It seems that 2011 will certainly be the year of the tablet. The devices are coming fast and there's no sign of them slowing. While they all have the same basic form factor — thin slab with a touch screen — there are many important differences that set them apart. Knowing the operating system, for instance, is crucial in picking the right tablet for you.
So which tablets are best? Here's a rundown of the best tablets that are on the market, followed by a few that aren't out yet but might be worth waiting for.
The iPad got an early lead in the tablet market last year and no manufacturer has been able to keep up. The iPad 2 , recently announced by Apple, maintains the lead with a combination of snappy performance and the single largest and most comprehensive app ecosystem of any tablet. The new dual-core A5 processor is fast, the front and rear cameras fill in an obvious feature missing in the original, and the tablet itself is thinner than an iPhone 4. As good as the hardware is, though, it's the apps that make the iPad 2 the standout tablet. There are 65,000 apps for the iPad , and the tablet can still run 300,000-plus apps that exist for the iPhone. There is, quite literally, an app for everything, and Apple has added some remarkably functional ones for music production (Garage Band), video editing (iMovie) and productivity (Pages, Numbers, Keynote).
The final factor that cinches the iPad's lead in the tablet race is price. Even though Apple is known for higher priced electronics, the iPad 2 remains one of the cheapest options out there, ranging from $500 for a 16GB Wi-Fi version to $829 for a 64GB 3G version.
Next up, we have the Motorola Xoom , the first tablet to use the Android 3.0 Honeycomb mobile operating system. Android has always tried to contend with the iOS operating system in the iPhone, but it just didn't scale well to tablet-size devices. Android Honeycomb is the first version to get it right and has the potential to really compete against the iPad interface. The only thing holding Honeycomb back is a smaller app ecosystem that can't compete with Apple's … yet.
The Motorola Xoom has a 10-inch touch screen, just like the iPad, as well as all the bells and whistles. Inside is a dual-core 1GHz Tegra 2 processor, which might be a bit faster than the iPad's A5, that specializes in graphics processing, making the Xoom a media powerhouse. And Android Honeycomb ads suggest the Xoom has better multitasking support and a superior interface design than previous Android tablets. The Xoom is available in a 3G version for $800, while Verizon is offering a subsidized Xoom for $600 with a data contract. Motorola has plans to release a Wi-Fi-only version this spring, possibly for a cheaper price.
After the iPad and the Xoom, the pack thins out a bit. There aren't a lot of other great tablets on the market currently that can compare with these two. Perhaps third by default is the Samsung Galaxy Tab , the only other well-known Android tablet available. The Galaxy Tab is only 7 inches, making it much more pocketable, but still not as portable as a smartphone. It has a single-core 1GHz processor that doesn't even come close to the performance of the top two tablets. It also runs an older version of Android (version 2.2 Froyo).
Dell has produced a 7-inch Android 2.2 tablet of its own, though it's attractive for its low price rather than its features. The Dell Streak 7 is available on the T-Mobile network for $200 (with a two-year contract), but has little else that stands out.
The only other tablet of note is the Notion Ink Adam, which is possibly the most disappointing of the lot because it falls so far short of its potential. It has a screen that can switch from e-ink-like monochrome for daylight viewing to a vibrant LCD screen common to all tablets. It has a nice processor, solid design and competitive price. But the custom operating system makes the whole experience more trouble than it's worth. Though highly anticipated, since its release the Adam has gotten fairly negative reviews.
But even though the selection of great tablets is sparse right now, that will change in the next few months. Here are a few tablets to look out for if you can stand to wait a little longer.
The HP TouchPad will be the first tablet to use webOS, a mobile operating system originally designed by Palm that has true multitasking and great media capabilities. The specs sound familiar: 10-inch touch screen, dual-core 1.2GHz processor, 1GB of RAM, 3G and 4G connectivity, webcam and up to 32GB of storage. The TouchPad is compatible with plenty of productivity tools, too, so you might even be able to persuade your boss to get you one. The TouchPad will likely be out in summer 2011 for an unspecified price.
If you're a BlackBerry fan, Research In Motion will soon have a tablet for you, too. The BlackBerry Playboo k is a 7-inch tablet featuring a brand-new mobile operating system that's different from that found on BlackBerry phones. The PlayBook sports a dual-core 1GHz processor, 1GB of RAM, 3G and 4G connectivity, front and rear camera and up to 64GB of storage. It caters specifically to BlackBerry owners, though, as many features will work only in conjunction with a BlackBerry phone. RIM is reportedly aiming for an April 2011 launch date and wants to keep the price at around $500 to remain competitive.
The flood of Android tablets won't stop anytime soon. And, unlike the HP TouchPad and BlackBerry PlayBook, the Android tablets will already have a healthy app development community in place when they launch.
Android tablets soon to arrive include the 9-inch LG G-Slate on T-Mobile in late March, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 (inches) this spring followed by an 8.9-inch version, a 10-inch Toshiba tablet also in spring, a couple 10-inch tablets from Acer sometime in April, and a 1o-inch Dell tablet with no release date rumors whatsoever. If you're really patient, Sony has several tablets, including a rumored PlayStation tablet, planned for release in September 2011.
In other words, if there's not a tablet that strikes your fancy now, there will probably be one soon.