Tablet Roundup

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No flash in the pan, tablets have gone mainstream. Mobile touch screen computers are proving that you don’t necessarily need a physical keyboard to enjoy entertainment, gather information and communicate by text or live video. 

Thanks to the growing availability of wireless networks, the compactness and falling cost of solid-state storage, more powerful processors and a critical mass of popular apps, tablets are causing users to rethink why their second or third computer must be a notebook or netbook.

With B&H offering some 20 different models as of midsummer and new tablets arriving every month, shopping for a suitable tablet can be an exercise in confusion. You need to know what all tablets have in common, and how to identify the major and subtle differences, based on your needs.

First, the current assortment of tablets all sport multi-touch screens ranging in size from about seven to ten inches. Most tablets are well under an inch thick and weigh between one and two pounds. They typically embed solid-state drives (SSD) for storage and rechargeable lithium-ion batteries for power. They almost always contain at least one camera with a set-in microphone. They’re all equipped with one or two speakers and an earphone jack, but you usually must supply your own earphones. Tablets always have an earphone jack but otherwise are distinguished by a scarcity of hard buttons, inputs and outputs. They all come with a USB cable for connection to an included AC adapter or to your computer for transferring content and charging (that is slower than it is with the AC adapter). All tablets are Wi-Fi enabled for browsing the Internet, streaming music or video, checking email and downloading apps, eBooks and other content. They all include Bluetooth, a protocol for connecting wirelessly to such peripherals as keyboards, speakers, headphones and controllers.

Given their similarities, tablets would seem to be on equal footing. They’re not, which becomes obvious when you click through the links in the accompanying chart and discover price differences in the hundreds of dollars. Aside from obvious variations like screen size and resolution and the amount of included memory, what differentiates tablets above all else is the operating system (OS) chosen by the manufacturer. At last count, there were three platforms: Apple’s iOS, Google’s Android and Microsoft’s Windows.

Each OS is designed differently and utilizes its own set of gestures, but none are difficult to use once you get clued in. For example, instead of touching the “X” on an upper right corner in Windows to close something, you swipe a finger upwards along an open app in webOS. What may be more important than any learning curve to climb if you’re unfamiliar with a particular OS is identifying the type of apps you desire to use on a given tablet. With some 90,000 apps made for the iPad, Apple’s iOS offers the most sumptuous smörgåsbord. Android apps have been exploding for phones, though the number optimized for tablets lag behind. Windows-based tablet apps are expected to grow with the release of Windows 8 in 2012. Still, all tablets support general browsing, email, video playback, photo slide shows, music listening and book reading. Multimedia content can be stored in each device itself or streamed from the Internet. Some tablets also enable you to stream photos, music and videos stored on your home network.

One thing that Android and Windows have in common: they all support the Adobe Flash format, which means you can play Flash-based video commonly posted on Web sites and used for some games, too. Apple’s iOS does not support Flash.

Depending on how and where you plan to use your tablet, connectivity options are an important part of your buying decision. Since an 802.11 b/g/n transceiver is built into almost every tablet, you should be able to get on the Internet wherever you have access to a Wi-Fi hot spot, whether it’s through your home network or a public network that doesn’t require a password. Still, if checking email and surfing the Web take a backseat to viewing content loaded from your computer prior to using the tablet, wireless connectivity may not be critical. On the other hand, if you want the security of having access to the Internet when Wi-Fi isn’t available, you may want a model equipped with a broadband data transceiver that works in conjunction with a pay plan from a specific cellular carrier. For example, certain iPad and iPad 2 models enable you to pay AT&T or Verizon for the flexibility of transferring a fixed amount of data through their networks each month. The Viewsonic Viewpad 7 is 3G compatible. 

B&H recently added the Samsung Galaxy and Sony Tablet S to its constellation  of tablets. However, it does not offer the RIM BlackBerry PlayBook or the 3G version of Motorola Xoom—just the Xoom Wi-Fi version.

Even if a tablet doesn’t have a built-in cellular data transceiver, there may be a way to leverage another device. For instance, Wi-Fi-only iPad and iPad 2 users may be able to piggyback on data plans they already have through an iPhone 4 or iPhone3GS they own. Expect to pay an extra monthly charge for that capability.

Slots, inputs and outputs are other things you may find attractive, especially since the leader in tablets, Apple, has chosen to provide only a proprietary docking port. A tablet rich in I/O is the Acer Iconia Tab W500P-BZ841. Not only does it have two USB ports and an SD card slot, but it also sports an RJ-45 Ethernet jack for bypassing Wi-Fi, and an HDMI output for sharing the tablet’s picture and sound on an HDTV set.

In order to minimize a tablet’s size and weight, some manufacturers have chosen either to incorporate micro USB, microSD and/or mini HDMI ports instead of standard-size ports or have moved ports to an accessory dock or keyboard. Shrunken ports still do the job, but you need to make sure you bring cables and cards that fit the smaller-than-standard size connections. Accessory docks with ports are available for the Asus eed pad Transformer, Archos 9 PCtablet, Acer Iconia Tab A500 and Motorola Xoom. Be aware that the port lineup varies by model. So, the Port Replicator for the Archos 9, for example, includes a VGA and two USB ports as well as Ethernet, mic-in and headphone-out jacks, but Motorola’s Xoom Basic Dock taps out with a 1/8-inch audio line output and micro-USB port. The Asus Transformer Docking Station adds two full-size USB ports and a full-size SD card slot.

Though a tablet doesn’t look anything like a camera, most tablets contain one or two cameras, along with a nearly invisible microphone. When a tablet is described as having a front camera, there will be a lens positioned above the screen and it will mainly be used for video calling through services like Skype or FaceTime. When a tablet also has a rear camera, it’s meant for photographing or video recording your surroundings. Image resolution depends on the model. Better tablets can record video at 720p. Front-camera resolution is generally 1.3 Megapixels (MP) but some models offer as little as VGA (640 x 480 pixels or 0.3MP) resolution while the Toshiba Thrive, Motorola Xoom and Acer Iconia Tab A500 are each equipped with 2MP front cameras. Each of the threesome is also paired with a 5MP rear camera. What’s unusual about the Xoom is the dual LED flash that supports the front camera.

Camera settings included on a tablet are typically on par or below those available on a point-and-shoot camera. The Asus eed pad Transformer, for instance, lets you set white balance (auto, incandescent, daylight or fluorescent); picture size (on the rear camera, between 5MP and VGA; on the front, 1MP or VGA); three picture qualities (superfine, fine and normal); and a “color” effect (mono, sepia and negative) before taking a picture. The front camera offers incremental digital zoom up to 2.5X; the rear up to 8X.

Most tablet makers have followed the Apple design of incorporating a non-removable battery, but a few make it easy to take extra power or additional rechargeable batteries with you. The ASUS eee pad Transformer, for instance, embeds a battery under the keyboard of the optional Transformer Docking Station, which nearly doubles the longevity of the tablet’s own power. The Fujitsu Q550, Toshiba Thrive and Archos 9 PCtablet enable you to carry a spare battery, while the Swari MID-7B4 includes a car adapter for powering the tablet during long trips and tailgate parties. The latter also comes with a remote control and an IR emitter on the tablet itself. If you’re looking for something most manufacturers have neglected to include, the Cydle MultiPAD M7 comes with earphones and a detachable rotating stand/case—accessories not required. Just want the earphones? Viewsonic’s ViewPad 7 includes them, too.

Among other unique features we discovered in our tablet roundup was a 250GB hard drive option (instead of a much smaller capacity SSD) available for the Archos 70 internet tablet. Hard drives continue to offer the maximum return on your storage dollar. An oddity aimed at those who want a well-designed productivity tool is what’s bundled with the Archos 32GB 9 PCtablet. The Archos 9 is preloaded with Lotus Symphony, the integrated office suite that first garnered attention about the time Miami Vice was riding high. Meantime, if you can’t make up your mind between getting an Android tablet and sticking with Windows, get a Viewsonic Viewpad 10 Dual-Boot tablet and let the two OS’s fight it out.

While sound quality isn’t a top consideration when choosing a tablet, at least two models are standouts. The Asus eee pad Transformer contains SRS Sound technology for 3D-like audio.

Peruse the accompanying chart for a closer comparison and click through the links in the first column for more information about each model. Given the wind that tablets currently have at their backs, there could be one alighting on your lap in the near future.