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.
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.
Toshiba's John Doe. Toshiba emerged as an impressive challenger. Its 10-inch device looks beautiful (it is a wide screen device -- essentially 16 x 10, with 1280x800 resolution), and its rugged exterior is a differentiator that seems minor, but it will make the user device experience better. The company claims that its DDR2 RAM will make the tablet that much faster -- soon someone will benchmark each of the tablets and determine the real answer, and whether it matters.
Other differentiators: you can take off the back plate and replace it to personalize the device or to replace the battery. It features what Toshiba calls Adaptive Technology; for example, it automatically adjusts its brightness and contrast according to its environment, and employs noise reduction when video chatting. I liked how all of the ports are buried under an opening in the casing. It also has a file manager. The plan is to ship this product in late Spring, but it hasn't been named or priced.
Acer Iconia Tab. A quick demo of Acer's Iconia Tab, originally announced last November, revealed a 10-inch device, with 1280x800 resolution, and the most up-to-date hardware specs, including both regular and mini USB, mini-HDMI, and the ability to lock its viewing mode. The Iconia also includes an e-compass and ambient light sensors. Acer couldn't get the software to run stably enough to get a closer look at these, however.
The device will be out in April, Acer said, but would only commit to pricing the unit lower than the iPad. The company is also preparing a 7-inch Android tablet, and a 10-inch Windows 7 version priced under $600 and available as early as March, but more likely in April.
Acer says its key differentiator will be optimal capability at the most affordable price--essentially what it attempts to do in the PC market. Acer also announced its Clear.Fi strategy last November -- the idea here is that all devices on a home Wi-Fi network can be participants in media streaming and sharing; the Iconia Tab will be one such device.
Vizio Via Plus. Vizio's Via Plus tablet, announced days before CES, was a bit of a surprise. The company sees its entrance as part of the content consumption game its TVs play in. Indeed, Vizio may be among the first companies to pull off the vision of content sharing across devices in the home. The tablet is an 8-inch device, with a single 1GHz processor, with USB, HDMI out, and three speakers, so users get left and right audio regardless of tablet orientation. It also includes an infrared emitter so it can act as a universal remote for home theater systems (not just Vizio's, by the way). The first Via Plus will be WiFi only, but a 3G version is in the company's roadmap.
The company didn't just announce a tablet; it also provided a Superphone (Via Plus Phone) -- that is, a phone running a 1GHz processor, and sporting a 4-inch screen. The phone runs Android, and includes a front and back-facing camera. In other words, the tablet and phone share much of the same hardware, but more important Vizio has included its own user interface, which it says will be similar across all device sizes, including its televisions. Users will be able to start and stop services (say, Netflix) on one device and start them back up on another. The lineup is due out this Summer.
A few companies decided to add a little spice to the tablet mix, introducing elements like dual screens (NEC) and slide-out keyboards (Asus and Samsung), and even a dual-OS option (Lenovo).
NEC Dual Screen Android Cloud Communicator. The dual-screen concept, championed by NEC, is compelling, if incomplete. The ability to break content over two 7-inch displays provides plenty of useful applications, from education to demonstration to book reading, and frankly even just an ability to view web pages side-by-side. Alas, NEC's oddly-named Cloud Communicator is merely a concept device, and while the company expects to ship in the first half of the year, it must get Google and the legion of Android developers on board with some exciting ideas before it takes hold, because other than this neat little trick, the device isn't as heavily powered as some of the others -- a single processor, a single camera, and no video out, for example.
Asus Eee Pad. Asus announced a handful of tablets right before CES kicked off. I didn't get my own preview of these devices -- but TabletPC Review did an excellent job covering Asus. (Video included.) The Eee Pad 121 is a 12-inch, dual core (Intel) unit running Windows 7. But the Eee Pad Slider was the most interesting device -- an Android tablet with a slide-out keyboard. It's a 10-inch unit with dual core processing, 1 GB or RAM and 16 GB or 32 GB of storage; also front and rear-facing cameras, orientation lock, HDMI out and USB. It weighs slightly less than two pounds--so it's a little heavier than others, but it packs in every high-end feature. Samsung also announced a slider -- the Sliding 7 Series, a Windows 7 device shipping in March for $700.
Lenovo IdeaPad U1. Last year at CES, Lenovo gave the world a glimpse of its IdeaPad, which it finally seems ready to ship. It's sort of an Intel-based notebook, but it snaps out to become a tablet. What's more, it can switch (with the flip of a switch) between Windows 7 and Android in notebook mode, and run Android in tablet mode (it also switches processors when in tablet mode). Lenovo has designed its own user interface on top of Android.
All The Rest
Motion Computing has been building rugged tablets since 2001. Its Motion CL900 runs Windows 7, uses both pen and touch input, weights 2.1 pounds, and will cost slightly less than $1,000. (A quick video demonstration appears below.) The unit also has front and rear-facing cameras, a $150-dock with multiple USB ports and an Ethernet port. The company claims eight hours of battery life. LG announced G-Slate, an Android tablet running on T-Mobile's HSPA+ (technically 4G) network, but it didn't have a device on hand, nor any pictures of it. Finally, Dell also announced a 4G tablet running on T-Mobile's network; it is a 7-inch unit that is expected in just a few weeks.
Most of the CES tablet buzz surrounded Motorola, and while Xoom looks like a beautiful device, the hype seemed to hover more around its exclusive access to Honeycomb, which in the end ran only in a pre-recorded video. The Xoom and Toshiba's unnamed tablet are best positioned to challenge the iPad from a hardware point of view; although one suspects that if Apple can come out with an iPad that includes cameras, dual core processing, and 4G support (not to mention multi-carrier distribution) it will be hard to unseat, even facing all of these exciting new players.
For a while, the challenge for all Android tablets will be whether developers can make the Android marketplace as popular and rich as the iTunes App Store. RIM will be challenged even more in that regard.
The Asus Slider may seem to be done in by its girth, but it sure offers everything the others do, plus the keyboard. I suspect it will be a force in the early going. Prediction: The slider will be a sleeper.
While 4G could be a differentiator for Sansung, Dell and LG, it's only a matter of time before that advantage goes away; and perhaps some time before users can really exploit that advantage anyway.
Besides the raw speed of the hardware, and the connection speed of the networks the devices run on, users should also be wary of battery life. While the vendors claim anywhere from 5 - 8 hours, multiple radios, multiple fast processors, big screens, sensors and cameras will challenge battery life despite those claims.
Fritz Nelson is the editorial director for InformationWeek and the Executive Producer of TechWebTV. Fritz writes about startups and established companies alike, but likes to exploit multiple forms of media into his writing.
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