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TR's fall 2015 mobile staff picks

The best laptops, tablets, convertibles, and phones

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Welcome to the October 2015 edition of The Tech Report's mobile staff picks, where we recommend our favorite tablets, convertible PCs, laptops, and phones.

This time around, the biggest changes come from the phone arena. Since our last guide, Apple refined its iPhone 6 from top to bottom. The result of that work is the iPhone 6S (and its bigger-screened sibling, the iPhone 6S Plus). These refreshed iPhones get a blazing-fast A9 SoC, a new interaction method called 3D Touch, higher-resolution cameras, and a much-needed 2GB of RAM.

Google didn't stand idle with its Nexus devices, either. After the coolly-received and expensive Nexus 6, the Nexus line-up has come roaring back with the affordable Nexus 5X by LG and the higher-end Nexus 6P by Huawei. Both of these phones wrap high-quality camera modules and stock Android 6.0 Marshmallow into appealing packages. Like other Nexus phones, the 5X and 6P also get a direct line from Google for Android software updates.

Nor has Samsung been twiddling its thumbs. After the introduction of its radically reimagined Galaxy S6 earlier in the year, the company gave the same metal-and-glass treatment to its iconic Galaxy Note, now in its fifth iteration. The Note 5 includes the same huge screen and S Pen we've come to expect from this flagship phablet in a sleeker body than its predecessors, and it appears to uphold the Galaxy Note's reputation as a productivity powerhouse.

Last time we looked at laptops, Intel's quad-core Broadwell CPUs were just starting to make their way into notebooks. Now, Skylake chips are the stars of the show. These sixth-generation Core processors come with improvements in integrated graphics and general performance, and manufacturers are updating their notebook lineups with these mobile CPUs as we write. Some of our notebook recommendations have already gotten these new chips, and we'll call them out for easy reference.

Microsoft has also jumped into the high-end laptop market with its Surface Book. This 13" Windows convertible packs Skylake Core i5 or i7 processors into a slim all-metal body along with a 3000x2000 3:2 display. The Book's screen can detach entirely to become a tablet, and its innovative hinge lets the machine morph into a pen-friendly mode with a 180-degree flip of the screen. If that's not fancy enough, buyers can add a discrete GeForce graphics chip for more pixel-pushing power. No, the Book isn't cheap, but it's not the average Windows notebook, either.

As with our main system guide, our staff picks update is sponsored by Newegg. We'll be using links to their product pages throughout this guide when it's possible. You can (and should) support our work by using these links to purchase the products we recommend. A big thanks to Newegg for their continued support. If Newegg doesn't stock an item we want to recommend, however, we'll link to other sources as needed.

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. 

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


Product Specs Starting price

Asus ZenPad S 8.0 (Z580C)
Operating system: Android 5.0 with Asus ZenUI
Display: 8" 2048x1536 IPS LCD
Processor: Intel Atom Z3530
Storage: 32GB
Battery life: 8 hours
Connectivity: 802.11n, Bluetooth 4.1, GPS
Thickness: 0.27"
Weight: 0.7 lbs

Dell Venue 8 7000
Operating system: Android 5.0.2
Display: 8.4" 2560x1600
Processor: Intel Atom Z3580
Storage: 16GB or 32GB
Battery life: 9.8 hours
Connectivity: 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.0
Thickness: 0.24"
Weight: 0.67 lbs

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

Apple iPad Air 2
Operating system: iOS 8
Display: 9.7" 2048x1536 (264 ppi)
Processor: Apple A8X
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
(16GB, Wi-Fi)

Asus ZenPad S 8.0 (Z580C)
Take a moment to mourn the Nexus 7, folks. We can't responsibly recommend Asus' cheap Nexus tablet anymore. Google has said it won't be making any more updates for the mini-slate, and the hardware is getting up there in years. We've searched high and low for a device to take the Nexus 7's place in our staff picks, and we think Asus' own ZenPad S 8.0 is a good bet for $200. This tablet combines Intel's Atom Z3530 SoC with 2GB of RAM, 32GB of onboard storage, and an 8", 2048x1536 IPS LCD screen. The only fault with this ZenPad may be Asus' overzealous modification of the stock Android experience with its "ZenUI" skin, but it's hard to find an unbesmirched Android tablet in this price range these days.

If you want to step up to a beefier tablet without going all the way to Dell's Venue 8 7000, Asus also offers a Z580CA model of the ZenPad S 8.0 with a faster Atom processor, 4GB of RAM, and 64GB of storage for $299.

Dell Venue 8 7000
Our high-end Android tablet pick remains Dell's Venue 8 7000. We praised the Venue's build quality, screen, battery life, and responsiveness in our review. Dell has since updated this super-slim slate to Android 5.0.2 Lollipop. Intel's RealSense camera is just OK, but so are most tablets' cameras, to be honest. Either way, the Venue 8 7000 provides a premium Android experience for a reasonable $350 with 16GB of onboard storage. The 32GB version is only available with a bundled keyboard cover now, and its price has jumped to $450 since our last guide. Both versions have a microSD slot for extra storage capacity.

iPad mini 4
At its most recent event, Apple gave the iPad mini 4 just a few seconds in the spotlight. That's a shame, since this mini contains some of the most significant updates the smaller iPad has ever received. 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, Scott 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 is the biggest and most powerful iOS device you can buy right now. We also think it's the best high-end tablet out there, bar none. Between the slim body, the beautiful Retina display, the fast-acting Touch ID fingerprint sensor, and unparalleled app ecosystem, we think your dollars are best spent here if you're shopping for a high-end slate. The Air 2 is among the more expensive tablets out there, starting at $500 for the 16GB version, but we think the premium is worth it. As with the iPad mini 4, though, skip the 16GB model and head on up to the 64GB version.

What about the iPad Pro and Google's Pixel C tablet? These ultra-high-end devices are coming soon, but aside from some scattered hands-on experiences, reviewers haven't been able to sink their teeth in just yet. Both devices seem more specialized than the average consumer tablet, as well, so we'll hold off on a verdict until we know more.