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Weekend tech blog: Is a tablet right for you?

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.

While costs are starting to equalize (you can buy a 32-gigabyte WiFi-only Motorola Xoom or iPad for about $600), Android tablets are notably short on apps designed for them: some 95,000 iPad-specific apps vs. less than 100 for Android Honeycomb-specific tablets, according to the Wall Street Journal.  

Major apps have been slow in making the transition to Honeycomb: the Kindle reader is there; Netflix and Barnes and Noble/Nook apps are still coming. At Google’s I/O development conference, developers were urged to bring more apps to market for the full spectrum of Android devices, but I’ve seen no rush of tablet-specific apps emerge.

If you use your Android smartphone apps on your tablet, their performance and appearance can be unpredictable; iPhone apps translate reasonably well to the iPad, by contrast.

There has yet to be an Android tablet breakout device, although many are trying, such as the Xoom and the BlackBerry PlayBook. This past week, the HTC Flyer, a 7-inch Android tablet featuring a specially designed stylus for handwritten notes and artwork, was introduced. Also during the week, Acer’s Iconia Tab A500 came to market with a price/performance rivaling a 16-megabyte iPad 2. (I had hoped that the Barnes and Noble announcement during the week would have been about an inexpensive tablet competitor, but alas, it was for a new book-only reader.)

Many, including me, are waiting for Amazon to reveal its tablet plans. Reports allege that it is developing two different tablets and backed by Amazon’s powerful delivery services for reading, video, and music, an Android apps market, and cloud services for music and possibly more content. In addition, since Amazon recently introduced ad-supported versions of its Kindle readers at reduced prices, the idea of the company adopting a similar strategy for tablets is rumor catnip.

Then there’s Microsoft, eerily silent to date on its tablet plans, which may be finally disclosing its tablet plans next week, according to a Bloomberg report. The idea of a tablet wholly compatible with Windows could definitelty shake up the market — if the tablet is innovative, lightweight, powerful, and price-competitive.

Finally, HP, no slouch at product introductions, announced plans in January to develop its own tablet based on the Palm webOS platform. The latest rumor is that it may have a version in time for the 2011 holiday season. 

Bottom line: I will wait a few months to buy a tablet, possibly as far out as September, to see what the market produces. If you need or want one now, by all means get an iPad. Just remember, whichever you buy, you’ll be wedded to that operating system with its upsides and downsides.  If I were betting, I would look to Android for the most innovations in the future, but that’s just a guess. 

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