It's difficult to remember a time before tablets, but it's been a mere 18 months since the first Apple iPad was released, and the current tablet market was born. Since then, we've seen scores of manufacturers trying to snag a slice of the tablet pie, which so far, has been dominated by Apple, who is now on its second iPad iteration. According to a study by Strategy Analytics, of the 7.5 million tablets that shipped during the second quarter, 80 percent were iPads, well ahead of those from rivals like Motorola, Samsung, RIM, Asus, and HTC.
That's not stopping others from trying. And the result so far has been a float of difficult-to-distinguish tablets at various price points, performance capabilities, and feature sets. There hasn't really been another standout. The latest big name to throw its hat in the already-crowded tablet ring: Amazon. The company's Android-based Tablet Kindle Fire won't be available until mid-November, but it comes at a very pleasing $199—a price low that no quality tablet has been able to yet manage. It will be interesting to see what Amazon's entry means for both the iPad and the non-Apple tablet market share.
So which of the plethora of deceivingly similar-looking tablets is worth your money? Let's look at the key factors you need to consider when shopping for a tablet:
First Off: Do You Even Need a Android Tablet?
Simply put, tablets aren't really filling any true need right now—they are neither replacements for full-fledged computers nor smartphones. A tablet is a touch-screen media device that is actually most similar to a very advanced portable media player—or an MP3 player with a much larger screen. Yes, many of them have mobile service features, but currently none of them make phone calls via a traditional mobile provider. And while youcan tackle productivity tasks on a tablet, you won't get a desktop-grade operating system, like you'll find on a PC. Tablets are basically lightweight versions of laptops in every sense—they weigh less, and they're lighter on features. Plus, since we're talking about slate tablets here, you won't get a hardware keyboard. So if you're planning on doing any heavy-duty text input, you'll want to pick up a Bluetooth add-on keyboard. Still, the advantage tablets offer over laptops is an easy, portable way to check email, browse the Web, video chat, consume media, and play games, but with a much bigger screen with more real estate than your smartphone and dual sim cellphone can provide. The bottom line is, you probably don't need one, but if youwant a tablet, read on.
Pick an Operating System
Apple's iOS is the mobile platform used by the iPad, as well as the iPhone and iPod touch. On the iPad, iOS works very similarly to the way it does on the iPhone, with certain tweaks made here and there to take advantage of the tablet's larger 9.7-inch screen. The built-in iPod app on the iPad, for instance, has an extra side menu for additional navigation options that wouldn't fit on the iPhone's screen. Generally speaking, the great strength of Apple's iOS is twofold: it's incredibly intuitive, and the wide selection of iPad apps—more than 90,000 tablet-specific titles at the time of this writing—work uniformly well with very few exceptions.
Google's mobile OS, Android, is a more complicated story. Besides having your choice of hardware from several manufacturers, there are a few iterations of Android floating around right now, but only one—Android 3.0, Honeycomb—is designed specifically for tablets. This year, we've seen plenty of Honeycomb tablets, but some manufacturers are still making tablets with previous versions of Android that are meant for phones with much smaller screens, which doesn't provide the best tablet experience. Also, some Android tablets don't include access to the Android Market on the device, which means you have to sideload apps, which is less than ideal.
Google's forthcoming Android revision, Ice Cream Sandwich, promises to merge Gingerbread (the phone OS) with Honeycomb (the tablet OS), for a single operating system for all Android devices. Ice Cream Sandwich is expected soon (this October or November), but if you're buying an Android tablet pc today, you want a Honeycomb tablet with the Android Market preloaded. The good news is that we're hearing from various tablet manufacturers that Honeycomb tablets will be upgradeable to Ice Cream Sandwich when the OS is released.
Android 3.0 has its benefits, including configurability, an excellent notification system, Adobe Flash support, and seamless integration with Google applications like Gmail, Google Maps, and Google Talk for video chat. For more, check out our Honeycomb review.
Lastly, there's RIM's QNX operating system, which runs on the company's BlackBerry PlayBook . Despite having a top-notch user interface with some promising features, like tight integration with BlackBerry smartphones, the PlayBook was released before it was ready, and five months later is still missing major features, like native email support. Until RIM gets its act together on the PlayBook, we can't recommend the tablet or the OS.
Ultimately, the operating system you choose will largely depend on your comfortability and personal preference. If you're unsure, get some hands-on time with a few tablets before you commit to one.
What About Apps?
Android lacks a strong selection of apps. It's tough to say exactly how many tablet-optimized Android apps are available, but it's in the low hundreds, and there are even fewer BlackBerry PlayBook apps than that. If you want lots of apps for your tablet, right now, nothing out there beats the iPad with its 90,000+ apps designed specifically for the tablet.
Apple's App Store is well-curated and offers a deep selection—no competitor can come close to claiming this right now, partially because apps made for Android tablets have to work across multiple screen sizes, while iPad apps are designed for a single tablet. It sounds simple, but the variation in size (and manufacturers) complicates things greatly. Eventually, one hopes, the other app stores will catch up to Apple, but if a wide range of compelling apps is your main priority, Apple is currently your best bet.
Screen Size and Storage
This consideration is a bit obvious, but size—both screen real estate and storage capacity—is important to consider. First things first: When you hear the term "10-inch tablet," this typically refers to the size of the screen, measured diagonally, and not the size of the tablet itself. Apple continues to offer the iPad in one size only (9.7-inch screen) and the BlackBerry PlayBook comes in a single 7-inch screen size, which RIM argues gives it the advantage of pocketability. Samsung, for one, wants you to have a choice, so it offers its Android Galaxy Tab tablets in multiple screen sizes (7, 8.9, and 10.1 inches).
The weight of a tablet is one definite advantage it has over a laptop—but let's be clear, at around 1.3 pounds (in the case of the iPad 2) it's not cell-phone light—even a 7-inch model. After you hold one on the subway for ten minutes, your hand will get tired. Setting it flat in your lap, rather than propped up on a stand, can also be a little awkward. And, again, a 10-inch tablet doesn't fit in many pockets.
As for storage, the more the better—all those apps, when combined with a typical music, video, and photo library, can take up a lot of space. Right now storage tops out at 64GB of flash-based memory, with many of the quality tablets we've seen available in 16, 32, and 64GB varieties. Larger capacity models can get as expensive as full-featured laptops, especially when you factor in cellular service plans. (The top-end 64GB iPad with Verizon or AT&T wireless service will run you $830 plus a monthly fee.)
Wi-Fi-Only vs. Cellular Models
Many tablets come in a Wi-Fi-only model or with the option of always-on cellular service from a wireless provider. If you want to use your tablet to get online anywhere, you should opt for a model with a cell radio like the Verizon Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 or the AT&T Acer Iconia Tab A501 . Of course, this adds to the device's price, and then you need to pay for cellular service. Generally, though, you can purchase data on a month-to-month basis, without signing a contract, and charges typically don't exceed $30 monthly, as long as you stay within data-usage limits.
Another way to get your tablet online: Use your 3G or 4G phone as a Wi-Fi hotspot for your tablet—this won't work with every phone/tablet combo, so you should check with the carriers before you buy in.
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