Saturday, 24 December 2011

The Year in Tablets


Roundups,Tablets & E-Book Readers

            When tablets first showed up, they were met with head-scratching, furrowed brows, the chirping of crickets. The form factor just didn't click, the software wasn't right. The earliest tablets ended up being the pet rocks of the digital age.
But Apple turned everything around with the introduction of the first iPad, a success born equally of a smart design centered around a touchscreen, a operating system built to best utilize its unique characteristics, and a content portal to fill it with a wide range of inexpensive software (OK, and lots of savvy marketing).
Now, the tablet has truly came of age. We have several competing mobile operating systems, a wealth of apps, and long lists of successes and failures. And with every stumble, a lesson learned — not just by the companies making these devices, but by us, the buying public, who continue to ask what purpose tablets serve, what holes they fill in our lives, and the type of world they're leading us toward.
Photo by Jim Merithew/Wired

Apple iPad 2
Far and away still the tablet to beat, and still the device controlling the conversation for the entire post-PC industry. All Apple did was put the first iPad on a treadmill — it shed some weight and gained some speed to become the ipad 2. It's only a few ounces lighter and a few millimeters thinner, but it's much faster. Pricing stayed the same, starting at $500.
It's incredible what a difference the physical changes make. Imagine how significant thinness and weight are for people using tablets in a professional field that requires a lot of moving around, such as doctors who could use the iPad to replace a stack of X-rays, architects relying on an iPad as an interactive display for blueprints, or students using the iPad as an all-in-one textbook, note-taker and daily planner. The thinner and lighter a tablet gets, the more useful it becomes for various types of customers. The iPad 2's soft keys still aren't ideal for typing compared to a physical keyboard. However, this problem seems to be eroding over time.
The other big change is speed. Apple's newer A5 system-on-a-chip roughly doubles the performance of the original iPad, making the entire iOS experience just buttery smooth. And the Smart Cover, a folding, protective layer held in place by magnets, (sold separately for $40 to $70), is an accessory people are actually buying.
Photo by Jim Merithew/Wired

Amazon Kindle Fire
Amazon's 7-inch tablet  kicked off a firestorm of anticipation when it was announced this fall. But when our Kindle Fire arrived weeks later, we were left wanting. We gave it a 5/10 rating and declared it too clunky, slow and limited to fully recommend. Still, Amazon succeeded in bringing something fresh and clever to the tablet space — namely, an insanely low price of $200 — and customers responded by snatching them up.
With no camera or 3G connectivity, the Fire lives at the bottom of the tablet food chain, and this limits what the Fire can actually do as a piece of mobile hardware. The concept — a cheap device to goose digital sales of books, movies and music — was lauded by the press, but the accolades shouldn't have been interpreted as explicit endorsements of, well, a device that people might actually want to use in the real world. In our experiences, it's great for watching movies, OK for reading, awkward for gaming, and just plain awful for browsing with the inexplicably slow Silk web browser.
Still, the Fire presents a pretty good bargain for anyone who's only comfortable with cautious toe-dipping in our presently murky (and expensive) tablet waters. At $200, the Fire crosses an impulse-buy threshold — albeit a steep one — that Apple's $500 entry-level iPad 2 can't even approach.
Photo by Jon Snyder/Wired

Barnes & Noble Nook Tablet
All eyes are on Barnes & Noble's Nook Tablet as the device that could give Amazon's super-hyped Kindle Fire a run for its money. It's got enough swagger to make it an underdog worth rooting for: a $250 price tag, a bright, 7-inch touchscreen and access to millions of books, magazines and videos.
We spent a week with both the Nook and the Fire, and our own impressions are a mixed bag: The Fire doesn't hold a candle to the Nook as a tablet, but Barnes & Noble's device is more expensive, and the content ecosystem it's tied to isn't nearly as good as Amazon's. Both are fixable conditions, but in the here and now, the Nook wins as something even veteran iPad users won't resent using.
The Nook Tablet is a device made more for reading than anything else, but it isn't likely to supplant either e-ink readers or full-featured tablets. As a niche device with a defensible price point — $50 more than Amazon's offering, $100 more than a top-drawer e-ink reader, $250 less than an entry-level iPad — it satisfies the tablet craving. But it's not a slam-dunk, "gotta-have-it" thing. So the Nook Tablet earns a seat at the table, just not at the head. — John Abell
Photo by Ariel Zambelich/Wired

Motorola Xoom
The original Xoom, released just weeks before the iPad 2 in February 2011, was the first "real" Android tablet. It ran Google's Honeycomb operating system (which was created specifically for tablet deployment), and offered a 10.1-inch screen — a big step up from 5- and 7-inch Android devices running Google's smartphone OS. That first Xoom, however, offered none of the finesse, elegance and app support of the iPad. And then came the iPad 2, which quickly eclipsed all Xoom media buzz.
The first Xoom was lightweight (in a bad way), plasticky and cheap-feeling. Hardware details were unsettling, such as the location of the power button (on the rear of the device), the lack of front-facing command buttons, and the unfamiliar location of the volume rocker.
But once you oriented yourself to the Xoom's idiosyncrasies, what emerged was a tablet very well-suited to reading and to video. It sold in OK numbers, but it wasn't a smash. With an $800 entry price (or $600 if you were willing to commit to a two-year Verizon data contract at $20 per month), the Xoom required too big a leap of faith. You can now get a Wi-Fi-only Xoom for $500.
However, the future is promising for the Droid Xyboard, Motorola's Xoom redo which arrived in December. It's slimmer, lighter and faster than the first Xoom and has a better display, but such a modern device really should be running Ice Cream Sandwich instead of Honeycomb.
Photo by Jon Snyder/Wired

Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime
Taiwanese company Asus made major waves when it announced the Transformer Prime — it uses the 1.4GHz Nvidia Tegra 3 quad-core chip, making it the first tablet to brave the leap to the next-generation mobile processor. We haven't gotten a chance to formally test one yet (the first units reportedly just shipped, and are due to arrive around the turn of the calendar year) but from a short hands-on session, we can say it certainly has some serious chops.
Price-wise, the Transformer Prime sits in the same ballpark as the iPad 2 ($500 for the 32GB model, $600 for the 64GB) and, by way of an optional $150 keyboard dock, it can easily be converted into a better-than-a-netbook-class 10-inch laptop. It also has a microUSB port and a microSD card slot, and it works with standard console game controllers. It runs Android 3.2 — sadly, no Ice Cream Sandwich yet.
But its biggest differentiating feature is that beefy chip. It's fast, fast, fast, and it sips power — the battery should last around 7 or 8 hours at full tilt. We expect to see a few Tegra 3 tablets at CES in January.

Motorola Droid Xyboard
Motorola is taking another shot at the tablet game with the Droid Xyboard, the company's latest Android device to hit Verizon stores. After a quick hands-on session, we found it to be a solid, well-performing slate that's easy on the eyes. Too bad it has such a stupid name — outside the U.S., it's just called the Xoom 2.
It's available in an 8.2-inch version (shown above) for $430 and a 10.1-inch version for $530 — both with a two-year contract from Verizon. Off-contract pricing starts at $700. There are options for 16GB or 32GB of memory on the smaller version, and up to 64GB on the larger one.
The most striking thing about the Xyboard is its design — rather than being perfectly rectangular, it has clipped corners, which actually makes it fit more comfortably when holding it one-handed. The back, too, shows some stylistic creativity. A rubberized outer rim houses a power button and volume rocker, while centered in the back of the tablet is a sheet of dark gray brushed metal held in place by six visible screws. Think robot chic.
Both Xyboards look slick and feel good in your hands, and they are powerful enough to provide successful tablet experiences. It's a bit of a shame they're shipping with Honeycomb instead of Ice Cream Sandwich, but that's certainly not a deal-breaker, as updates will surely follow. What's a real shame, though, is that the Xyboard line arrived in December, and not six months earlier.

Samsung Galaxy Tab
Samsung put out three Galaxy tablets this year — all of them follow-ups to 2010's nice-but-expensive-and-slow Galaxy Tab 7.
Most interesting to us is the 7-incher, officially called the Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus, a sleek and pretty Android 3.2 tablet which joins the growing portfolio of slates eschewing the "bigger is better" philosophy.
Aside from its size, the 7-incher (shown above) doesn't offer radically different specs relative to the 8.9- and 10.1-inch Galaxy Tab models. It runs a 1.2GHz dual-core processor backed by 1GB of RAM, and comes with 16GB of storage in tow.
It's also loaded with Peel software, which turns the device into an oversized 
TV remote control for most home entertainment systems. Tablets have long been marketed as casual consumption devices, ideal for using while half-engaged in TV watching. The Peel software, then, situates the smaller Samsung Tab in a perfectly resonant environment — we already use tablets while watching TV, so now let's use them towatch TV.
Read Mike Isaac's full hands-on reports on the 10.1-inch and 7-inch Galaxy Tabs.
Photo by Jon Snyder/Wired

Toshiba Thrive
The operating system and processing specs are largely the same on the current crop of Android tablets. So when the big stuff is baked, it's the little things that make a device stand out.
Toshiba's Thrive tablet is a stand-out, alright — it's the biggest and heaviest of the tablets from the major manufacturers. Being the fattest kid in class sounds like a silly way to differentiate. But the extra bulk allows for some attractive features absent in other tablets, namely an array of ports closer to what you'd see on a laptop than a tablet: HDMI, USB and an SD card slot. Using these ports, you can attach all sorts of external devices or, more importantly, add extra storage to augment the tablet's on-board memory (the cheapest Thrive ships with only 8GB).
Toshiba gave us two Thrives this year, the 10.1-inch beast during the summer (which also has a user-replaceable battery), and the more diminutive 7-inch Thrive (shown above) for the holidays.
Read our full review by Michael Calore.
Photo by Jon Snyder/Wired

Sony S Tablet
From the front, the S looks like every other tablet: boring, shiny and flat. But from the side or the back, you can see it resembles a magazine with the front cover and the first dozen pages folded around back. The black plastic shell wraps around the fat "spine" and continues across the back of the tablet, tapering off and ending before it goes all the way to the other end.
This goes against the Code of Tablet Design, which mandates thinness above all else, and from which we've seen very little deviation. But while Sony's S is bulky (at least along the "spine" edge) you don't notice it. It's supremely comfortable to hold with one hand — more comfortable than the thinner and lighter tablets, even though it weighs about 1.3 pounds, the same as an iPad 2.
There's another advantage of the wedge shape, which is that when you set it down to type on the screen in landscape mode, the top of the tablet is propped up towards you a little — much better than typing on a touchscreen that's lying totally flat.
These Sony tablets are a bit too expensive ($500 and up) and they have bulky proprietary chargers (oh, Sony ...) but they double as touchscreen IR remote controls, they work well as e-readers, and they can play PlayStation games.
Photo by Jon Snyder/Wired

RIM BlackBerry Playbook
The BlackBerry PlayBook tablet is a good-looking piece of hardware. But once you turned it on and started using it, things got complicated.
The PlayBook was the first honest attempt at a tablet for the workplace, a niche Research in Motion cornered on the mobile end with its BlackBerry smartphones. But the PlayBook's software suffered from numerous missteps and oversights, especially in the drought of useful apps available at launch (a "business tablet" with no native e-mail, contacts or calendar apps?), the lackluster performance of Adobe's Flash player, and a browser about as stable as your bipolar uncle.
The multitasking QNX-based BlackBerry Tablet OS was pretty, but it suffered from sluggishness and a lack of polish. The tablet also launched with a high price structure starting at $500.
It's sinking RIM. Not only is the company coping with dismal PlayBook tablet sales, it's also taking a near half-billion-dollar hit for sitting inventory that must now be sold at rock-bottom prices — PlayBooks are going for as little as $200.

Photo by Jon Snyder/Wired

Samsung Series 7 Slate
The jury is still out on Windows 7 tablets — and, at this point, it looks like it may never come in — but with the Series 7 Slate, Samsung at least gives this difficult niche the old college try.
On paper, it gets off to a good enough start: The 11.6-inch LCD is gloriously bright (if you can keep the blasted auto-dimmer from engaging) and offers a 1366×768-pixel resolution. Under the hood, the 1.6GHz Core i5, 4GB of RAM, and 128GB SSD hard disk would be capable specs for just about any standard laptop. And yet, at 1.9 pounds, the Samsung manages to weigh in at not much heavier than most 10-inch Android tablets.
Sure enough, performance is on par with similarly equipped laptops — as is the price, at around $1,300.
We had some quibbles with it, but the most serious issues with the Series 7 aren't Samsung's, they're Microsoft's. To date, most Windows tablets are targeted for "vertical markets" like healthcare and manufacturing management, where users are constantly on their feet and need full-on Windows at the ready. But the Series 7 lacks the ruggedness most of these devices boast. More casual users will likely wonder why none of this works "as well as my iPad," and that's a fair criticism.

Photo by Michael Calore/Wired

HP TouchPad
The weirdest tablet story of the year, hands down, was the saga of the HP TouchPad.
The 10.1-inch tablet was released in July as an exemplar of the company's beautiful, mobile-minded WebOS. The only problem: Nobody freaking uses WebOS, so app pickings were slim and buyers were scarce. Forty-nine days after launch, rumors were circulating that third-party retailers were sitting on hundreds of thousands of unsold units. In a panic, HP slashed prices, reducing the cost of the $500 16-gigabyte TouchPad to $100, and the $600 32-gig version to $150.
Consumers can't say no to a $100 tablet, so of course all those TouchPads were scooped up in mere hours. Doubling down on the accidental success, HP put another round of refurbished TouchPads up for sale on eBay in December.
They've since become valuable to Android hackers, who have successfully gotten Google's mobile OS running on the TouchPad. But most people who bought one for $100 likely just slapped some velcro on the back, hooked up a pair of speakers, and stuck it on the wall in their kitchen.
And what will happen to WebOS? It's been released under an open source license, and HP is hinting that there might possibly be a WebOS tablet in 2013. Oh, brother.

Photo by Jon Snyder/Wired

Velocity Micro Cruz
The secret's out: People love cheap tablets. With the Kindle Fire and the TouchPad selling like hotcakes, Velocity Micro — a brand better known for its ultra-pricey, high-end gaming rigs — is getting in on the game with a couple of bargain-basement Android tablets.
The 8-inch Cruz T408 is $200, right in line with Amazon's offering, and the 10-inch T410 is only $300. Beyond simple cost, the biggest pro about the Cruzes (both of them) is the way they look: These are sophisticated, highly refined tablets that look great and feel sturdy. They're considerably thinner than most tablets and their svelte design makes using them a breeze.
In order to get the price down, corners clearly had to be cut, and lots of them. The screen resolution is lower than on competing tablets, but the dimness and rotten viewing angles are the bigger issues. The interface is no-frills, specs are minimal, and the battery lasts a paltry 3-4 hours.
It adds up to, well, nothing very impressive. But fortunately VM has a major ace in its sleeve in the form of pricing that undercuts its competition by half. But then again, if you're that broke you probably shouldn't be buying a tablet in the first place.

Lenovo Tablets
Lenovo gave us a couple of tablets this year — the business-minded ThinkPad Tablet, which we didn't like, and the IdeaPad K1 (shown above), which had a bit more game.
The curvy, $250 slate hardly breaks any new ground on the design front, but the rounded, rubberized, and textured back is nice. Android 3.1 is standard, along with a host of preinstalled apps. Spec-wise, the K1 offers a (very bright) 10.1-inch screen, 1GB of RAM, 32GB of storage (plus a microSD slot), dual cameras and a plenty-powerful 1GHz Nvidia Tegra 2 processor. Connectivity includes a monster 30-pin-to-USB connector, headphone jack and micro HDMI. As is becoming the unfortunate standard, you can't charge via USB — the 30-pin connector has to be used with the included AC adapter.
The only real problem here is screen responsiveness — we had difficulty getting taps to register. There's nothing much else to complain about with the K1, but not much to get fired up about, either. In a rapidly expanding world of Android tablets, each one seems just about as good as the next. The K1 is a tough and handsome entrant, though, and if you're trying to extricate yourself from the Appleverse, it's compelling enough to recommend.

Acer Iconia Tab
At the beginning of the year, laptop manufacturer Acer announced it too would dip a toe into the tablet waters. Its first offering, the 10-inch Iconia A500, wasn't anything special, but Acer's second tablet, the Iconia A100 (shown above) is much more successful. The 7-inch form factor makes it a mean e-reader, and the fact that it packs an unskinned, vanilla install of Android 3.2 makes it an attractive buy for Android purists.
Just before the holidays, the retail price dropped from $330 to as low as $250 (at Best Buy), making it an attractive option for just about everyone — especially those who balked at the limited functionality of the similarly priced Kindle Fire and Nook tablets. Beware: The 8GB of on-board capacity will fill up quickly, and the battery will only last 4 or 5 hours between charges.

Dell Streak
Dell chose not to sit out the Tablet Wars the way it did during the Struggle Against Smartphones. No, Dell fought hard, which is to say it poured a ton of money into what was obviously a hole of futility.
Its biggest volley in the skirmish was the Dell Streak 7, an overgrown version of the 5-inch tablet it kinda-sorta released in 2010. In most ways, the Streak 7 was a typical Dell affair: foolishly overdesigned in an attempt to stand out, and coming up short all around. The size (7 inches diagonal) and operating system (dusty old Android 2.2) pitted the Streak 7 squarely against stronger offerings from Samsung and Acer. Sadly, that's a battle the Streak lost on virtually every front.
Sales were non-existent, prices were slashed, and now it's gone forever. If you bought one, at least you can upgrade it to Honeycomb.

Photo by Jon Snyder/Wired

HTC Tablets
The Aztecs invented the wheel, but only used it to make children’s toys. If the Aztecs had invented a tablet with a pressure-sensitive stylus, it would look a lot like the HTC Flyer. An overpriced 7-incher with a pointless digital pen, the Flyer was a disaster for anything but watching in-flight movies.
A little more welcoming was the HTC Jetstream (shown above), a 10-incher built for AT&T's 4G network. The chunky, half-inch-thick tablet runs Android 3.1 and comes with 32GB of storage and a microSD card slot.
The price is a steep $700 with a $35/month AT&T contract that gives you 3GB of data per month. Without a contract, it's $850, and you can buy data plans on a month-to-month plan: $15 for 250MB and $25 for 2GB.
Photo by Ariel Zambelich/Wired

No comments:

Post a Comment