I have an announcement to make. I will not be releasing a tablet in 2011.
Feeble attempts at humor aside, nearly everyone has a tablet in the works. It's 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 multitouch slabs of silicon. From the world's biggest computer companies to obscure little parts makers, there will be an obscene number of companies releasing tablets this year.
So, which ones are safe to ignore and which ones are worth your attention? Here is my list of the 10 most significant tablets to watch for, at least until someone else announces another new one next week. The bottom line is that if you're feeling the urge to buy a tablet right now (currently, the two main choices are the iPad and the Samsung Galaxy Tab) then my recommendation would be: Don't do it. Wait for one of these 10 instead.
10. Notion Ink Adam
The Adam tablet from Indian startup Notion Ink has been germinating for a long time — maybe too long. Notion Ink finally unveiled the product in December and started taking pre-orders. It's an Android 2.3 tablet with a custom interface. It's Eden UI offers a drastic re-think of the Android interface, based on vertical panels (here's a demo from CES 2011). The other unique thing about the Adam is that it uses PixelQ technology, a low-power transflective display that is viewable in full sunlight.
9. HTC Flyer
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, HTC was remarkably silent on the tablet question in Vegas. However, the company officially launched its first tablet a month later at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. It is the HTC Flyer and it's a 7-incher with 1.5 GHz CPU, 1.0 GB RAM, 32GB of Flash storage, an attractive unibody design, and a special version of the HTC Sense UI designed for tablets. Unlike most of the other Android tablets, the Flyer also includes digital ink technology and a stylus. However, the Flyer will not run Android 3.0. Instead, it will launch with Android 2.4. HTC is also reportedly working on a 10-inch tablet (the "Scribe") running Honeycomb and connecting to Verizon LTE.
8. Acer Iconia
Acer tried to beat the tablet deluge at CES by announcing its Iconia tablet at the end of 2010. Unforutnately, the Iconia is still getting lost in the shuffle, and that's a shame. The Iconia is a power tablet. This thing features dual 14-inch touch screens, a Core i5 CPU, and a full range of computer ports to match the average laptop. It also runs the full version of Windows 7, which will make better for productivity tasks but harder on battery life. The most innovative thing about this one is that the bottom screen has multiple input options, including a full virtual keyboard, a multimedia controller, and customizable touch gestures. Lots of companies have envisioned making the dual touchscreen idea work, we'll see if Acer can pull it off (and do it at a reasonable price).
7. T-Mobile G-Slate
Another promising tablet that's flying under the radar is the T-Mobile G-Slate, built by LG. This Android 3.0 Honeycomb tablet will run on T-Mobile's new HSPA+ network. Also called the LG V-900, it features a 9-inch screen, a 1.0 GHz dual core NVIDIA Tegra 2 processor, 32 GB of flash storage, HD video capture, and a front-facing camera for video chat. Outside of the US, the LG will be marketing the G-Slate under the product name Optimus Pad. One of the best things about the G-Slate is that it runs the stock Android Honeycomb OS, without a custom UI layered on top. The most gimmicky things about the G-Slate is that it can capture 3D video (which you'll have to use 3D glasses to view during playback).
6. Samsung Sliding PC 7
Another Windows 7 tablet that is legitimately intriguing is Samsung's Sliding PC 7. It looks like a normal 10-inch tablet, but includes a slide-out keyboard that turns it into a fully functional laptop. The hardware manages to deftly combine slimness with keyboard usability, based on the demo at CES. For those who don't want to carry both a laptop and a tablet, hybrid devices like this could carve out a new niche. This one has a 1366x768 screen, up to a 64GB solid state drive, 2GB of RAM, and built-in 3G and WiMAX chips. Since it runs all of that hardware and the full version of Windows, battery life and cost could both be concerns.
5. 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, the company had demo units available to caress at CES (see demo) and the PlayBook looks like it could become a factor in the tablet market, especially for businesses that are already invested and committed to the BES backend infrastructure. This is a 7-inch tablet, so that limits its appeal a bit — except for the vocal minority who claim to like the smaller form factor — and it faces the same concerns about battery life and price as Windows tablets. Still, the hardware feels great and the QNX operating system appears to have been successfully adapted for tablets. BlackBerry die-hards alone could turn this one into a winner.
4. ASUS Eee Pad Transformer
ASUS believes that the iPad has two weaknesses — lack of choice and limited productivity (content creation) — so that's where the company is focusing its energy in tablets. At CES, ASUS unveiled its line of four tablets, and three of them were aimed at content creators. The most interesting was the Eee Pad Transformer, a 10-inch tablet with a dual core NVIDIA Tegra 2 CPU that will run 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. If Android and ASUS can pull off a tablet UI that also plays well as a laptop when the Transformer is in dock mode, then this one could be highly useful. It will also be interesting to see if people prefer this dockable keyboard on the Eee Pad Transformer versus the slide-out keyboard on the Samsung Sliding PC 7 or even ASUS Eee Pad Slider (a cousin of the Transformer).
3. HP TouchPad
I think we can safely call this one the "X factor." Even after Hewlett-Packard officially unveiled its webOS tablet on February 9, there are still two big questions hanging out there - when exactly will it arrive ("summer" is all we know) and how much will it cost? This product has been in the works since HP bought Palm last summer. Putting the resources of HP behind the massive potential of webOS could be great combination. Also, don't forget that HP has a decade of experience building tablet hardware (even thought it was as part of the long defeat for Microsoft's Tablet PC). HP's new TouchPad is 9.7-inch tablet with lots of high-end features, but it doesn't have much to distinguish it from Apple or Android and that could hurt. The tablet will likely succeed or fail based on price. If it is comparable to the iPad ($500) while offering a stronger feature-set, it has a shot. If it's more expensive than the iPad then it could struggle.
2. Motorola Xoom
When Google is ready to make a leap forward with Android, it anoints a hardware partner to work closely with the company on the new software and produce a device that will be initial concept vehicle of what Google envisions. For its Android 3.0 tablet OS, Motorola is the chosen one. And, interestingly enough, the Motorola Xoom will not only be the first Honeycomb tablet, but it will also be the first tablet to run on Verizon's new 4G LTE network (a.k.a the new mobile superhighway). This 10-inch widescreen tablet has drool-inducing tech specs and is expected to launch by early March, although the 4G version won't land until mid-year. The one big drawback is that the Xoom could be pricey. It will reportedly cost $700-$800. There might be a lower subsidized price, but that would include a two-year Verizon contract and a data fee of at least $20/month. Keep an eye out for the Wi-Fi only version of the Xoom, which is expected to launch later this spring. That one might be more competitive on price.
1. Apple iPad 2.0
The iPad remains the king of the category and, even with the invasion of an army of challengers, it's difficult to see a scenario in which the iPad won't retain a commanding market share lead when we get to the end of 2011. It still has too many factors in its favor: usability, battery life, a massive catalog of apps, and price. The last factor might be the most important. Price has been the iPad's greatest marketing weapon, and rivals are having a very hard time meeting the iPad's price tag while still offering a comparable experience. The iPad 2 probably won't bring any revolutionary new changes — it will likely be a little thinner and lighter, have an upgraded processor, and feature front and rear cameras — but the most important thing about the iPad 2 is that it could give Apple a further advantage in price. After manufacturing over 15 million of the first-gen iPads, Apple will be able to squeeze out more efficiencies, and the component costs will have decreased over the past year. The result: Apple will be able to pack in more and better technology for the same price with the iPad 2. Meanwhile, the company could decide to drop the price on the first-gen iPad to further undercut its rivals.
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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's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.