A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to engage in some high level discussions around tablet usage in the enterprise. One of the participants went on at length about how tablet devices are bloated with too much software, that they are only good for games and movies, and that in the aggregate, they decrease productivity and provide more distraction for end users. This same person then went on to extol the benefits of the true business tablet. When the presentation opened for questions, the room was uncomfortably silent. I could almost feel people quietly putting their “consumer” devices away with embarrassment.

This “anti-tabletarianist” discussion got me thinking about what I might choose as the quintessential business tablet on the market today. If I was going to try to make a justification for which tablet is best for business, what criterion would I use, what parameters would I set, and what currently available devices would make the grade?

The criterion

A business tablet must be:

  • Powerful under the hood — processing power, RAM, storage
  • Easy for IT to manage
  • Expandable in meaningful and familiar ways
  • Uncluttered by bloatware
  • Help desk/End user replaceable parts
  • Able to run enterprise-level apps
  • Cost effective within the tablet space

The challenge

This was a significant challenge for me, bigger than I expected. As a full-time mobile device manager for a large insurance organization, I handle a lot of devices and especially a lot of tablets — in fact, I have four on my desk right now. In one sense, I agreed with the foundational premise that the gentleman laid out. End users are so accustomed to using consumer-grade tools at work, that it’s sometimes hard to look past the familiar into what might be best for the business.

Sometimes, the push for a certain tablet or brand overwhelms the “C-Suite’s” sense of reason and good planning. This is often the case with mobility because the mobile initiative tends to occur from the top down. The key then becomes getting the “top” to approach mobility with the same focus and sharp pencil as other initiatives in the business. This rarely happens.

The normal course for tablet integration looks more like this: your CIO says, “I got this cool tablet, make it work — and get my assistant one too.” Now, it’s off to the races with everyone justifying their tablet acquisition against the holy grail of integrating more closely with their direct manager. Soon, everyone has the tablet du jour and IT is wondering where all of these devices came from. A much better approach is to look at mobility as a force multiplier and a business platform and plan accordingly.

Removing our preferences for a particular brand, the “cool factor” of a particular pad, the implied status that having certain types of tablets inevitably confers, and a whole host of other personal and political complexities is difficult. Basically, we aren’t always rational when it comes to choosing our mobile devices.

When I set out to make my choice for the quintessential “business-grade” tablet device, I thought I’d just put on my IT propeller beanie and make a selection. Stripping off the layers of preference was a bit more difficult than expected, but I think I was finally able to make a reasonable choice.

Not everyone will agree with my selection, and that’s completely OK. In fact, I’d very much like to hear your reasons for choosing a different tablet, but I’d also like to have you ask yourself why you have chosen differently. In many cases, you’ll find your core reason to be represented in my short list above.

The winner

What is the overall best “business-grade” tablet on the market today? After reviewing most of the available options, I’ve chosen the 10.1-inch Toshiba Thrive. The Toshiba is fairly new to the tablet space, and I’ve had good experiences with the company overall.

Why Thrive? First, the facts with a splash of opinion. In regards to the specs, it met every criterion with greater flexibility than its competitors.

1. Powerful under the hood — processing power, RAM, storage

Toshiba puts the power where it counts:

  • NVIDIA Tegra 2 1GHz Dual-Core Mobile
  • 1GB DDR2 RAM

Toshiba makes its first really impressive move in the storage department. There are 8, 16, and 32GB models available, but I was very impressed with the inclusion of the full-size USB port. I tested this out fairly rigorously, even streaming 1080p video from a flash drive onto the tablet; it worked well with video enhancements turned off. The ability to easily and simply attach storage to the device makes even the 8GB model look very attractive.

2. Easy for IT to manage

Yes. Remember that this is a tablet for business, not a platform for “agitated aviaries.” The Thrive offers some advantages over other tablets from an IT management perspective. First, the ability to easily back up data from the device without any proprietary cables is a big plus. A flash drive or mini USB cable will do the trick.

The Android OS itself makes the device very controllable from a mobile device management (MDM) standpoint. There are many vendors offering very robust Android controls for device management, but my favorite is 3LM (Three Laws Mobility). 3LM functions like a BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) for Android, and it lives up that promise. In my opinion, Android + 3LM will make it the OS of choice for IT and operations-level governance of corporate devices over the next two years. When Android releases a Federal Information Processing Standards (FIPS) compliant device — I predict within the year — watch out, because it will be a game changer for enterprise level adoption.

I realize that the Android + 3LM combination will apply to most Android devices and not the Thrive exclusively. It was worth mentioning as a criterion for excluding more popular tablets in the space that simply don’t play as well with corporate IT.

3. Expandable in meaningful and familiar ways

Thrive has this nailed. With the Thrive, it’s “all your base are belong to us” when it comes to expandability. Thrive’s terrific Multi-Dock allows for HDMI out, two additional USB ports, attachment to USB keyboard and mouse (yes, they work), and connection with meaningful physical assets like an external USB drive of any size.

Thrive has delivered what I really wanted from a tablet all along. The ability to “dock” it and use a bigger screen, have a full-size keyboard and mouse, and share media easily. Toshiba has taken a grand step in creating a native File Manager to help out where the native Android OS is lacking in this regard. The File Manager makes it super simple to move data from a computer to the tablet (and vice versa) with a simple and familiar file interface. When I’m not at my desk, I can just grab it out of the dock and go — when I return, I put it back and everything is there. Frankly, this rocks.

The HDMI feature is great, but what I really wanted to see was the ability to extend my tablet screen onto a larger monitor — not just mirroring. It would have been great to have one of the adjacent desktops on the Thrive show up on my monitor and allow me to use the native screen as a smaller, additional screen in a sense. Nobody has done this yet, but it would make things so much more flexible.

4. Uncluttered by bloatware

There wasn’t much in the way of additional apps on the Thrive, and I could uninstall most of what I didn’t want. I wasn’t impressed with the Toshiba-only apps — App Place and Book Place were obvious add-ons. But compared to other tablets on the market, it wasn’t loaded down with apps I’ll never use. I did miss the obvious presence of a task manager.

5. Help desk/End user replaceable parts

Here again, Toshiba got it right — user replaceable battery and back cover. The Thrive is fairly big and almost “chunky” as compared to the iPad or Samsung Galaxy, but with all of those full-sized ports, what else could they do? In all frankness, I appreciate the fact that Toshiba expressly avoided the gravitational pull of the iPad and decided to actually go in an original direction. I think it could be slightly slimmer, but it works, and it basically comes with its own lightly protective case.

6. Able to run enterprise-level apps

I will avoid the obvious question of “what is an enterprise app” by saying that there are actually a few, but that’s a different article. I found the Toshiba Thrive to have more than adequate power for whatever I tossed at it. I credit the Tegra Processor and 1GB of RAM with its adroit handling of some of the major apps for business, like an enormous PDF in Good Reader. The USB interface was also interesting in this regard, since the transfer speeds were very good — even good enough to watch video directly from the USB drive without issues.

7. Cost effective within the tablet space

Totally. Cheap tablets are getting cheaper and the “less cheap” tablets are holding steady on price these days. Comparing the cost of the 16GB Thrive to the 16GB iPad was a $100 difference at MSRP. Better deals on each could be found online. A business purchaser could easily get a 16GB Thrive, Multi-Dock, and Toshiba (Android optimized) wireless keyboard for less than just the comparable iPad without accessories.

Final analysis

The Toshiba Thrive is a very capable tablet. Its full-sized ports and replaceable parts make it a great choice for IT and help desk departments looking for something that’s easy to maintain and service. The Android OS, when coupled with top-tier Mobile Device Management (MDM) vendors, like 3 Laws Mobility (3LM), will make managing the Thrive as comprehensive as managing a BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES). The lower cost of the tablet and the replacement parts makes it viable for operations and departmental budgets alike. But that’s just the business side of the equation.

The truly exciting features of the Thrive are its ability to dock and connect easily and seamlessly with keyboard, mouse, monitor, and storage options that you already have on site and in the end user’s cube. From a business standpoint, leveraging existing and familiar architecture is an easy win. IT doesn’t have to build a mobile hardware silo because it can use its PC infrastructure as-is.

In my final analysis, the Toshiba Thrive is worth a serious look as a “business-grade” tablet that works well and can integrate with the way employees are already working today. The Thrive isn’t an iPad. That can be good or bad depending on your perspective and the political issues surrounding the “status” that having a corporate tablet confers. If those issues are surmountable, the Thrive can save the enterprise considerable dollars and implement easily, which saves you money to purchase the MDM system to manage the devices with the same level of policy that IT manages computer workstations and laptops.