Tablets are the technology's industry's latest gold rush. With Apple selling 15 million iPads in 2010 and projected to sell as many as 45 million in 2011, everyone wants a piece of the public's sudden infatuation with these multitouch slabs of silicon. From the world's biggest computer companies to obscure little parts makers, there have been an obscene number of companies releasing tablets this year and the number will only increase in 2012.
Which ones are safe to ignore and which ones are worth your attention? In February, I wrote a piece called The 10 hottest tablets to watch in 2011. Most of these tablets have finally come to market, a lot of them flopped, and other new tablets have popped up. In May, after reviewing many of these tablets, I wrote the first version of my leaderboard, with a lot of tablets moving up or down in the rankings. I updated it again in August.
Now that the holiday buying season has arrived, here is my latest assessment of the top tablets of 2011. You can view it as a slide show or as a list below.
10. HTC Flyer
Over half of the tablets on this list are powered by Android and HTC is one of the powerhouses of the Android ecosystem. Unlike rivals Motorola, Samsung, and LG, who all unveiled high-end tablets at CES 2011 in January, HTC was remarkably silent on the tablet question. However, this spring, HTC announced the Flyer, a 7-incher with a 1.5 GHz CPU, 1.0 GB RAM, 32GB of Flash storage, and a special version of the HTC Sense UI designed for tablets. The Sense UI is by far the best Android skin on the market and it doesn't disappoint on the Flyer, even though it's running on top of Android 2.2 and not Android 3.0. Also, unlike most of the other Android tablets, the Flyer includes digital ink technology and a stylus — and it's an excellent implementation. Unfortunately, the Flyer hardware leaves a lot to be desired. It is thick, awkward to hold, and feels like an oversized smartphone.
9. HP TouchPad
A lot of people will think I'm being extremely generous by putting the TouchPad on the list since HP has officially killed product. But, if HP hadn't killed it, I would have ranked the TouchPad No. 3 on the list (although keep in mind that my primary audience is people who use technology for business). Since you can still buy the TouchPad on eBay for $200-$300 and there are continual rumors about HP resurrecting the product, I'm going to keep it on the list for now. As I wrote in my review, the TouchPad actually trumps the iPad in productivity (especially messaging) and web browsing, but it lacks the entertainment and media options that most consumers want and the hardware feels cheap and clunky. Read my full review.
8. BlackBerry PlayBook
I was at the event last fall where RIM announced the BlackBerry PlayBook and my first impressions were not very good — mostly because RIM kept it behind glass. However, after getting my hands on the final product, I was a lot more impressed. There are things to like about the PlayBook, especially for businesses that are already invested and committed to BlackBerry smartphones and the BES backend infrastructure. This is a 7-inch tablet, so that limits its appeal a bit — except for the vocal minority who like the smaller form factor. Still, the hardware feels great, the tablet OS is easy to figure out, and the performance is staggeringly good. It's also one of the best tablets for Web browsing because of its excellent implementation of Flash, although the 7-inch screen is a drawback for trying to read text from most web pages. Also, if you don't have a BlackBerry smartphone to tether to this one, then it's difficult to recommend it over other tablets. Read my full review.
7. Motorola Xoom
In the past, when Google was ready to make a leap forward with Android, it anointed a hardware partner to produce a device that would be something of a concept vehicle for Google's vision. For the Android 3.0 tablet OS, Motorola was the chosen one and the Xoom was that device. This 10-inch widescreen tablet launched with drool-inducing tech specs but the Android tablet software was incomplete and desperately needed more apps. The other big drawback was the price. It launched at $799 without a contract ($599 for Wi-Fi version). Today, you can get the Xoom for as low as $429 for the Wi-Fi version. It's still the most industrial-strength Android tablet on the market, but it's also a little heavy and bulky compared to newer hardware. The Xoom rising again on this list because the 4G version is now available and the Xoom 2 is just around the corner. Read my full review.
6. B&N Nook Color
When the Barnes & Noble Nook Color e-reader got an update to Android 2.2 and its own app store earlier this year, it turned into a viable low-cost tablet. Some will argue against it, since it has a heavy-handed UI forced on top of Android and doesn't run the full Android Market app store. But, I couldn't leave this little 7-inch tablet off the list. It has a great form factor — thin and easy in the hands — and you can't beat the price at $249. Plus, if you're highly technical, you can hack it into a full Android tablet. The Nook Color tablet will get ahardware upgrade in November.
5. Toshiba Thrive
This is the Swiss Army Knife of tablets, and I'm talking about the big Swiss Army Knife that has a zillion tools including scissors and a plastic toothpick. The Thrive is all about the specs and ports. It's a 10-inch tablet running Android Honeycomb 3.1 and it features a removable battery, a full HDMI port, full USB port, Mini USB port, and full SD card slot. This tablet is a bit of a tank. It's bulky and a little heavy, but also feels very sturdy, similar to the Motorola Xoom. With all of these features and a price starting at $400, the Thrive is winning over plenty of technophiles and Windows enthusiasts.
4. ASUS Eee Pad Transformer
ASUS believes that the iPad has two weaknesses — lack of choice and limited content creation ability — so that's where the company has focused its attention in tablets. The Eee Pad Transformer is a 10-inch tablet with a dual core NVIDIA Tegra 2 CPU that runs Android 3.0. The most innovative thing about this one is that it has an optional keyboard dock that also functions as an extended battery, giving the device up to 16 hours of life. With the Transformer's dock mode, ASUS has pulled off an Android tablet that also doubles as a laptop. Plus, the price is right. At $399, this tablet is one of the best values on the market, so it's no surprise that it it sold out in the US on its first day of online sales.
3. Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1
The original Samsung Galaxy Tab was a 7-inch tablet that jumped the gun on Android tablets before Google was ready, but it offered the first legitimate challenge to the original iPad. If it wasn't so expensive ($600), it might have faired even better than the respectable sales numbers it posted. Samsung's second try at the tablet market is a lot more potent. The Galaxy Tab 10.1 is a gorgeous piece of hardware. I usually don't like Samsung's plastic mobile hardware (it always feels cheap to me), but the Galaxy Tab 10.1 looks and feels great. It is razor-thin, light, and still feels sturdy. It has all the specs you'd expect for a high-end tablet — great screen, dual cameras, solid battery life, and a dual-core NVIDIA processor. The only drawback is the software. It runs Android Honeycomb with the Samsung Touchwiz UX, which adds very little, doesn't have a very appealing UI, and doesn't have all of the experimental features (like browser thumb controls) as stock Android. But, Samsung is making these tablets very friendly for enterprise buyers and it can run on Verizon's 4G LTE network.
2. Amazon Kindle Fire
I've had the Amazon tablet on this list for most of the year, and I've taken a lot of heat for it since the product wasn't officially announced until September 28. I've maintained throughout the year that the Amazon tablet is destined to be No. 2 in the market by the end of 2011, and I still believe that now that Amazon has unveiled the Kindle Fire. The fact is that Amazon is better positioned to compete with Apple than any of the other tablet makers because of its strengths in content and cloud computing. Amazon already had the Kindle e-book library and Web-based music and video stores, but in 2011 it has added the Amazon Appstore for Androidand Amazon Cloud Drive. The Kindle Fire has one other huge asset going for it — a $199 price tag.
1. Apple iPad 2
The iPad remains the king of the category and, even with the invasion of an army of challengers, the iPad will retain a commanding market share lead when we get to the end of 2011. It still has too many factors in its favor: dead-simple usability, long battery life, a massive catalog of apps, and a respectable price. The last factor might be the most important. The iPad's rivals have had a very hard time beating the iPad's price tag while offering a comparable experience. The iPad 2 doesn't offer any revolutionary changes over the original iPad. It's thinner and lighter, has an upgraded processor and display, and adds front and rear cameras. It's a nice refinement, and with its big advantages in apps and entertainment, it easily has enough value to keep it at the top of this list — even for business users, who want the apps for business tasks and the games and entertainment for plane rides (and to distract the kids once in a while). Read my full review.
Which tablet would you pick?
Jason Hiner has nothing to disclose. He doesn't hold investments in the technology companies he covers.
Jason Hiner is Global Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Global Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about how technology is changing the way we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.