Why your next PC will be a tablet

Sleek, ultramobile computers are transforming the tech landscape. Here’s what you need to know about the new spate of slates.

The world of computing is at a crossroads. The primary computer for most users today is not a PC; it's a phone. While the PC sits on a desk at the office or on a coffee table at home, smartphones go everywhere with us and integrate into every part of our lives. But despite getting smarter and smarter, phones are too small to replace PCs completely. We need a device that bridges the gap between what PCs do and what mobile phones do. That device has arrived. Welcome to the age of the tablet.

Unlike earlier, arguably premature efforts to transform tablet computing into a mass-market reality, today's models are here to stay. The new wave of slates is rolling in fast and furious, offering a tsunami of diverse options for every user.

Break From the Past

The concept of a tablet PC isn't new, but its definition has radically changed. What we used to call a tablet was just a laptop with a screen that swiveled around and folded back, yielding a bulky machine that was uncomfortable to carry as a slate and awkward to use as a laptop. That unsatisfactory hybrid was simply where the state of technology took us in previous efforts to create "tablet" or "slate" computers.

Things shifted thanks to advances in smartphone tech­nology. When the Apple iPad hit the market last spring, critics quickly dubbed it a giant iPhone without the phone. That description speaks to the technology that makes possible the iPad's ap­­pealing dimensions, but it does not do justice to the iPad. In fact, the iPad altered everything we thought we knew about tablets, and other hardware manufacturers are following up on Apple's success quickly.

Today's tablet is exactly what the name implies: a thin slab, dominated by its screen. These slender systems generally max out at 1.5 pounds, and few of them take up more space in your bag than an old-fashioned composition book would. The software for tablets has changed, as well. Instead of struggling to run a full-fledged version of Windows, which requires a significant amount of processing power and isn't optimized for use with a touchscreen, most new tablet models released nowadays run a relatively lightweight, touchscreen-focused mobile operating system such as Apple iOS or Google Android.

In the coming year, we are bound to see an astounding array of new tablets, including offerings from every major computer and phone maker, in many different sizes.

Form: A Clean Slate

As yet, few rules constrain this burgeoning category, so you should expect to encounter a multitude of assorted designs, ranging from tiny slates that are barely distinguishable from iPods to devices that rival a netbook in size and power.

The most popular slate so far is the Apple iPad. The iPad measures 9.5 inches tall by 7.5 inches wide by 0.5 inch thick and carries a 9.7-inch screen. Because the iPad is about the size of a typical spiral-bound paper notebook, it looks and feels familiar to most users on an unconscious level.

But a number of new devices, including the Samsung Galaxy Tab, are challenging the notion that so large a tablet is ideal for mobile use. The 7-inch screens that these machines carry make them more portable than the iPad, and major wireless carriers are lining up to offer them with 3G service.

Meanwhile, at the larger end of the spectrum, a company called Kno is producing a line of Linux-based slates aimed at the textbook market. Inspired by bulky college texts, the Kno tablets measure 14 inches diagonally; a planned future release promises a foldable double-slate format that will enable students to view two full-size pages at once.

If you want a tablet with a roomy screen but 14 inches is too big for your taste, you can look forward to another contender from an established laptop manufacturer: Asus has announced that it has plans to begin producing a Windows 7-based slate equipped with a 12-inch screen.

Simultaneously, e-book readers such as the Barnes and Noble Nookcolor are seeking to compete with the tablet category. The Nookcolor runs Android 2.1 but is optimized for reading and for apps that B&N chooses to offer (it lacks Google's Android Market); nonetheless, with its 7-inch color display and support for apps, it blurs the definition of a tablet.

It's too early to tell whether users and the industry will ultimately favor a particular size and format for tablets, though the diversity of early slate offerings suggests that if a standard does eventually emerge, it won't happen for quite some time.

Choose Your OS

If picking a tablet of the right size for your needs sounds daunting, steel yourself: You face another layer of options when it comes to choosing an operating system. At this writing, at least five OS platforms are competing for your attention in the marketplace.

Apple's iOS, which powers the iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch, currently leads the pack, thanks to its compatibility with a massive selection of more than 300,000 apps.

Google Android is on the march, however. The OS behind the majority of non-Apple tablet offerings, Android will be available on more than a dozen major tablet releases in 2011, and it will continue to surface in multiple versions due to Google's flexible open-source policies. At press time, current tablets offer Android versions 1.6, 2.0, 2.1, and 2.2.

Microsoft continues to advance Windows 7 as an option on tablets such as the HP Slate 500 and Archos 9 PCtablet. BlackBerry maker Research In Motion is releasing a slate driven by the lesser-known QNX operating system (a Unix variant) in early 2011. And HP's recent acquisition of Palm suggests that the company may be planning to move into the tablet arena with a WebOS slate of its own.

Amidst all this action from big-time manufacturers, a number of smaller companies such as Fusion Garage and Kno continue to develop their own Linux-based platforms that defy casual classification.

If you have already sworn fealty to one platform or another, your choice could be an easy one. But if you prefer to base your decision on a careful comparison of features and utility, the coming barrage of tablet op­­erating systems could make the old Windows-Mac platform war look like a kindergarten tea party.

Great Expectations

For all the chaos and confusion that the first round of slates is sure to create, the new de­­vices promise some pretty fantastic opportunities as well. Coupling the mobility and connectivity of a smartphone with elements of a laptop -- in particular, larger screens, more-powerful processors, and room for more and better cameras, ports, and accessories -- tablets invite mobile users to discover lots of new things to do with them.

Just as the iPhone and its ilk caused an explosion of rich, location-aware social media interaction that few industry prophets predicted, the arrival of a category of even more-powerful, more-versatile machines will undoubtedly spur another furious cycle of innovation in Web-connected activity. After all, most of these new tablets come equipped with a camera for snapshot photography and video, as well as a front-facing camera for videoconferencing on a heretofore unimagined scale.

Aside from better cameras, the larger format of the tablet makes room for improved GPS components with more-powerful antennas, which should support new capabilities for location-based services such as Facebook Places, Foursquare, and Layar. In time, the coupling of massive, socially driven photo and video services will let users visit a destination, pull out a tablet to capture their own photos and videos, and then share that content dynamically.

Mobile gaming, meanwhile, will receive a powerful shot in the arm from tablets. Both Apple's App Store and Google's Android Market already teem with high-definition 3D games such as EA's Madden 11 and Firemint's Real Racing. Multiplayer casual games like Air Hockey and Scrabble are drawing people together over tablets, and it's only a matter of time before massively multiplayer titles like World of Warcraft find a home on slates as well. The room for advancement in mobile-app development is practically inconceivable at this early stage.

Perhaps the new wave of tablets will finally bring the dream of always-connected devices to fruition. Many of these tablets offer both Wi-Fi and 3G connectivity, and the most visible new contender on the market at this writing -- Samsung's Galaxy Tab -- is available at a subsidized price (if you also sign a data service contract) on five national and regional cellular carriers. It remains to be seen whether consumers will flock to these Wi-Fi and 3G models, or whether they'll balk at the idea of shouldering yet another service contract and instead opt for the unsubsidized, pay-as-you-go 3G approach.

A Few More Hurdles

Before we can celebrate our arrival at a magnificent slate-driven future, however, the industry must surmount several serious technical obstacles. The most significant hurdles come in the form of the operating-system platforms themselves, along with the big software companies that make them.

The stakes couldn't be higher for the software giants: There is ample reason to doubt that more than a few major platforms can thrive in the tablet marketplace over the long haul, a point that Apple, Google, and Microsoft are keenly aware of as they spar over patent rights and Internet standards in hopes of achieving tablet supremacy. The availability of apps on the contending platforms will be a key factor in this fight.

Even as the platform makers fight among themselves, each presents a unique set of challenges to its own developers. Apple's opaque and restrictive policies with regard to app approval remain a disincentive for many iOS developers. Google's apparent aloofness over fragmentation and device standards in Android makes it difficult for app creators to support the growing variety of screen sizes and hardware specs that Android comprehends; and by Google's own admission, Android 2.x and even the forthcoming Android 3.0 are not optimized for use on a tablet. For its part, Micro­soft's Windows 7 isn't optimized for touch as Android and iOS are, and that deficiency will make it harder for users to select appropriate software to use on their Win 7 tablets.

In the meantime, developers will have to work overtime to port their applications across multiple hardware and software platforms -- an undertaking that is fraught with unpleasant challenges -- as they try to reach as many users as possible.

Why to Buy

If you're a conservative tech consumer with no wish to experience life on the unsettled frontier, tablets aren't yet for you. But if you're adventurous -- or you need a device to fill what used to be a void in available products -- these lean machines offer plenty of useful apps and features.

Mobile Web browsing is generally satisfying: If all you want to do is read the latest news on your favorite sites, you'll discover that ditching the touchpad and keyboard of a standard laptop in favor of a spacious touchscreen will enable you to swipe and tap your way effortlessly around the Net. Reading books -- particularly in the dark, where dead-tree books and E-Ink-based readers alike tend to fail without the aid of external lighting attachments -- can be a joy on a good tablet. Amazon's Kindle app, Barnes and Noble's Nook app, and Kobo.com's eBooks app all support multiple OS and device platforms, so you can begin reading on one device, put it down, and move to another device without losing your place.

Watching video on a tablet is a great way to unwind during a long flight without having to park a netbook or laptop on your tray table. And when you're connected via Wi-Fi, streaming services like Hulu Plus and Netflix are awesome.

Mobile e-mail on a tablet is an order of magnitude easier to manage than mobile e-mail on a phone. Nevertheless, you won't be tempted to write your next dissertation on a tablet's on-screen keyboard: The amount of real estate viewable on the display shrinks considerably when you activate the on-screen keyboard, and the unfriendly ergonomics will soon have your back muscles crying out for a massage.

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