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The Tech Report's summer 2016 mobile staff picks


The best tablets, laptops, and phones
— 2:35 PM on July 6, 2016

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Welcome to the July 2016 edition of The Tech Report's mobile staff picks, where we recommend our favorite tablets, convertible PCs, laptops, and phones.

In the time since our last mobile staff picks, Samsung has updated its flagship Galaxy S phones for the seventh time. The Galaxy S7 and S7 edge feature Qualcomm's latest Snapdragon 820 high-end SoC in the USA, and they bring back the microSD slots and water-resistant features that many folks missed in the Galaxy S6. Those changes have rekindled competition at the top end of the Android handset market, where Google's Nexus phones and high-end devices from HTC and LG also play.

We're recommending a couple of Chromebooks for the first time in this round of staff picks, to. Our recent experience with Asus' Chromebook Flip has shown us that Chrome OS is fast, stable, and plenty capable even on low-end hardware. Chrome OS will soon be getting even more useful with Google's Play Store and its attendant raft of Android apps, though not all Chromebooks are guaranteed to get access to the Play Store. Regardless, we've picked out a couple Chromebooks that look appealing.

If you like this article, don't miss the rest of our guide series: our main System Guide, in which we detail the best PC components and explore some custom builds; our how-to-build-a-PC guide, where we walk folks through the PC assembly process; and our peripheral guide, where we pick the best monitors, mice, keyboards, and accessories to make your PC experience even better. 

Like the rest of our guides, our mobile staff picks are sponsored by Newegg. We'll be using links to Newegg product pages throughout this guide. You can (and should!) support our work by using these links to purchase the products we recommend. If Newegg doesn't stock an item we want to recommend, however, we'll link to other resellers as needed. Despite its sponsorship, Newegg exercises no control over the products that appear in this article. Our picks are entirely our own.

Without any further ado, let's get down to business.

Tablets

Product Specs Starting price

Nvidia Shield Tablet K1
Operating system: Android 6.0
Display: 8" 1920x1200 IPS LCD
Processor: Nvidia Tegra K1
RAM: 2GB
Storage: 16GB with microSD slot
Battery life: ~7 hours
Connectivity: 802.11n, Bluetooth 4.0, GPS
Thickness: 0.27"
Weight: 0.7 lbs
$199.99

Apple iPad mini 4
Operating system: iOS 9
Display: 7.9" 2048x1536
Processor: Apple A8
RAM: 2GB
Storage: 16GB, 64GB, or 128GB
Battery life: 10 hours (Wi-Fi), 9 hours (LTE)
Connectivity: 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.2, LTE
Thickness: 0.24"
Weight: 0.65 lbs
$399.99
(16GB, Wi-Fi)

Apple iPad Air 2
Operating system: iOS 9
Display: 9.7" 2048x1536 (264 ppi)
Processor: Apple A8X
RAM: 2GB
Storage: 16GB, 64GB, or 128GB
Battery life: 10 hours (Wi-Fi), 9 hours (LTE)
Connectivity: 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.0, LTE
Thickness: 0.24"
Weight: 0.96 lbs
$399.00
(16GB, Wi-Fi)

Apple iPad Pro 9.7"
Operating system: iOS 9
Display: Wide-gamut 9.7" 2048x1536 (264 ppi)
Processor: Apple A9X
RAM: 2GB
Storage: 32GB, 128GB, or 256GB
Battery life: 10 hours (Wi-Fi), 9 hours (LTE)
Connectivity: 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.2, LTE
Thickness: 0.24"
Weight: 0.96 lbs

$599.99
(32GB, Wi-Fi)

Nvidia Shield Tablet K1
If you've gotta have an affordable Android tablet, we think one could do far worse than Nvidia's Shield Tablet K1. This slate wraps the internals of the original Shield Tablet inside a slightly restyled frame for less money. That's a winning formula for a device with a serious SoC and a gaming software ecosystem to match. The Tegra K1 chip remains competitive in the graphics department, and buyers will find plenty to run on it thanks to Nvidia's GeForce Now service and a wide variety of curated Android games. The Shield is also a great choice for a tablet thanks to its largely unmolested Android installation, which Nvidia regularly updates to keep pace with Google's upstream developments. All of those things are quite nice to get in a device that's just $200.

We would normally recommend a higher-end Android tablet here, but the sad truth is that the Android tablet market—and the tablet market in general—has been declining over the past few months. Even Apple's iPad has posted multiple quarters of double-digit year-on-year sales drops. Thanks to those unfavorable market conditions, Dell has discontinued its Venue 8 7000 tablet, and we're left wanting for a device that can fill its spot in our picks.

The reason we're not looking too hard to fill this space is that Android apps barely do anything special on tablets anymore, as we understand it, so users just end up looking at blown-up phone apps most of the time. Honestly, if you need a high-end tablet, Apple's iPads seem like better buys to us than most anything in the Android space unless you're already heavily invested in Google's ecosystem.

iPad mini 4
Apple's iPad mini 4 remains our entry-level iPad pick. Compared to the lackluster iPad mini 3, this slate gets the A8 CPU from the iPhone 6, 2GB of RAM, and an improved screen with better coverage of the sRGB color gamut. That means it can take advantage of iOS 9 features that used to be exclusive to the iPad Air 2, like full split-screen multitasking.

If those upgraded specs aren't convincing enough, one TR staffer was so taken with the mini 4 when he first held it that he ended up buying one for himself. One caveat, though: skip the 16GB base model unless it's all you can afford. It's no use having a powerful tablet like this one if you don't have any space for apps and media. $100 more for the 64GB model is a worthy upgrade.

iPad Air 2
Apple's iPad Air 2 has been superseded by the iPad Pro at the top of Apple's tablet lineup, but we still think it's a good high-end tablet pick. Between the slim body, the beautiful Retina display, the fast-acting Touch ID fingerprint sensor, and Apple's unparalleled app ecosystem, we think your dollars are best spent here if you're shopping for a high-end slate. Since our last staff picks, Apple dropped the price on the Air 2 to $499 for the 64GB version, making it an easy recommendation. Skip the 16GB base model—the limited storage space in that model makes it a poor deal.

Some people are increasingly able to do most of their work on an iPad rather than a traditional PC. For demanding folks who fancy an iPad as their sole computing device, the iPad Pro is built around Apple's most powerful SoC right now: the A9X. The 9.7" version of this tablet also has a wide-gamut screen and the same excellent camera as the iPhone 6S. Folks who want the largest possible canvas for iOS can step up to the 12.9" iPad Pro, but that move comes with a slightly worse camera and a less-colorful screen. Both Pros support Apple's Pencil for sketching and drawing, along with the Smart Cover keyboard. Unless you need those specific features or you're super gung-ho about putting as much power behind iOS as possible, though, the iPad Air 2 is probably a saner choice.

Chromebooks
We've long warned against PCs running Google's Chrome OS in our mobile staff picks, but we recently spent some time with Asus' Chromebook Flip and came away impressed with what the cloud-centric platform can do. Unless you need Windows in a truly low-end machine (that is, sub-$350 territory) for some reason, we think Chromebooks can serve as a great way to do basic computing tasks on an inexpensive PC that doesn't require a lot of care and feeding.

Product Specs Starting price

Asus Chromebook Flip
Operating system: Google Chrome OS
Display: 10.1" 1280x800 IPS LCD
Processor: Rockchip 3288C SoC
RAM: 4GB
Storage: 16GB eMMC
Battery life: 9 hours
Connectivity: 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.0
Thickness: 0.6"
Weight: 2 lbs
$265.00

Acer Chromebook 15 C910-C37P
Operating system: Google Chrome OS
Display: 15.6" 1920x1080 IPS LCD
Processor: Intel Celeron 3205U
RAM: 4GB
Storage: 32GB SSD
Battery life: 8 hours
Connectivity: 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.0
Thickness: 1"
Weight: 4.9 lbs

$343.00

Asus Chromebook Flip
Asus' Chromebook Flip is a surprisingly capable PC for less than $300. It's got an all-aluminum body, a great keyboard, and a handy screen hinge that lets the machine morph into a tablet or two different "stand" modes. If you're willing to live on the bleeding edge of Chrome OS' capabilities, the Flip is among the first systems to get access to the Google Play store, too. The machine has a relatively pokey Rockchip ARM SoC inside, but we never felt terribly held back by it. Just make sure to get the version with 4GB of RAM. 

Acer Chromebook 15 C910-C37P
If you want some more oomph behind Chrome OS, Acer's Chromebook 15 C910-C37P trades an ARM SoC for a more powerful Broadwell Celeron 3205U CPU from Intel. This Chromebook also offers a 15.6", 1920x1080 screen, 4GB of RAM, and 32GB of onboard storage, all relatively serious specs for a Chrome OS machine. Google has indicated that the Chromebook C910 family will get access to the Google Play store eventually, as well. This PC's $343 price tag is about as much as we'd want to spend on a Chromebook before moving up to a Windows machine. If you're interested in a budget Windows laptop, skip ahead to our section on those PCs.