Weekend Tech Scan: Tablets - It's time to get one

Despite some horrendous stumbles, tablets are already being used by 30 percent of all Americans. This writer's choice of personal tablet may surprise you.

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iPad 2

Despite some horrendous stumbles, tablets are already being used by 30 percent of all Americans. This writer's choice of personal tablet may surprise you.

If you’re even thinking about getting a tablet for yourself or someone else during the holiday season, you may want to know about the good, the bad, and the ugly sides of this paradigm-shifting technology, launched only 19 months ago.

But don't let it stop you from buying one. In fact, do so, I recommend it.

I’ve come to a few conclusions about the tablet’s use by “civilians,” and I’ll get to those in a moment. I'll also tell you the tablet I chose for my personal use.

First, the upside. By the end of this year, according to a recent study by eMarketer (and reported by TabTimes.com), 33.7 million Americans will use a tablet on a monthly basis. By 2014, that figure will increase to 90 million: close to 30 percent of all Americans. The same report supports the overwhelming dominance of Apple iPad tablets, and projects that iPad users will comprise 68% of the overall US tablet audience by 2014.

The rest of the tablets are largely based on the Android operating system, and that's where you’ll find the good, the bad, and the truly ugly. 

While Apple will doubtlessly remain the market leader for some time, the figures quoted above do not reflect the introductions of the Amazon Kindle Fire and Barnes & Noble’s Nook Tablet. While no reliable figures are yet available, most analysts agree that the Kindle Fire is posting strong sales — one estimate expects as many as 5 million Fires to be sold by the end of January — and may be the only tablet challenging the iPad’s sales dominance in any significant way.

Why these two devices? First, they’re priced well: $199 for the Kindle Fire and $249 for the Nook Tablet. Both define clearly what they’re meant for: book reading first and multimedia second (e.g., movies, TV shows, gaming, etc.). You get what you pay for, in the best sense of the  word.

Then there is the other side.

I can only imagine what the Christmas parties will be like at the offices of Research In Motion (RIM) and Dell, respectively makers of the once all-but-ubiquitous Blackberry smartphone and once the world’s largest PC maker. In recent days, both companies have watched the virtual collapse of their individual tablet efforts.

RIM had high hopes for its PlayBook tablet: a $399 7-inch Android-powered tablet that was introduced last January at the CES consumer electronics tradeshow extravaganza. But lacking email, a calendar, or messaging (unless you had a Bluetooth connection to a BlackBerry phone), the handwriting was on the wall from day one.

On December 2, RIM announced it was taking a $485 million writedown against the unsold PlayBook tablets still in its warehouses. A scathing article in the U.K.'s Guardian guesstimates that RIM may have as many as 2.5 million unsold units, and, all told, the company will lose as much as $1.5 billion on the technological misadventure.

Then Dell rounded out the week by killing off its Dell Streak 7-inch tablet, having earlier killed off a 5-inch version of the same technology, as noted in this report from NewsFactor.com. No dollar amounts were available for the loss.

Lest anyone forget, earlier this year we also saw HP’s tablet meltdown, as its WebOS TouchPad tablet was discontinued and its existing stock sold off for just $99 each. The cost of that adventure is estimated anywhere from $400 million to $2 billion.

This is serious money.

What killed these tablets? While each had its own individual failings, a combination of over-pricing, poor functionality, and the Apple juggernaut were enough to consign them to the technological waste basket.

Still they keep acomin’. This week Motorola and Verizon jointly announced two new tablets — the XYBOARD series, that will come in 8.2 and 10-inch sizes and have both WiFi and the 4G LTE cell phone data service built in. The pricing? The smaller tablet will start at $429 and the larger tablet at $529.  Here’s the ZDNet write-up from Seattle blogger Matthew Miller — appropriately scornful of the whole overpriced enterprise.

So why should you care? 

Tablets are not a tool for geeks. They're for all of us, and can be a great addition to your life. They give you the best of the digital world in a package that starts right up, gets to the information you want and need much faster, and can be used anywhere. Technically smartphones do all that as well, but even the largest smartphone screens are too small to do everything you want comfortably. If I had to choose between a tablet and a smartphone (versus just a plain cell phone), I would choose the tablet, hands down.

They are not a fad. Both developers and you, the general public, are constantly finding greater uses for them in both work and play. Moreover, despite the sales figures (and failures), the marketplace is still in its infancy as we all try to figure out what these devices are all about.

After experimenting with iPads, several flavors of Android tablets and both the Kindle Fire and the 2 Nook devices, I finally figured out the one I wanted: the 7-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab. It’s an older model, circa 2010 (!) featuring the Android Gingerbread operating system (OS). It doesn’t have the latest Honeycomb software, nor will it be eligible for the upcoming Ice Cream Sandwich update. It doesn’t have the newest dual-core processor.

But it provides virtually everything I want. I can view my contacts, email and messaging, all synced with Google. I read newspapers and magazines, watch movies and live TV, listen to music channels and stations from around the world, and play some games.

Could I get virtually all these services from either the Kindle Fire or Nook Tablet? Yes, of course, but I want my choice of apps.  I can respect the quality of Amazon’s apps, or the Nook’s choice of vendors, but I value my own choices and am willing to pay for the pleasure. 

The unit is lightweight (at 14 oz.), has a reasonably powerful 1Ghz processor, front and rear cameras, a microphone, and a deliciously bright screen. It handles movies on WiFi without jerking; the pictures look beautiful. I have access to the Android Market and the Amazon App Store so I don’t want for varieties of apps. It lives on my bedstand, not in my office; that's how personal a tool it is for me.

I would have bought the newer Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus with the Honeycomb OS, retailing at $399, except for a weird technological glitch that substantially reduces the screen brightness in browser mode, which makes viewing anything in the browser quite uncomfortable.

At this point, there aren’t enough killer apps built for the Honeycomb OS for me to miss having it. I’m also choosing not to turn on the Sprint data cell network. I have WiFi; who needs instant connectivity from a tablet at an additional $35 a month cost (for 2 gigabytes) and an additional 2-year contract when I have a cell phone for that?

And while the Android world has yet to come up with the variety and sheer brilliance of many of the iPad apps, perhaps 80 percent of what I want can be found using a web browser, book readers, services that give me access to off-network TV shows and movies, and a few selected games.

As a tech writer, I have both this tablet and an iPad, and there are occasions when the iPad's brilliance is on full display — for instance the new Rolling Stone Magazine app of every Beatles song every written. But for the most part I’m quite happy with my older, non-state-of-the-art Android device. It gives me the services I most want and the ability to choose what I want — and that’s enough.

In a month, the annual CES electronics show will come calling.  I’m sure there will be many more tablets with more powerful processors and high-definition screens. Microsoft will almost certainly show a tablet based on the Windows operating system. But unless some company has some game-changing hardware or software, something that introduces some new, original or magical thinking that exceeds what is already available, I think I’m likely to stick with my personal tablet choice for the foreseeable future.


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