It’s a reasonable expectation to use a tablet that can step in to help make you more productive, and the options for those do vary.

You may want a tablet that does plenty, yet not rely on it to do everything. This is what can be described as a “situational substitute” — a term that kind of falls into two camps that do the same thing. One is a tablet that can provide some of the same type of functionality, like a keyboard and trackpad, or even a desktop operating system. The other is a tablet that can’t fully replace or replicate a laptop, but can act as an effective support tool to get things done.

So what does that mean? Laptops and tablets aren’t the same. That much, most can agree on. Laptops have always been productivity tools first, consumption devices second. Tablets are generally the reverse. These tablets may not outright replace a laptop because of hardware or software performance. Instead, they may be best suited to be there when you need them to help out.

The good news is manufacturers are taking steps to make their tablets more accessible and reliable that way. The general idea is filling a supporting need, but you might come across something than can fill a primary one.

Brydge wireless iPad keyboard review

Using the iPad

The iPad kicked off this category a decade ago, and has been driven by apps and mobility ever since. They initially felt like enlarged smartphones, only with more screen real estate to work with. Manufacturers are trying to tilt that focus to reflect what they believe are more balanced use cases, meaning they are versatile enough to help with productivity tasks.

Naturally, the iPad is a talking point in that conversation. Apple has its 10.2-inch iPad and iPad Pro, which comes in 11-inch and 12.9-inch models. The regular iPad is primarily a consumption device, but Apple does push its ability to also be productive. The Pro models are meant to be effective laptop replacements, offering power and performance when you use it with a compatible keyboard. You may also want to consider a stylus pen.

You can compose documents pretty easily on either device. Word processing takes nothing out of the processor to do. With iPadOS now its own operating system, developers can build and optimize apps for the tablet. That includes robust video and photo-editing apps, as well as spreadsheets, presentations, illustration and more.

While neither can run macOS or desktop apps, the App Store is still the place to go for iPad apps. You may also want to use Sidecar, which lets you use the iPad as a second display with your computer. You just have to ensure you meet the minimum system requirements.

Using Android tablets

Then there’s Samsung, which is the most ubiquitous Android tablet maker. Its Tab series comes in a few different models. For example, the Galaxy Tab S6 is more productivity-focused, whereas the Galaxy Tab S6 Lite is more for consumption. Both devices come with the S Pen out of the box, so you do have a tool to use to get tasks done. The newer Galaxy Tab S7 and S7+ include the improved S Pen for more responsive contact when writing onscreen.

They sport very similar screen sizes, though the Lite version uses a less vibrant display. The Tab S6 also supports Samsung’s DeX mode, while the lighter version doesn’t. DeX lets you run a desktop-style experience when plugging your tablet into a computer monitor or laptop. You can access everything on the tablet, while also running your Windows or Mac environment, too.

Look for apps in Google Play or the Galaxy Store and find what you need. Not all apps are optimized for tablets, so you may end up using a phone version in certain situations. There are keyboards and other accessories for these devices, so it’s up to you on what tools you add.

Amazon Fire tablets also run on a different version of Android, but I wouldn’t suggest them for productivity purposes. They are at their best when you want to keep it simple and view content at your leisure.

Using Windows tablets

Microsoft Surface devices have come a long way in the last several years. With the growing pains of the first few years now gone, they are compelling options to consider now. Whether you go with a Surface Pro or Surface Go really depends on how much tablet you’re really looking for.

The Surface Pro 7 is more than a tablet, it’s essentially a laptop. The only thing is that you have to buy the Type Cover (or third-party) keyboard separately. It comes in different configurations, but in any case, you get a full version of Windows 10, so it’s really a desktop OS made to work as a tablet. The combination works really well, and has helped make the Surface a dependable product.

The Surface Go 2 isn’t as capable but is still a worthy option, especially if you’re looking for a supporting device to your desktop or laptop. It won’t match the Pro lineup in power, but its screen is of similar quality and Windows does run very well on it. You also don’t have to buy a keyboard for it if you don’t want to. You definitely could, if you need it, and the Surface Pen is also an option should you need a stylus.

top ten laptops

Using 2-in-1 laptops

Technically, these are laptops, not tablets. But because they split the screen from the keyboard, you can use it like a tablet. Microsoft’s Surface Book 3 is a good example of that, though it is different from the other Surface devices.

There is a lot more variety in this product category, with a number of vendors making them. Starting with the HP Envy x360, which comes in 13.3-inch and 15.6-inch models. Not exactly typical tablet sizes, but you can use them that way anytime you want. Other than the screen size difference, they share many of the same specs.

Lenovo is no stranger to this design philosophy, owing to its Yoga and IdeaPad lines. Both are mainly built to flip back a full 360-degrees to make the touchscreens conducive to tablet use. Others have a two-piece design that makes the tablet portion thinner and easier to hold.

Asus is another brand known for bring active in this arena. Whether it’s a ZenBook or VivoBook, the company likes the 14-inch screen size. They are mainly 360-degree flip designs with vibrant touchscreens. Specs vary widely between the different models available, so look out for the best balance of what you need.

Dell and Acer follow a similar pattern. They more often prefer the 360-flip design, and like the others, it’s because they are meant to be laptops first. I’ve included the 2-in-1s in this roundup because your idea of a tablet may be different based on your needs. They almost always have screens more in line with laptops. In fact, you can even 17-inch 2-in-1 laptop/tablet hybrids.

Getting it done

It’s important to truly assess what your work and studies really require. When you do, it makes it so much easier to know what tools will fit. You may already have a laptop, but not a tablet. Or you may have a tablet, and not really want a laptop. Whether it’s an outright replacement, or a supportive substitute for specific situations, these devices may be good places to start in that search.

Check out all the latest tablets available here.

School plans for this fall are ever-changing, but now is still a great time to plan ahead and find your school supplies at Best Buy. Whether you shop in-person or online, it’s safe to shop at Best Buy. Take a look at the precautions taken to give you a great shopping experience when choosing your essentials for back to school.  For a look at everything back to school on Best Buy right now, check out the Back to School Hub.

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Editor Cellular/Mobile Technology
I’m a fortunate man in being able to do the fun job of following and reporting on one of the most exciting industries in the world today. In my time covering consumer tech, I’ve written for a number of publications, including the Globe and Mail, Yahoo! Canada, CBC.ca, Canoe, Digital Trends, MobileSyrup, G4 Tech, PC World, Faze and AppStorm. I’ve also appeared on TV as a tech expert for Global, CTV and the Shopping Channel.

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