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Tablet Clone Wars: 4 Questions

Lenovo joins the growing ranks of combatants trying to beat Apple's iPad 2. Before you pledge allegiance to any one tablet, consider these key questions.

The tablet de jour comes from Lenovo, a noteworthy entrant as the laptop vendors start to make noise in a noisy market. After Apple started the craze, the next tablets came from the smartphone crowd, the likes of Samsung, Motorola, HTC, and RIM. But now it's Lenovo, HP, Dell, and Toshiba. As well as Sony and NEC and ASUS. It's even Vizio and LG. Did I hear Amazon?

It's an impressive list that grows each month, but now with barely a raised eyebrow. RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook and HP's TouchPad each got a lot of attention (and scrutiny), partly because those vendors orchestrated a media and customer frenzy, partly because there was curiosity about the way mobile operating systems like QNX and WebOS would perform on tablets, and partly because RIM and HP are stalwarts in both the enterprise and consumer markets.

Lenovo has had its own consumer and corporate success, but it chose the working stiff approach: Announce solid products and march onward, without the fanfare of rented bunkers, staged customer testimonials, and banquets where black-tie-clad waiters serve gourmet ostrich sliders alongside caramelized figs stuffed with goat cheese.

Lenovo loaded up about 40 apps, some solid security features, and a few other enterprise goodies onto its ThinkPad and IdeaPad line of tablets. LG put 3D video capture onto its G-Slate. HP and RIM employ a card-like user interface. Apple has all the apps. Samsung made its Galaxy Tab tablet as thin as the iPad. HTC's EVO View 4G features its Sense user interface on top of Android and runs on Sprint's 4G network. Sony's S2 tablet will have two screens. Vizio's Tablet will work with your Vizio home entertainment system. Stop me when you see something you like.

Time to start sorting through all of these choices. Here are four crucial questions (and a few answers).

1.) Will your next tablet come from your favorite phone or laptop maker?

With the exception of Dell's Streak, the first tablets came from smartphone manufacturers. (Quibblers will say that Samsung and Motorola have made a thin client PC or a laptop or a netbook. They will say that Apple made Macs long before it made iPhones. They will say HP made PCs long before it acquired Palm. They will be right, but you get my point.) Once the phone makers went to re-load, the laptop makers and home entertainment companies lodged their tablets in protest.

Lenovo Takes On 7 Rivals: Tablet Faceoff
Slideshow: Tablet Faceoff
(click image for slideshow)
Whom do you trust? Perhaps if you're a consumer and you just love your HTC EVO 3G or your Samsung Galaxy phones, you'll naturally gravitate to the tablets from those vendors. Perhaps if you never visit Starbucks without your trusty Dell laptop, or your company has standardized on the Lenovo ThinkPad, or Toshiba computers are the lifeblood of your small business, then you'll naturally look to those providers for your tablet needs. Or maybe you're just one of those people who will buy whatever the best product is.

Over time, I'm guessing that all of those vendors will make it compelling to buy more of its products. As in: Buy 1,000 new Lenovo laptops and get 100 ThinkPad tablets as part of the deal.

But this isn't just about who the hardware provider is. It's also about the operating system running the devices. Which brings us to Android . . .

2.) Are we seeing another clone war, reminiscent of the glory days of the Windows PC?

Yes, we're about to see history repeat itself. There was a day when you'd buy a computer or a laptop based on a variety of high-performance features. It was a very short day. It soon became difficult to tell a Dell from an HP from an IBM, and then from an Acer or a Sony. These vendors started adding features. Zenith (remember them?) was the first to build Ethernet right into the system, and others followed quickly (Zenith didn't patent it and didn't sue anyone . . . just sayin'). Manufacturers added their own user experiences on top of Windows, and special applications. Eventually, they fought it out the good-old-fashioned capitalistic way, dropping prices like used car salesmen.

Have you looked at the price tags on all of the tablets shipping now? All of them start at $499. That gets you 16GB of storage and Wi-Fi only. If you want it cheaper, you can buy a two-year 3G or 4G activation plan, but the starting point there is $399.99. Every. Single. One.

Between the time Lenovo told the press about its upcoming line of tablets and the official announcement date, the company decided to drop the price of the ThinkPad Tablet from $499 to $479. Do you suppose that's significant? I do. It may seem like a small thing, but $20 makes a difference standing in Best Buy when one device looks pretty much like the rest.

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