CES Tablet Extravaganza: Motorola, RIM, Toshiba & Asus Stand Out - InformationWeek

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CES Tablet Extravaganza: Motorola, RIM, Toshiba & Asus Stand Out

CES provided a tableau of what buyers can expect in tablets, nearly all of them evolutionary hardware improvements over the currently-shipping iPad, none of them available now, and most of them, predictably, clones. Here's a guide, based on a modest round of discussions and demonstrations at a frenzied CES; videos included where appropriate.

The tablet tease is finally over. Even if nothing new has shipped, if pricing and availability have yet to be revealed, if mobile operators are still being courted, and if a viable underlying tablet platform (besides iOS) has yet to be made available, there is little left to learn, other than the answer to that pesky question about which device will dare challenge Apple's relentless success, or at least emerge as the leading also-ran. Motorola is the early favorite, but there are equally compelling competitors, including Asus, Toshiba and RIM; and a few cool twists, like dual-screen devices, slide-out keyboards, and 4G connectivity.

Most new tablets will run Android, but since Google hasn't shipped version 3.0 (aka Honeycomb) -- the version that promises a better tablet experience -- it's best to focus on hardware. The iPad exceeded consumer expectations despite plenty of griping about what else should have been possible (like cameras). Almost a year in and there's no sign the device is wearing around the edges. But the next wave of tablets does offer significant hardware improvement: dual-core processors (1 GHz), both front and rear-facing cameras (the latter at 5 megapixels; 2 megapixels for the former), 1GB of RAM and at least 16GB of storage (how useful more storage will be in a web application world can be our next debate), USB (mini and regular) and mini HDMI (for video out). Hold out for everything.

Size matters. Certainly content consumption is possible -- even acceptable -- at seven inches, which fits even the smallest hand. Ten inches is better where web browsing and video viewing is constant. We saw 8 and 12 inch devices as well. But size comes down to buyer preference. It's also likely that Honeycomb will allow developers to detect and adjust for screen size and resolution.

None of the newly-announced devices ship now; some don't even exist. Most will wait for Honeycomb. Buyers would be wise to do the same (and wait for whatever Apple has next). It wouldn't hurt to take a closer look at RIM, whose seven-inch PlayBook is likely a prelude to other form factors (video demonstration below); nor would it hurt to hear what HP (Palm) is expected to unveil next month.

The Clones

Beyond that, buying a tablet is going to be like buying a PC: brand preference will matter, and feature differences will seem insignificant. Price will factor heavily.

Motorola Xoom. Motorola is regaining its footing with a slew of popular Android phones, and that momentum has carried over into Xoom, its new tablet. That's great news for Motorola, and certainly its offering is plenty packed with all the right hardware, although the 512MB of RAM is half of what most of the other devices carry -- indeed, half of what Motorola's new 4G phone will provide. Motorola was the only company with an early build of Honeycomb -- a somewhat meaningless achievement, unless garnering headlines or being "first" matters that much. By the time all of the latest tablets actually start to ship, Honeycomb will be shipping and all of the tablets will run it.

That the Xoom is upgradeable to 4G (in Q2) is compelling, but the rest of what it offers depends on Honeycomb -- the 3D Maps, the video chat, and the ability to create your own widgets, for example. Motorola was only demonstrating a pre-recorded video of Honeycomb, anyway.

Motorola also demonstrated its Atrix "virtual laptop" (a laptop dock, which the company calls a "webtop") powered by the company's new Atrix 4G phone; if the Xoom can also power the Webtop, the role of the laptop could well become scrutinized, especially considering that you can run virtual sessions using a Citrix Receiver client. Others are also offering the laptop/docking functionality.

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