Quest to find a tablet, pt 1

TLDR, for those looking for less of a novel

I did a lot of looking and found a few different options if you’re looking for a tablet and have similar preferences as me. There are custom ROMs for some tablets, though they are somewhat limited in which devices are supported (as well as sometimes limits on features or time in which security updates come in). There’s also the ability to cut out junk with ADB bridge on Android tablets, of which some cheaper tablets are sketchy and lack long-term security updates, and some of the premium tablets can get pricey.

Apple offers some good prices for a premium tablet after factoring in support time (albeit still being a tad pricey), though comes with everything being an Apple product entails. Pine64 makes Arm & RISC-V tablets that operate like a laptop compatible with various Linux based systems, but they’re not quite ready to be used at the moment, and Surface tablets are overpriced when new but cheap when used - and are also pretty much laptops in a tablet case.

I went with a Surface since it’s cheap when used and pretty customizable, and intend to throw Debian Linux on it - which I’ll probably do another update on after setting it up and using it for some time.

I’ve been searching for a good tablet option for a while, and just settled on an option that I think was best, and in this post figured I would go over the different options I considered and why I chose what I did. As for the criteria I was looking for:

  • I was looking to avoid Google Play services (and similar services from other companies) if possible.
  • I need a device that gets security updates, and factored in how long a device would be getting them (on the stock OS or a custom one) into how much value it would bring for the price.
  • I wanted somewhat decent specs. I’m not looking for a gaming tablet or anything, but don’t want something that can’t play a video.
  • I’m kinda cheap, and I’m also less apt to pay as much for a tablet as I would pay for a computer or a phone.
  • I’ve got experience with a variety of systems so I’m not afraid to tinker around to get something working, but on the other hand, want a finished and stable device once I’m done.
  • I was looking for something a bit smaller than 10", but ultimately wound up going with a 10" tablet.

As for what I’m looking to use it for, it’s mostly: emails/messengers, web browsing, video playing/streaming, reading, and the like. I’m not looking for a gaming device or to stream 4k video so the device’s power isn’t as important, but having up-to-date security patches is.

Custom ROM support is limited

My first thought was to just purchase a device and then put a custom ROM on it, and the two main options that I considered were Lineage OS and PostMarket OS. The problem is, there are not a ton of devices that are supported compared to phones, with the total number of supported devices between the two being ten and nine respectively. Looking further though, if you limit your search to non-cellular tablets that are less than 8 years old it came down to three* Samsung models (two 10" models and one 8") on Lineage, and there are only two tablet models close to fully supported hardware on PostMarket OS (two 2015 Samsung models).

Not to knock the devs who are volunteering their time and resources to get ROMs working, I have a feeling this is mostly because there are only a small percentage of tablets open to custom ROMs, alongside the fact that phones are probably more of the priority. Getting a tablet and flashing a custom ROM to it is still a viable option, though you’ll want to make triple sure that the device you want to buy is well supported.

*Most of my research was done before the Pixel Tablet was released.

A lot of Cheap tablets are dodgy

If ROMs didn’t work out, another thing I thought about was to just buy a cheap device and using ADB bridge to cut out most of the junk I don’t want that you’re usually stuck with. But after looking through my options I didn’t end up going with that. Setting aside I’d be hesitant to trust a completely unknown brand who may or may not be hiding something suspicious in there (those infected Android TV boxes come to mind), it came down to three issues.

  • Security updates are abysmal. If you can even find how long/if a device gets them so many of these cheap devices go unsupported really fast.
  • Performance is also not great. So many devices are running some old version of Android Go with one or two gigs of RAM and little storage space (I know there’s irony in typing that on a 2GB RAM/16GB eMMC laptop - which I’ll mention later)
  • Some bloat is just baked in too deep. Fire tablets come to mind, where some things are so built into the main operating system (e.g. the Amazon launcher or parental controls) that not even ADB can yoink it out.

Expensive tablets are a bit pricey sometimes

Looking over the premium tablets there’s a much better selection of devices, though of course they’re also a bit more expensive. Samsung’s selection, for example, is between $300-&2,000 (the A7 Lite at the time of writing is $160, but appears to be about to run out of security updates). They do come with some bloat and the aforementioned “services” I mentioned earlier, though of course they should be able to be removed with ADB. As far as I’m aware most of those devices don’t support custom ROMs, and they seem to drop in price slower than they run out of security updates.

Other devices like the Google Pixel tablet, which came out towards the tail end of my search, does offer a really good security update policy of 8 years and is supported by Graphene OS making it a pretty good device. Unfortunately, at the cost of $1,200 (more than half of what I just sold my last car for), it’s way too expensive for me.

In terms of Apple, as much as it kills me to say, iPads might be a good price. Their base model comes in at around ~$300, which can outperform many Android/Windows/Chrome tablets and they offer impressive security update schedules. They are pretty locked down, and I couldn’t run the software that I’m used to, so the trouble of trying to get a whole new setup compared to what I’m used to (or just lacking software outright) is the main reason why I didn’t go with an iPad. That and I’m cheap, and also Apple isn’t as private as they make themselves out to be.

The PineTab2 (and similar Linux based mobile hardware) isn’t quite ready to be a daily driver

Another tablet option I looked at is the PineTab2 by Pine64, offered at $160 for the base model or $210 for the premium model; though the base model is underpowered enough that it’s a bit of a false dichotomy for anything but testing purposes. The PineTab is built in a way to be able to boot into any compatible operating system of your choosing like a laptop, but comes with the option of either an ARM or RISC-V CPU.

It’s a cool project, but it’s also not ready to be used as a regular device. At the time of writing, it’s recommended to use an external WiFi adapter because the WiFi drivers are unstable and can cause the device to crash; and hardware acceleration, Bluetooth, and the camera are entirely unsupported at the moment. It may be a bit unfair to compare it to other tablets since it’s not being marketed as a finished product, and certainly would be worth keeping an eye on in the future, but at the moment does not look like something ready to be used as a personal device. Though if you’re interested, the blogger Ivon made two great posts about his experience trying it out: Initial Review & Three Months In.

Chromebook Laptops w/o Chrome are Nice but Clunky

While they’re not tablets, the device I’ve been using for the last couple of years in place of a tablet (been a few since I had a tablet getting security updates) for anything that I want to keep secure I’ve been doing on an old Chromebook running Debian. I had to modify the firmware slightly, but most Chromebooks will accept any operating system like any other laptop would, and they get super cheap on the used market once Chrome OS security updates run out.

I typed up part of this post on it, and it’s really good as a portable device and can do just about anything most tablets can do as long as I fine-tune whatever I’m doing, though of course if you’re going this route you can always get something a little more powerful. It does work great to carry around where a full-sized laptop would be impractical, or given its price (sub $40), at times that would be more risky than I would want to have my main computer with me. It’s great and all, but still kinda limited in my ability to use it as a mobile device like I can a tablet, and it’s also a tad bit underpowered.

Surface tablets are overpriced, but drop in price fast

As far as new surface tablets go, compared to other products mentioned above they’re pretty underwhelming. A new surface starts at around ~$450, and if you want to purchase a keyboard and stylus you’ll be looking at ~$600 for a tablet that would be considerably outperformed by a Samsung or Apple device that costs a fair bit less.

Surface tablets are also pretty much just laptops, which comes with some pros and cons. Being an x86 processor running a somewhat hefty operating system you’re not going to get a lot of the performance or battery life benefits of a mobile operating system, which hits especially hard when you are getting a tablet that has poorer specs to begin with. At the same time, however, you’re also getting what amounts to a laptop shoved into a tablet body with a full-blown UEFI bootloader capable of installing and running any compatible operating system.

However, for whatever reason, they seem to drop in price pretty quickly. I saw several models that originally sold for over $500 + the cost of a keyboard selling on eBay in grade A condition for $99 with the keyboard and shipping included. My guess is that businesses buy them, then when they upgrade they dump a large amount of used ones on the market, but that’s only a guess as to why for whatever reason they drop in price way faster than any other tablets on the market.


Ultimately I wound up going with a Surface Go, which at the time of writing has just arrived but is yet to be setup. I plan to install Debian on it, though it would accept most operating systems including:

  • Windows 10 & 11 (see my Win 11 de-bloated guide)
  • Most Desktop Linux distros
  • Chrome OS and Chromium OS
  • Desktop Compatible Android With the Android x86 project being discontinued, there are not many options I am aware of. Systems like Bliss OS based on Android x86 appear to still be getting updates, but they’re on Android 11 so support will probably run out soon and I’m not sure how it will continue from there. Though if Android apps are what you’re looking for Windows, Linux, and ChromeOS can all run Android apps if setup to do so.

Once I’ve set it up and used it for some time I’ll probably do a part two post explaining the process I will have used to set it up as well as review how the setup has been after some use.