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Tablet Wars: Who’s Camp are You In?

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This may well be the most hotly contested piece of technology real estate since the advent of the personal computer 30 years (almost to the day). And as all the players scramble to market – in many cases nowhere near ready – everyone is asking: “Who has the best tablet available?” Which one is faster, more powerful, more secure, and able to leap buildings in a single bound? Well, that is a little like asking “How long is a piece of string?” In other words, it is completely dependent upon what you are looking for…

…or what you find are the most compelling options. No one manufacturer has it all – but the way I see it, that’s a good thing. It means that the tablet has not been commoditized like the PC (yet) and there are some choices out there which means the consumer wins. So then, who does rule the roost? Nobody – but there are some nice options available on each that make them the king of what they do with the flipside being the things they don’t do; many of them glaringly bad. I’m not going to do a “Pros and Cons” comparison because what’s a pro to me maybe a con to you, or if not a con, you may not find it overly compelling. For example, the PlayBook has full 1080p HD streaming but if you don’t watch movies, who cares?

Apple iPad

Ah, the ubiquitous iPad… Gotta hand it to Jobs, he singlehandedly created an incredibly vibrant market sector. And being first out of the gate certainly never hurts. Great look and feel, great hardware and gazillions of apps. OK – so thousands of apps are repeats like weather apps and newspaper readers (and is an app that makes your device sound like a light sabre when you swoosh it through the air really an app?). It’s hard to resist the Apple cachet. Still though, as pretty as it is, it is surprisingly short on technology. Brutal camera, weak multitasking (weak is being politically correct) and a lack of Flash are awfully glaring. Betting the next gen will fix many issues but as long as Jobs is at the reins, it’ll never run Flash. And anyone who has ever used a PC will rue the way Apple forces you into doing things the Apple way. Case in point is the inability to add a picture as an attachment to your email. You have to go into your pictures and send it that way. Am I nitpicking? Maybe. But flexibility is important to me. Again – personal preferences rule the day in this youngest of technology sectors.

BlackBerry PlayBook

It is no secret RIM is getting their butts kicked out there. Kinda sad, really. Wasn’t that long ago that RIM ruled the world. They still make the best phone – yes, I said phone, NOT smartphone and the nicest hardware keyboard out there – but we aren’t talking phones, we’re talking tabs. The PlayBook is fast, responsive, and has without a doubt the nicest screen of the bunch – even if it is only 7 inches. Incidentally, look for all the other players to come out with a smaller footprint a la the PlayBook. I wonder if RIM will come out with a larger footprint…? The aforementioned 1080p display is to die for but speaking of dying, the app availability is absolutely abysmal. If you aren’t an app junkie, maybe you don’t care. You can get all the usual suspects (yes, weather and newspaper readers as well as travel, music, photo editors and even a SharePoint app) but beyond that, it’s pretty bleak. The webOS-like layout is very nice; great way to move between apps with good scrolling action. But no native email app? Are you kidding me? Aside from the phone hardware, that’s what made BlackBerry great! Yes, you can tether to your BB for mail and claendars but what if you don’t own a BB? Talk about shooting yourself in the foot, RIM. You just shut out everyone but BlackBerry users and your market share is dwindling already. Just plain dumb. Native communication apps are due late this summer but… the PlayBook may well fade into insignificance which begs the question: is RIM ripe for a takeover?

HP TouchPad

Speaking of webOS… HP accuses RIM of stealing the webOS touch and feel but they stopped short of suing them so its just noise. This baby could make a serious run at Apple. Why? One word: Enterprise. With the PlayBook stumbling and flailing about and Apple making no bones about being a consumer device (I know, lots of folks in the business world use them but the reality is, they don’t play nice in the office), and with a confusing number of versions of Android available, the door is wide open for HP who already is deeply entrenched in serving the business world. The TouchPad with its webOS is slick, very slick. The native email, calendar, etc has to be seen to really be appreciated; it could make you throw away Outlook it’s that good. Up to 16 Exchange accounts can be configured. How cool is that? And their Touchstone charging unit is the best out there (as is their “Just Type” search feature). Just toss your TouchPad, in or out of the case, on the Touchstone for instant charging; no more fumbling with teeny adapters. Still, it is not without its warts. The word processor and spreadsheet app will read Word docs and Excel spreadsheets but that is all it will do – read. No editing capabilities whatsoever! Seriously HP, that’s pretty lame. Like everyone else, HP promises lots of updates. And reports would suggest it has memory issues and the video chat stutters worse than Colin Firth. Rush to market? Guilty as charged. But HP is taking the long view – look to webOS to spread like wildfire in the coming years. Could be an OS threat to Microsoft (who isn’t even mentioned in the tablet world – what’s up with that?).

Android

I have to lump all Android tabs into one category even if their respective hardware is different. While Android is really picking up steam in the smartphone category (they currently ship more Android devices than Apple iPhones), the jury is still out with tabs. The thing that makes it so great is also its greatest weakness: Open Source. By the time an Android device gets into your hands, the OS has been done over by Motorola, Samsung, HTC, Acer or whoever else has licensed it. And Google gives preferential treatment to the big players by restricting the version of Android you can use. For example, the latest Samsung Galaxy (STILL not available in Canada) gets to run Honeycomb and the soon to be released Ice Cream Sandwich, but Viewsonic doesn’t. They are still wallowing in v2.1. Its at the point where not all Android apps run on all Android devices. And with the Google / Motorola deal hanging out there, the future is really uncertain for those hardware manufacturers who have built there devices for Android.

So in the end analysis, they are all pretty cool with no one device leading the technology curve. Apple may be selling the most tabs but the competition is really nipping at their heels from a technology standpoint. Apple will need to work hard to stay on top for sure. Which one is right for you? Well, much like automobiles, you’ll have to decide what’s important to you and then go test drive them. Let me know what you find because I’m not certain which one to buy yet either.