Every time I read something/anything on how popular tablet PCs are and will be, I laugh. A year ago, Apple was the subject of much gleeful late night comic and tech blogosphere derision for this thing called an "iPad," which sounded to people like a digital sanitary napkin.
Then iPad sold a million units in less than a month. Everyone stopped laughing and started to drool, and product planners starting plotting their own tablets.
It's taken a year for there to be legitimate tablet choices. Motorola's Xoom is now out from Verizon, Apple's iPad 2 goes on sale Friday, Samsung's Galaxy Tab 10.1 and HP's TouchPad (which runs the webOS operating system HP bought from Palm) are due soon, and BlackBerry's PlayBook likely will go on sale a month from now.
So, which tablet is right for you?
Do you even need a tablet?
I'll answer the second question first.
That doesn't mean you shouldn't buy one, just that you likely don't need one. Unless your company issues you a one, a tablet PC is not a necessity. It's a luxury, especially if you already have a smartphone. It's a cool thing to skate your fingers around while you're watching TV, play with on a plane, use in, uh, other places, or fiddle with when you have time to kill in a waiting room or while mass transit commuting.
So, first decide if you really need a tablet PC or "need" a tablet PC because you want a tablet PC, if you know what I mean.
Location location location
First question: where will you use/carry your new toy?
If you don't have an Android phone or iPhone, consider a 7-inch tablet such as the original Samsung Galaxy Tab ($250), available from all four national cell phone carriers, or the Dell Streak 7 ($200), which connects to the internet via T-Mobile's 4G network.
A 7-inch tab fits in any jacket pocket – breast or side – or in the back pocket of your pants (just don't sit down) or in the thigh pockets of cargo pants. You cannot comfortably slide an iPad (1 or 2) with its 9.7-inch screen into the pocket of any garment except those sold by Scott eVest.
There is not and there will not be a 7-inch tablet from Apple – Steve Jobs is on record as denigrating the whole idea of such a small screen.
Working with the PlayBook
BlackBerry's PlayBook, reportedly due April 10, also has a 7-inch screen. I had a chance to play with one last week and I can't recommend it to a tablet novice or the technically challenged. PlayBook's QNX-designed operating system takes a bit of getting used – my demonstrator puzzled for a minute on something as simple as initiating a new blank email message – although it's far more intuitive and less menu-intensive than BlackBerry 6.0.
PlayBook is best used by those of you who already own a BlackBerry, especially if your company uses BlackBerry's servers. If your company does use BlackBerry servers, a PlayBook will only access email, calendar and contacts when you carry both it and your phone. Your BlackBerry phone gets "bridged" to the PlayBook for syncing and becomes a controller for PlayBook via a Bluetooth connection.
Jobs' reasons for dismissing 7-inch tablets are logical when you consider the screen area of 7-inch tablet is actually around half the size of a 10-inch screen. You get a lot less screen area than you think for more business-related activities such as word processing and spreadsheets, even less area once the touch keyboard pops up.
Worse, you can't touch-type on a 7-inch tablet's touch QWERTY keyboard. When held widescreen, the keyboard is too-wide to thumb tap like you do on a cell phone keyboard and too small to touch or finger tap type with it balanced on your lap.
Apple or Android?
In this ecosystem-centric cell phone world, if you're an Android phone owner, you'll want an Android tablet; if you're an iPhone owner, you'll want an iPad – it's a simple as that.
If you haven't chosen a smartphone yet, an iPad is your best choice for several reasons.
1. iPad is easier to grok than an Android tablet, especially those running Google's new, more intense Android 3.0 Honeycomb operating system, such as the Xoom and the upcoming 10.1-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab.
2. iTunes. iTunes makes it stupid easy to load your iPad with music, photos, videos and apps. Google doesn't make iTunes-like software. You'll have to be familiar with Windows Media player for music loading and dragging and dropping for photos and videos – inelegant and clunky syncing options if you're not Windows adept.
3. Most Android tablets are tied to a carrier, requiring a monthly connection subscription (between $25 and $50 per month, depending on how much data and which carrier) and the usual two-year cell phone contract. You can buy an Android tablet independent of a carrier, but they will still include the cell phone capability, which means they'll still be expensive: the aforementioned Dell Streak 7 with 16 GB of memory without a carrier contract is available for $450, a 32 GB Motorola Xoom sans contract is $800. Compare these to a WiFi-only iPad 2s – $500 for a 16 GB, $600 for a 32 GB model.
iPad or iPad 2?
These, of course, are prices for the iPad 2. iPad 1, as I noted last week, are available at bargain prices, at least while supplies last (Best Buy is shaving $100 off most iPad 1 models, for instance).
Is iPad 2 worth the upgrade? I haven't gotten my hands on one yet, but two things I know:
iPad 2 runs supposedly twice as fast as the original. But I never thought the original was that sluggish. (I'll know more on Friday when I get one.)
iPad adds cameras front and back, but neither is much of a camera. Early reports indicate neither are megapixel, which means both will take lousy still photos. But I also thought a rear camera on a tablet, especially one the size of iPad, was like sticking wings on a pig. Only the front camera has any value, and then only if you plan on doing video chatting.
So, considering everything, if you haven't yet made the smart phone leap but want (not need) a tablet, grab an iPad 1 at a bargain price while you can.