Android tablets are going through an interesting transition right now. We're seeing the first few hints of 64-bit support, 4:3 screens, and some powerful gaming features. However, these products are still imperfect. I don't think there's such a thing as the perfect Android tablet for everyone right now, but there are a few good ones that might work well for you.
Let's check out all the top tablets on the market and see what they all have going for them.
If you like having access to the latest software and dig the 4:3 form factor, the Nexus 9 might be an appealing option. This tablet runs on a Denver dual-core Nvidia Tegra K1 chip with 2GB of RAM and 16-32GB of storage. The centerpiece is clearly the screen, which is above average compared to most Android tablets. It's an 8.9-inch LCD with a resolution of 2048x1536, just like the iPad. At 8.9-inches, a widescreen tablet would be awkward to use in portrait orientation, but the the N9 is quite comfy.
The Nexus 9 runs Android 5.0/5.1 Lollipop without any OEM junk added. This is Android as Google intended with updates more or less guaranteed for at least two years. The Nexus 9 might fall back to second priority in a year or so when new devices come out, but you won't be left to rot on an old version of Android within the expected life of this tablet. There are also full system images for the Nexus 9 and an unlockable bootloader, making for easy modding (and fixing your mistakes so you don't end up with a brick).
I think the biggest knock against the Nexus 9 is that the build quality simply isn't where it needs to be for a $400 and up tablet. The buttons are a little mushy, the soft touch plastic feels a little cheap, and it's slightly heavy. More recent production runs of the Nexus 9 are much more solid. It still takes a weirdly long time to charge, though.
More problematic is the state of the Nexus 9's software. It's overall a better experience than many Android tablets, but the N9 still stutters and hangs more than it should. Nvidia's Denver CPU core has a lot of power, but it seems like it's not being fully harnessed in the N9. Hopefully a future software update gives this tablet the extra boost it needs to be a better experience.
The Nexus 9 is a good tablet, but it's pricey. If you can find one on sale, it might be a good buy. Even if you can't the form factor makes it worth considering.
Samsung Galaxy Tab S (8.4 or 10.5)
Samsung has a lot of experience making Android tablets--it's one of the few companies that can make real money doing it. The high-end tablets it turns out are also quite nice compared to other Android slates. The Galaxy Tab S 8.4 and 10.5 are the current premium tier of Samsung's tablet offerings, and they could make for a fantastic choice for your next tablet.
The screen on the Tab S is something to behold. Both the 8.4 and 10.5 have lovely Super AMOLED panels with a resolution of 2560x1600. The colors and contrast are beautiful and the the pixel density is second to none (especially on the 8.4). Inside, these tablets have an Exynos 5 Octa processor, 3GB of RAM, and 16GB of storage with a microSD card slot.
These devices are very slim and light, despite having sizeable batteries. Both versions of the Tab S will run longer than most other tablets and the experience is good. These are fast tablets, even though we are talking about a build of TouchWiz. They're also still on KitKat, and it might be a while before Samsung gets around to updating them to Lollipop.
It's nice that these devices are so svelte, but I don't know if I can fully accept the use of hardware navigation buttons on a tablet. These devices have Samsung's customary home button and capacitive back/multitasking buttons. It's not terrible on the 8.4, but on a 10-inch tablet the placement is really strange.
You can find these tablets for about $350 and $450 on Amazon and other stores. That's $50 off Samsung's direct price. If you want the absolute best screen on a tablet, the Tab S 8.4 and 10.5 are the way to go. You just have to get past the high price and slightly older software.
NVIDIA Shield Tablet
NVIDIA has become a force in Android hardware in the last few years mostly by making its own devices that offer something distinct in the market. First was the NVIDIA Shield Portable with its built-in gameplay, and now there's the Shield Tablet. This device is still focused on gaming, but it's also a solid tablet for the general Android user.
NVIDIA equipped the Shield Tablet with a quad-core Tegra K1 processor, 2GB of RAM, and an 8-inch 1920x1200 screen. The software is already based on Lollipop after a series of updates, and it's almost completely stock. Rather than reskin Android, NVIDIA spent its time creating new features like the advanced gamepad mapping support, Twitch streaming, and power control. You also have access to NVIDIA's Grid game streaming service, if you want to use it.
This device has a built-in stylus that relies on GPU acceleration to simulate pressure-sensitivity in supported apps. There's a neat painting app called Dabbler that lets you put the stylus to work, but it can be used as a conventional stylus as well. The 8-inch form factor is great for taking notes with the stylus, or watching a video with the front-facing speakers.
You won't get quite as much screen time with the Shield Tablet as you will with most tablets. It's not bad necessarily, but the battery life is slightly below average. It's also somewhat thick and bulky. The design does win some points for the fantastic magnetic cover (sold separately) that clips onto the side of the Shield.
The Shield Tablet starts at $299 for the 16GB WiFi model, but an extra $100 doubles the storage and adds LTE. It's a reasonably priced tablet, especially when you find it on sale. As long as you don't need a tablet that's super-thin, the Shield could be a good bet. It's also the best choice for gamers.
Maybe you're not completely sure you'll get much use out of a tablet, so spending $300-500 seems rather foolish. You can still get a nice little tablet with the latest version of Android for not a lot of money. The 2013 Nexus 7 is still floating around, and it's usually very cheap.
The Nexus 7 has a 7-inch 1920x1200 screen with good viewing angles and colors. Inside is a Snapdragon S4 Pro, 2GB of RAM, and 16-32GB of storage. It has aged remarkably well for a nearly 2-year-old device. It even has wireless charging built-in, which the Nexus 9 does not. Granted, the 7-inch form factor is only slightly smaller than Google's latest flagship smartphone, but not everyone is willing to carry a phone that big. Still, a 7-inch tablet is very comfortable.
It runs Android 5.1 Lollipop with no lag or loss of functionality because of the older hardware. It's probably coming to the end of its update cycle, but the bootloader is unlockable and you can install whatever you want on it going forward. The N7 still regularly pops up on deal sites like Groupon and eBay for $120-175, which is a great buy.
Dell Venue 8 7000
Dell has been making Android tablets for a few years, but none of them have been particularly interesting. That changes with the Dell Venue 8 7000. This device is currently the thinnest tablet in the world at 6mm, but it gets there by making a few design compromises.
The Venue 8 packs an Intel Atom processor, 2GB of RAM, and an 8.4-inch OLED screen at 2560x1600. The screen is incredibly crisp and the colors are fantastic. The only problem is some redness at low brightness levels. The Intel chip is fast and seems easy on the battery. There are still some compatibility issues with Intel chips, but most of that has been ironed out. You'll get an above average amount of screen-on time with the Venue 8.
The device has almost no bezel on three sides, then a much larger one on the bottom, which houses most of the components. The Venue 8 is comfortable to use in portrait, but the lopsided bezels make it awkward in landscape. It's neat, and Dell should be applauded for its technical achievement, but it might be a more practical tablet if it were just a little thicker and symmetrical.
Dell is promising an update to Android 5.0 Lollipop for the Venue 8 7000, but there's no firm date. As it stands, this tablet runs Android 4.4 KitKat with a few small modifications by Dell. They don't really add any value, but neither do they ruin the experience. The Intel ImageSense camera features are rather buggy, though. You shouldn't pay $400 for this device on the basis of the triple camera array on the back for capturing depth information. You should consider the Venue 8 7000 if having a thin and light tablet is your primary concern.
Is There a "Best" Tablet?
There isn't a single Android tablet that I'd recommend to everyone. The one you get depends very much on what's important to you. None of the Android tablets out there are perfect, but I think the Shield Tablet will be good for most people. The biggest drawback is that it's rather hefty compared to most other 8-inch tablets. If you can find a Nexus 9 on sale, that too might be a good general purpose tablet to pick up. Just give the hardware a good look to make sure everything is in order.