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The Tech Report's winter 2016 mobile staff picks


The best tablets, Chromebooks, laptops, and phones
— 2:34 PM on December 13, 2016

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

It's been a while since we published our summer mobile staff picks guide. Since that time, the iPhone 7 has become widely available, and its primary competition, Samsung's Galaxy Note 7, literally went up in smoke. Meanwhile, Google decided it likes the word Pixel better than Nexus, and OnePlus continues to try and kill flagships with its handsets. In larger-screened slate news, well... not much has happened. Everybody who wants a tablet seems to have one, and both innovation and demand seem to be grinding to a halt in that market.

Chromebooks, upscale PC laptops, and convertibles, on the other hand, are all burgeoning with activity. Chromebooks seem to have risen in popularity even further, fueled by a combination of ChromeOS' no-nonsense usability and affordable, reliable machines whose spec sheets are usually reserved for costlier laptops. It helps that multiple Chromebooks have officially received support for Google's Play Store, as well, meaning that they can run Android apps alongside the Chrome browser.

It's also a good time to take the plunge on a high-quality mobile PC. Intel's recent release of its first Kaby Lake CPUs (also known as "seven-generation Core" chips) is great news for laptops and convertibles. Although this new generation of CPUs offers some performance improvements thanks to higher clock speeds, their real claim to fame appears to be much-improved power consumption. That means longer battery life for devices with these CPUs inside. Kaby Lake can also decode next-generation 4K video formats in hardware, further improving battery life. In turn, our PC recommendations reflect a preference for machines with Kaby Lake processors inside.

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.

Tablets

Product Specs Starting price

Amazon Fire Tablet 7"
Operating system: Fire OS 5
Display: 7" 1024x600 IPS LCD
Processor: Quad-core ARM Cortex A7 at 1.3 GHz
RAM: 1GB
Storage: 8GB or 16GB with microSD slot
Battery life: 7 hours
Connectivity: 802.11n, Bluetooth 4.0, GPS
Thickness: 0.4" (11 mm)
Weight: 0.7 lbs
$49.99 (8GB) or $69.99 (16GB)

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
$274.99

Apple iPad mini 4
Operating system: iOS 10
Display: 7.9" 2048x1536 (326 ppi)
Processor: Apple A8
RAM: 2GB
Storage: 32GB or 128GB
Battery life: 10 hours (Wi-Fi), 9 hours (LTE)
Connectivity: 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.2, opt. LTE
Thickness: 0.24"
Weight: 0.65 lbs
$384.95
(32GB, Wi-Fi)

Apple iPad Air 2
Operating system: iOS 10
Display: 9.7" 2048x1536 (264 ppi)
Processor: Apple A8X
RAM: 2GB
Storage: 32GB or 128GB
Battery life: 10 hours (Wi-Fi), 9 hours (LTE)
Connectivity: 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.2, opt. LTE
Thickness: 0.24"
Weight: 0.96 lbs
$384.95
(32GB, Wi-Fi)

Apple iPad Pro 9.7"
Operating system: iOS 10
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, opt. LTE
Thickness: 0.24"
Weight: 0.96 lbs

$559.95
(32GB, Wi-Fi)

Amazon Fire 7
Unless you have first-hand advice on what to buy, picking out a tablet still requires at least a little careful consideration, mainly due to the $200-and-up sums of money involved. But what if there was an absurdly cheap, impulse-buy tablet that's actually decent? Here's the Amazon Fire 7. Its specs aren't going to set the world on fire, but it still offers a quad-core CPU, 1GB of RAM, and a 1024x600 IPS panel that should offer decent color reproduction. Storage is limited to 8GB or 16GB depending on the flavor, but there's a microSD slot on tap for additional capacity. Amazon's not-quite-Android Fire OS 5 powers the device, and it's regularly updated.

And the price? $50 for the 8GB model with some ads, and $70 for the 16GB version, which puts it in impulse-buy territory. It's not every day that a tablet computer can be described as a stocking-stuffer gift.

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. Nvidia regularly updates the Shield to keep pace with Google's upstream developments, too. All of those things are quite nice to get in a device that's just $275.

We would normally recommend a higher-end Android tablet here, as well, 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. It doesn't help that there are very few Android tablets that one can rely on to receive timely updates.

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. Here are our iPad picks.

iPad mini 4
Apple's iPad mini 4 remains our entry-level iPad favorite. 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 10 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. Apple was kind enough to recently upgrade the iPad mini 4 and Air 2's base capacity to 32GB, so we don't have any qualms anymore about recommending the most affordable model. Should you need more space for apps and media, $100 more for the 128GB 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 $399 for the 32GB version, making it an easy recommendation. Just like with the iPad mini 4, the 128GB will set you back another $100.

iPad Pro 9.7"
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.