. At this age range, the Kurio XTreme2 is a great little device that offers both. Parents can log in and control every aspect of the tablet from allowed apps, safe web browsing, and time controls that include different settings for play time and learn time, as well as maximum usage in a single session and required pause time in between sessions. This control is also granular down to the user level. Each child can have his own apps, web filtering settings, hours of use, and more. The tablet itself is a rugged 7″ Android device with a custom bumper that protects it from falls as well as provides a sure grip for little hands. Coming in at just over $100, don’t expect too much in the way of processing power or memory, but the 16GB included *is* expandable via Micro SD card, and the quad-core processor is sufficient for all the kids’ apps we tested as well as for watching Netflix and YouTube, so long as you don’t try to do too much all at once. The Kurio XTreme2 comes preloaded with over 60 apps for kids to get started playing and learning right away, including Kurio Motion Games that will help keep your little ones from turning into tiny couch potatoes.

There are other tablets available for this age range, including the popular iPad or various Windows devices to which you can attach protective bumpers, but in my testing, none of the parental controls came close to the ease of the custom interface available on the Xtreme2, and with the exception of the Amazon Fire, they were all more expensive.

Young Elementary to Tweens

At this age, giant bumpers and cheerful interfaces become too “babyish,” and kids start to become more focused on “cool.” Meanwhile, your focus shifts from “protection” to “cheap,” as these tiny humans are just learning responsibility, and you probably aren’t comfortable sending the kid who can’t remember to bring home his lunchbox every day out of the house with $500-$1,000 worth of hardware.

Super cheap, Amazon ecosystem
Kindle Fire HD: Super cheap, Amazon ecosystem

The undisputed king of the sub $100 tablet is the Amazon Kindle Fire and Fire HD. At $50, if you’re looking for the simplest tablet to watch movies, read books, listen to music, or play games, the New Fire is a no-brainer. For $100 you can step up to the Fire HD that includes a faster processor, better (though slightly smaller) display, and more color options. Keep in mind that this incredibly low price comes, well, at a price. Both versions include “Special Offers,” which is the Amazon way of saying they’re subsidizing the cost of the device with advertising. Also, you are tied to Amazon’s infrastructure which means no access to the Google Play store for apps, movies, or music. On the plus side, the Amazon OS has much better parental controls than native Android, and they now have a “Kid Version” that comes with a padded case. When something does go wrong, it’s also nice to have a company with the stellar customer service record of Amazon behind you.

While I feel that the Fire is likely the best choice for an under $50 tablet, if you’re adamant about using a native Android OS, GeekDad Z recently reviewed a sub-$50 RCA tablet that might be a better fit.

Teens (and Adults!)

Once your not-so-little one is responsible enough to use a table without too much fear of damage, and parental controls become less of a concern, your options for tablets open up considerably. This is also the point where you have to begin considering what operating system environment is best suited for your family. While I may feel like the iPad Mini is a great device, if it’s the only Apple device in your household, you’re probably going to find it bothersome to maintain two ecosystems. Speaking of Apple, say what you will about them as a company, and I frequently do, but one thing they’ve done right that the rest of the tech world has finally caught on to is that, for the optimum user experience, you need to control both the operating system and the hardware. Google and Microsoft now have their own flagship hardware, respectively the Nexus and the Surface, that, in my experience, both outperform and offer a better computing experience overall than OEM solutions.

Nexus 9 and iPad Mini: Good, solid mid-range tablets
Nexus 9 and iPad Mini: Good, solid mid-range tablets

At the under $500 range, the two biggest players are the Nexus 9 from Google and the iPad Mini from Apple. I could do a side-by-side comparison, and others have, but the main consideration is the operating system. Each offers advantage over the other in different areas, but in my opinion none of them are major enough to justify stepping into an ecosystem with which you’re not familiar or on which you don’t normally operate. I love my iPad Mini (the earlier version), but I would never attempt to use any of the native services when my whole family is firmly founded on Google Photos, Drive, Gmail, etc. That said, I do have Hangouts, Gmail, Drive, and Sheets all installed on my iPad, so there’s no requirement to use the Apple ecosystem, but in general, you’re going to enjoy a better experience with Google apps on an actual Android device.

Venturing into the $500-$1,000 range is where you start to hit the sweet spot in tablet computing. This is also where you begin to cross over into the convertibles and laptops with regards to performance. In fact, with so many new laptops getting thinner and thinner, and almost all including a touchscreen, the line between tablet and laptop has become even more blurred. If you’re shopping in this price range, it’s worth revisiting what it is you’re wanting out of a device and if a laptop might serve you better.

iPad Air 2: The standalone winner at under $1,000
iPad Air 2: The standalone winner at under $1,000

Microsoft does offer a Surface with an Atom processor in this price range, but the clear winner in the sub-$1,000 tablet category is the Apple iPad. Undeniably the most popular tablet computer, the iPad Air 2 and lower-end iPad Pro both boast a stunning Retina display, 64-bit architecture, and up to 128GB of storage. In addition, being the most popular means getting the most toys. The number of peripherals for the iPad are enormous: styluses, keyboards, clock radios, cases, credit card readers, speakers, and printers are just a few of the items that are available and built specifically for the iPad. While in my experience there is nothing inherently better about the apps that run on the iPad, they have been consistently more stable as well as more intuitive than apps on Android due to the Apple App Store’s insistence on uniformity in the user experience. My biggest complaint about the iPad is their pricing model for storage. In my opinion, having your lowest-end device with a nearly unusable 16GB of storage just so you can advertise that it starts at under $500, and then charging an extra $100 to jump to a more reasonable 64GB where the model should start feels a little deceptive.

Surface Pro 4: The Ultimate Tablet
Surface Pro 4: The Ultimate Tablet

Warning: poorly tempered enthusiasm ahead.

If you’re looking for the best of the best, that distinction clearly goes to the Microsoft Surface Pro 4. Starting at $1,299, this Windows tablet does everything you could want from a tablet, and almost everything you would ever want from a computer in general. Running a full version of Windows 10 that has been specifically designed to work with the latest 6th generation Intel i5 or i7 processor, the Surface Pro 4 can handle absolutely anything you can throw at it while still offering a battery life of up to 9 hours. And with the new processors, features like 4K video and a Cortana that is actually responsive become a reality.

One of the biggest advantages of the Surface Pro 4 over the iPad Air 2 is the digitizer and Bluetooth pen combination, which allows note taking via handwriting that’s actually usable and professional level editing in graphics applications like Lightroom or Photoshop. The new iPad Pro does include an improved stylus experience with their new digitizer and “Pencil,” but it still runs into the same old limitations of a traditional tablet such as the lack of USB ports and true multitasking. Also, the “Pencil” itself runs an additional $99 above the price of the iPad Pro. In fact, when you factor in the price of the stylus and comparable keyboards for each, the iPad Pro comes out more expensive than the i5 Surface Pro 4.

If it’s in your budget, the Microsoft Surface Pro 4 is the perfect tablet for older students and can double as a family computer for watching movies, editing and organizing photos, doing homework, or even processor intensive programming and graphical design work. My only caveat to the Surface Pro 4 is a reiteration of my point about the crossover between tablets and convertibles/laptops. Microsoft just released their own flagship laptop, the Surface Book, and while criticism that it is Microsoft’s retaliation for Apple blatantly ripping off their Surface with the iPad Pro by just as blatantly ripping off the MacBook is valid, it’s still the convertible/laptop to beat this holiday season.

Tablet Compare

Disclaimer: I received a loaner Kurio XTreme2 for review purposes. All opinions are my own.

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Randy Slavey lives near Denver, Colorado with his wife and two boys. When he's not writing code, you can usually find him behind a camera or on a trail in the mountains. Or both.