Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The current state of tablets


Tablets are all the rage, and none of them are what the original Tablet PCs started out as.  I’ve been following several tabletPC related forums to get the most out of my HP TC1100, and my “new” HP 2730p tablet PCs.  Note the “PCs” part of it.  What makes a tablet PC?  The tablet part comes from the world of drawing tablet input devices.  Those are things like Wacom Intuos or Bamboo pads that attach as a peripheral to a PC for input.  These use active digitizers to sense where the pen is over the tablet.  The PC part comes from the fact that there’s a whole PC hiding behind the drawing tablet.  So a tablet PC is a full computer with an active digitizer. 

Lately, folks have been wandering into the forums “what tablet should I get” sections asking about cheap android “tablets” or other iPad alternatives.  What happens is general confusion, as the tabletPC crowd doesn’t really know anything about crappy android tablets, and the people asking don’t know anything about active digitizers or actual tablet PCs. 

So, what are these new fangled “tablet” things that look like a duck, and sound like a duck, but most certainly are not ducks?  They are generally slates (no hardware keyboard) designed with finger touch in mind.  Many well known, and lesser known companies are throwing their hats in the ring and building tablets on one of several different platforms.

First off, the iPad.  Apple calls it magical and revolutionary, but never a tablet.  They never intended for it to be used with a pen for writing or drawing.  It is primarily an entertainment/media consumption device.  It comes in one size and one color, unless you count the iPod touch as a smaller version of an iOS based media tablet. 

Then the Android tablets. 
They come in two main flavors – crap tablet and trying to be iPad killers.  There are both foreign and domestic crap tablets.  The foreign ones are coming mostly from China and are unbranded.  It can be hard to know exactly what you’re getting in terms of specs and quality and future support is basically non-existant.  There are also crap tablets available right here in the US.  Most notable are the Augen thing available at Kmart and the Pandigital Novel (top right in the photo) which is trying to be an eReader but makes a nice Android tablet with some hacking.  These are all generally under $200 and made with slow processors and resistive touch screens.  They come mostly in 7” or 8” widescreens. 
In between sit the Archos tablets.  They’re a little bit more expensive and a little bit higher quality.  Archos is a known company, although customer service can be spotty.  They run at a decent speed but still have resistive touch screens.
At the top end are the companies really trying to compete with the iPad.  Most notable is the Samsung Galaxy Tab.  It is fast and based on a capacitive screen.  It’s also expensive.  These are almost all 7” widescreens.  Bestbuy is growing an ever increasing collection of the higher end ones.  At least you can play with them in store.

Then there are the windows tablets.  What’s the difference between these new little slates and full on tablet PCs?  The most notable difference is the lack of active digitizer.  They are primarily built on netbook class internals, and run some lower end version of Windows, either Starter or Home Premium.  Those with resistive touch screens have the advantage of being somewhat inkable with plastic tip styluses.  While not near as smooth or accurate as an active digitizer, it’s usable with Windows tablet tools.  The capacitive screens offer a smoother touch experience but there is little chance of finding a working stylus.  Styluses meant for the iPad generally perform poorly on these capacitive screens.  Most notable in this class are the Tega V2, Ctl 2goPAD, Netbook Navigators, and several other me-too offerings that were announced at CES last year and will be shown off again at this year’s CES, but have yet to make it to market.  They are mostly between 9” and 11” widescreens.

Then the miscellaneous tablets.  The HP slate promises to be a great little windows 7 slate with an active digitizer but built on netbook class specs and shrunk down to a lightweight 9”.  However, despite claims that it was shipping when they started to show it off at the end of October, and being orderable on their website, they have yet to get a single slate into an end user’s hands.  There is a coming blackpad to built on blackberry’s OS, and rumors swirling of a PalmOS 2 tablet coming after HP’s acquisition of Palm.  There are also the bigger linux based slates like joojoo and Kno.  The joojoo went mostly nowhere and has been killed.  The Kno is still in pre-order land. 

So what does it all mean?  It means there is mass confusion in the market.  There are too many very different devices all being called tablets.  Luckily, you still get what you pay for.  If you’re looking at an “iPad” killer for $80 that runs “google” it’s crap.  If you want a real computer that can be used for work as well as fun, it’s still going to cost you.  If you’re looking for entertainment in a slate, it’s going to be a good $600+.

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