October 3, 2011 By Tom Rataj
It has been a whole year since I last wrote about the tablet computer, and I thought that this might be a good opportunity to revisit the market since so much has changed in the last 12 months.
Think of a tablet computer as the screen from a small laptop computer, minus the physical keyboard and the rest of the laptop. The whole computer is built into the case behind the screen, and most functionality is driven by the touchscreen, where one of more of the user’s fingers direct and control the device and the view of the information on the screen.
While text input is possible with on-screen virtual keyboards, tablets are not all that adept at extensive text entry. Where they do excel though, is in surfing the ‘net, checking e-mail, watching videos and movies, listening to music, playing games and reading electronic books (e-books). A variety of utilities can also make tablets very useful portable tools for a wide variety of tasks for business, pleasure and entertainment.
Tablets typically have a widescreen display that can be used in portrait or landscape orientation. Built-in gyroscopes allow them to automatically change the orientation of the screen when the user rotates the device from one orientation to the other.
Tablet screen sizes range from 7” to 12” in width, and usually, but not always, have an aspect ratio of 16:9 or 16:10 like a big-screen TV.
All tablets also at least feature WiFi connections so that they can be used to access the internet anywhere where there is a WiFi network such as a neighbourhood coffee shop.
Some models are also available with 3G cellular capability so they can be used anywhere there is a cellular data network. True 4G (LTE) tablets are just arriving now in time for the Canada-wide launch of LTE cellular data networks.
The vast majority of tablet brands run the free Google Android operating system (Honeycomb). There are a few Microsoft Windows 7 tablets, and the one-off offerings of the Apple iPAD (iOS4) and the Blackberry Playbook (QNX).
The Apple iPad and its iOS4 operating system are typically accepted as the best tablet product on the market, although Android based tablets and the Blackberry Playbook’s QNX are also very capable and easy to use. Windows 7 tablets trail the others in terms of ease-of-use, although, since they are real Windows 7 computers, they have some advantages in terms of compatibility with regular Windows software and hardware, such as full sized USB ports.
The majority of Android based tablets are built around the NVidia brand Tegra 2 (dual-core, 1GHz main processor). Several other processors run the remaining tablets. Apple’s iPAD uses their proprietary A5 dual-core 1GHz processor, the Blackberry Playbook uses a Texas Instruments OMAP 4430 dual-core 1GHz processor, and the Windows 7 based tablets use either an Intel Core i5 processors or an Intel Atom Z540 single-core processor (the last one making for a slow user experience).
Tablets are typically available with 1GB or 2GB of system memory and 16, 32 or 64GB of solid-state storage for user files.
Prices start at $299 for the few 8GB 7” Android tablets with WiFi only, and typically increase in price by $100 increments for every doubling of user storage memory. The more common 10.1” Android tablets start at $399. The iPAD 2 starts at $519 for the entry level 16GB WiFi only version and climbs to $849 for the 64GB WiFi + 3G version. The Blackberry Playbook ranges in price from $499 to $699 and the few Windows 7 based tablets start at $599 and climb to $1,200.
Mechanical keyboards, connected through a docking station or a wireless Bluetooth are also available for many tablets, expanding their functionality and greatly improving their text entry capability.
The Apple iPad still clearly rules the market (about 80%), having established most of the early benchmarks for what a tablet should be and do. The iPad 2 was released mid-year 2011 and finally addressed some of its first generation shortcomings, namely lack of cameras and the ability to print content created on it.
The iPad also has a minor handicap when it comes to surfing the internet; many websites use Adobe Flash to create a multimedia experience, but because of somewhat legitimate security concerns, iOS does not permit the functioning of Flash, so some websites do not function correctly.
The balance of the tablet market is dominated by Android based tablets, primarily because numerous computer and electronics manufacturers offer one or more models.
Most Android tablets are virtually identical, with very few unique features to set one brand apart from the other. Most have the same screen size, the same processor, the same increments of user memory (16, 32 and 64GB), the same price structure ($399 or $499 for the entry level model), and the same version of Android. Choosing between them really boils down to aesthetics, unique features and personal preferences.
The Canadian developed Blackberry Playbook fills out the tablet market with a unique and very capable product. Plagued by a fumbled and premature launch and inaccurate and unfair criticism by the media and stock analysts, the Playbook is actually an excellent tablet with a great operating system and user interface.
The Playbook’s smaller 7” screen has some limitations when compared to the majority of tablets, although the smaller form-factor and weight also make it easier to take along. The Playbook, although very capable as a general purpose consumer-grade tablet, shines in the business-centric world because of its secure Blackberry lineage and as a big screen extension to the Blackberry smartphone.
A major upgrade to the operating system (to version 2) in late October addressed most of the criticisms of the earlier Playbooks and the anticipated 4G versions are expected by year end. A planned 10.1” version has been delayed or even cancelled in favour of development efforts focusing on a new QNX based Blackberry SuperPhone rumoured for Q1-2012 release.
Beyond the basics of screen size, user memory, brand and operating system (Apple iOS4, Android, Blackberry QNX or Windows 7) there a number of additional features to be aware of and consider when shopping for a tablet.
Since the tablet is primarily a multi-media “infotainment” device, audio and video performance and input/output is important. Some tablets are only capable of 720p (not 1080p) video recording and/or playback, and many tablets have rear or side-facing speakers or only one speaker that results in poor audio performance.
Ease of synchronising files is also very important. Some tablets, such as the iPAD, limit synchronisation of files only to their proprietary software and cables, while other tablets use industry standard micro or mini-USB or micro or mini-HDMI connectors or even Secure Digital (SD) memory-card ports.
Some cheaper, smaller 7” Android tablets also only run the older 2.2 or 2.3 version operating system which was actually designed for 3-4” smartphones, to their screen quality is low because the image has been stretched to fill the larger space.
For really unique features, Sony’s recently introduced S1 tablet offers Digital Living Network Alliance (DNLA) functionality and infrared (IR) capability. With the DNLA functionality the tablet wirelessly streams multimedia content to compatible TV’s and home entertainment systems and with the IR functionality the tablet to be used as a universal remote control for most TV’s and home entertainment systems.
Amazon.com also recently introduced their 7” Kindle Fire tablet at US$199, undercutting the price of all tablets on the market. The Android (2.3) based Fire is largely a marketing platform for Amazon products and services and does not include any cameras or a microphone or 3G capability making it far less of a value than it initially appears to be.
Although tablets are primarily infotainment devices, their use in law enforcement has some promise. They could be used as a personal video player for victims and witnesses to review their video statements in private before court, and could readily be used by case managers for hosting personal copies of electronic disclosure files when attending court.
There are a number of rugged tablet computers available for field use such as law enforcement. Motion Computing makes the Motion J3500 Tablet PC running Windows 7 and General Dynamics makes the Itronix DuoTouch rugged tablet PC. There are also a number of rugged “convertible” tablet computers which are essentially laptop computers with touch-screens that can be rotated and folded flat to cover the keyboard. They can be used in either configuration.
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