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Weekend tech blog: Is a tablet right for you?

A close-up and personal look at tablets, good and bad, and some thoughts on whether it's time to get one. With rumors about Microsoft and Amazon entering the market, Apple or Android may not be the only question.

So much of the tech news these days is about tablets that I thought it might be worthwhile to talk about why you would or should even want one — and which one you might choose.  

I’m being careful here to use the generic term “tablets.” While the iPad is virtually synonymous with tablets, it’s clear that the market is still wide open for development and innovation.

Roughly 8 percent of the North American public have already become tablet users, and up to 27 percent will own one by 2012, according to a USC study — this in a stunningly short 16 months since Apple introduced the iPad.  

Of the available tablets, a Gartner report pegs iPad ownership at 84 percent, and predicts that Apple will retain 47 percent market share by 2015, with Google Android devices owning 39 percent.  

That looks like a two-horse race from here, but that's extrapolating data and trends from only one-tenth of the potential market. Technological innovation has the strange habit of upending even the savviest prognosticators.

What’s more important than statistics, however, is the reality that tablets are changing the way we work with computers. A Nielsen study, quoted in PC World, says that roughly one-third of tablet owners report they’re using their desktop PCs less or not at all, and similarly selecting tablets over laptops, netbooks, ereaders, and portable music players.   

I was a reluctant buyer when I bought an iPad in mid-2010.  It was becoming obvious that writing about tech and ignoring the iPad was impossible, so I ponied up my $656.99 for a 32-gigabyte unit and prepared to be disappointed.

How wrong I was. In the 10 months since I bought my tablet, it’s become the center for my news, email, movie and TV watching, music listening, radio surfing, book reading, research, gaming, and more. The screen is larger than my smartphone, it's less awkward to manipulate than a laptop. And I can carry it from room to room: bedroom, kitchen, bathroom.  

It simply is there for me, wherever I am.

Yeah, I’m a fan . . . but I’m a fan of the tablet concept, not necessarily of the iPad. Most of the apps I enjoy on my iPad are available on my Android smartphone, so the greater number of available Apple over Android apps holds marginal appeal to me. 

Realistically, I use perhaps 10-15 apps on a regular basis: email, browser, Kindle ebook reader, Comcast/Xfinity remote, Slingbox TV mobile app, Netflix, New York Times, Skygrid and Feedler news aggregators, and Chuzzle and Entanglement games. (Some months ago, I wrote here about cross-over apps supported by both iOS and Android smartphones.)

Then there's my list of iPad negatives. The iPad makes it difficult to see sites employing Adobe Flash animation; I find it infantile that Apple leaves me virtually no choice about whether I want to use Flash or not.  The result is their Safari browser blocks video or animations on the iPad, leaving a gaping hole on a Web page. (Skyfire and iSwifter browser apps help a bit in Flash viewing, however.) Multi-tasking is also weak in my view.

I tried using the built-in iPad keyboard to write a report from a conference and wound up vowing never, ever to try that again. Horrible experience. And there’s no way to use a mouse with an iPad.

On the other hand, while I would enjoy using a newer Android tablet — the Android Honeycomb operating system will work with either a Flash or Bluetooth mouse — the current crop doesn't warrant the expenditure.  

Generally speaking, Honeycomb is not as smooth operationally as the iPad OS. The newly released 3.1 version may solve some of those problems but Honeycomb is still problematic. (This Motorola Xoom review from the Guardian will give you some idea of the issues.)

A wide variety of Android tablets are coming into the market, but the availability of the Honeycomb OS, let alone the Honeycomb 3.1 upgrade, zigzags wildly from device to device.  Some devices may not be capable of being upgraded to Honeycomb — in other words, they're dead on arrival when it comes to upgrades.


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