The Tablet Trend

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Since Apple launched the iPad, rival companies have been racing to come up with their own devices, with each being dubbed the “iPad killer” on its launch – only to end in disappointment when people actually get to use them.

Other than Apple, the driving force has been Google and its Android software. Originally designed for mobile phones, it has been expanded to tablets. Indeed, Google is set to follow Apple and release a new version, known as ‘Ice Cream Sandwich’, that will work on both phones and tablets.

Apple’s iOS software, now on its fifth version, already does this, and lets developers write apps for both types of gadgets. However, while manufacturers have released countless Android tablets, and Google has produced some brilliant apps, other developers haven’t been so quick, which has really hurt the Android tablet market – many apps for Android tablets are simply scaled-up versions of phone apps. Although things are slowly beginning to change, at the moment there are only a few that really take advantage of the bigger screens.

Still, as email clients, and as web browsers – where they benefit from Flash, unlike the iPad – Android tablets work well. Google has polished the software to make the experience at least comparable with – and in some areas better than – the iPad. But Apple is still innovating – in October it released a new version of iOS, providing a major overhaul, and iCloud, which stores songs, films and apps on Apple’s servers.

Overall, it’s been a year of consolidation for the competition. The first Android tablets were, sadly, shockingly bad, and did more to boost iPad sales than anything else. But, product by product, the hardware and software has got better, to the point where Apple finally has some rivals.

ACER ICONIA A500

acer.com

Acer’s move into the tablet market has been talked about for a long time, and its first attempt is a reasonable all-rounder. The Iconia runs Honeycomb, Google’s version of its Android software designed for tablets, and it works well – the speedy model zipped through every task we threw at it.

At 756g, it’s a bit heavier than most of its rivals, and doesn’t look quite as nice as some other tablets. It also seems to have oddly sharp edges – after a while they begin to make your hands ache – and the design feels a little retro. There are cameras on the front and rear and, while still shots aren’t great, HD video footage is impressive. So is the 10-inch screen, although it seems to be something of a fingerprint magnet. At 17.7cm x 26cm x 1.3cm, the Iconia is on a par size-wise with similar Android tablets. But while it has some great features and performs well overall, it fails to stand out from the crowd.

PROS – Fast

CONS – Design is dated

BLACKBERRY PLAYBOOK

blackberry.com

Launched with great fanfare, the Playbook was, we were told, the corporate answer to the iPad. The reality has been a little different. The Playbook undoubtedly has strokes of genius – the interface is excellent and works in a wonderfully intuitive way, letting you use the screen’s bezel as part of the interface. The integration with Blackberry phones is excellent, and you’ll be able to see your emails, contacts and diary on the bigger seven-inch screen.

The Playbook’s biggest problem is apps – there are few designed to take advantage of its impressive power and screen. This is set to change when manufacturer Research in Motion releases an update allowing Android apps, but in the meantime the Playbook is a huge disappointment – it’s little more than a second screen for your Blackberry phone. The hardware is great, which makes it even sadder that Blackberry has thrown away what could have been its best chance of safeguarding its future against Apple with an innovative, well thought-out tablet.

PROS – Great integration with BlackBerry phones, innovative interface

CONS – Virtually no apps

HTC FLYER

htc.com

HTC has built an excellent reputation as a maker of phones, and has finally decided to dip its toe into the tablet market with the Flyer. It’s relatively small, with a seven-inch screen, dimensions of 19.5cm x 12.2cm x 1.3cm and weighing 420g.

As well as using your finger, there is a stylus for taking notes. You can write anywhere on the screen, which is a neat feature, although having to carry the special pen around could be annoying. The design is also a little boxy and uninspiring.

The Flyer doesn’t yet run a tablet-optimised version of Android, so you really are getting what’s essentially a giant phone, although HTC promises an upgrade is coming. The hardware is excellent and feels solidly built. But, with so many Android tablets, ultimately the Flyer is let down by the software – there aren’t enough apps optimised for its bigger screen, and while the pen makes it a great note-taker, as a general tablet it’s probably best to look elsewhere.

PROS – Small size works well

CONS – Uninspired looks

SONY S SERIES

sony.com

If Sony’s folding P Series is something of a prototype, the S Series is its grown-up sibling. It is designed to look like a folded newspaper, with one side thicker than the other, meaning the screen is slanted when it’s laid flat on a table. The 598g weight, smaller 9.5-inch screen and grippy, textured rear make it easy to hold in either landscape or portrait mode.

The S runs a customised version of Android, and Sony has added some of its own, neat software. Most impressive is the media player, which lets you ‘throw’ video and audio to your TV if it is DLNA certified (meaning you can share digital files easily), which many new TVs are. Also superb is the universal remote control software – thanks to a built-in infrared port, you can control anything in your living room.

There are some great Playstation games and Android apps, although as noted, the Android catalogue is a little limited. Despite this, the S Series is the best Android tablet on the market so far. It’s exceptionally well built, well thought-out, and looks and feels great. It is the first to really give the iPad a run for its money.

PROS – Superb design

CONS – Lack of apps

IPAD 2

apple.com

The latest version of the iPad shows that Apple hasn’t become complacent while the competition tries to catch up. The 9.7-inch screen is sharp and bright, and Apple has recently given the iPad’s software a big overhaul, adding version five of its iOS software. It’s lightning quick, with a useful new notification system that shows at a glance your latest emails and diary entries.

The key to the iPad’s success is the apps. It can run both iPad-specific apps, of which there are more than 100,000, and iPhone ones. Its software catalogue caters for everyone, from Apple’s Facetime video calling to addictive games. There’s also iMessage, a service similar to Blackberry BBM, which lets you talk to iPad, iPod Touch and iPhone users, using free messages.

The latest iPad also cuts the chord with the PC – you can use it without a PC at all, thanks to the iCloud service, which wirelessly syncs your diary, documents and emails. The camera is awful – though the front-facing camera works well for video – but it is still the best all-round tablet on the market.

PROS – Unrivalled looks and apps

CONS – Terrible camera

SAMSUNG GALAXY TAB 10.1

samsung.com

With each new Android tablet released, Google’s attempt to rival the iPad has been getting better and better, and the Tab 10.1 is a prime example of how manufacturers are getting closer to Apple – in Samsung’s case, so close that the two firms are embroiled in a long-running legal battle over similarities between the two firms’ range of gadgets.

The Tab 10.1 is lovely, with a sharp 10-inch screen that is superb for watching high-definition content, and a slim 25.7cm x 17.5cm x 0.9cm design. It is extremely fast, although the interface stumbles now and again, and isn’t quite as slick as Apple’s iOS. There is a neat but ultimately gimmicky ‘tilt to zoom’ feature that works well. As an entertainment device, it’s impressive, with games written to show off its speedy processor – but again, not as many as the iPad. A special power adaptor is needed to charge the tablet, which is a bit of a pain.

Until Sony’s S Series came along, the Tab was the undoubted winner of the Android tablet battle, if only for its similarities to the iPad. It’s a good all-rounder that is perfect for the boardroom.

PROS – Impressive design

CONS – Annoying proprietary power connector

MOTOROLA XOOM

motorola.com

Motorola’s Xoom was the first ever Android tablet to hit the market, and while the gadget was well received at its glitzy launch, almost a year on it feels strangely dated.

The 10-inch screen is decent enough, and the design is okay. Still, the overall experience lacks a certain finesse and class found in tablets such as the Sony S and iPad.

The Xoom isn’t particularly slow and, in fact, the screen works very well for high-definition videos. But, as with all Android tablets, getting video on the tablet can be a bit of a bother, and you’ll need to copy it over from a PC manually, which is slightly annoying.

At 24.9cm x 16.8cm x 1.3cm, it feels solid and well built. Graphics perform reasonably well, and it makes short work of games. However, while the Xoom is still pretty much on a par with the latest tablets, it feels very much like a first attempt – albeit a well thought-out one. With an update looming, it’s probably not going to be the first choice for many.

PROS – Uncluttered design

CONS – Held back by software

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