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2/18/2011
11:02 AM
Eric Zeman
Eric Zeman
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Tablet Wars Heating Up

Vendors from HP to Samsung, RIM to HTC and others served notice they are serious about competing with Apple and the iPad at the Mobile World Congress event in Barcelona.

Apple's iPad debuted more than a year ago, and since it went on sale last spring, Apple has sold some 15 million of them. That's a market too big to ignore, and the rest of the tech community has been playing catch up for most of the last year.

Tech vendors launched dozens and dozens of tablets -- most of them running Google's Android platform -- at the Consumer Electronics Show. Three more significant entries arrived this week at Mobile World Congress. The iPad is about to have a lot of competition. Do any of the tablets set to debut in the coming weeks have a chance?

Motorola Xoom

Motorola's entry into the tablet fray is a solid one. Based on the near-final units I saw this week, it is a good piece of hardware. It felt a bit heavy to me, but the controls were all well positioned and made sense. The 10-inch screen was large and bright, and the cameras and upgradeability to LTE 4G make it a compelling option. It will be the first device to debut with Android 3.0 Honeycomb, Google's tablet-optimized user interface. One thing I don't like is the somewhat boring design.

LG G-Slate

The G-Slate has an 8.9-inch display, which falls in between the 7-inch and 10-inch models being offered by others. This could be exactly what it needs to differentiate from the pack. The 3D cameras (though gimmicky) might help it to stand apart, too. The weight felt good, and the controls all worked as they should. It also runs Android 3.0 Honeycomb. LG also did a good job to give the hardware an appealing design.

Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1

The Galaxy Tab 10.1 is vastly superior when compared to its 7-inch predecessor. It's faster and the larger screen makes a huge difference in making it feel less like a glorified smartphone. The industrial design does more to make it a visually appealing device when compared to the original, too. But perhaps the biggest improvement over the original Tab is that the Tab 10.1 runs Android 3.0 Honeycomb and not Android 2.2 Froyo.

HTC Flyer

The Flyer is HTC's 7-inch Android tablet, which debuted this week. The design of the hardware is good, and the smaller screen makes it a somewhat more portable device (i.e., it can fit in some pockets). The specs are a bit below what the competition offers. For example, all three of the above use dual-core processors, but the Flyer uses a single core at 1.5GHz. Second, all three of the tablets above run Android 3.0 Honeycomb. The Flyer runs and older version of Android with its customized user interface.

HP TouchPad

The HP TouchPad has a 10-inch screen and runs HP's webOS, not Android. The hardware isn't all that different from other 10-inch tablets out there, but its use of webOS is a huge differentiator. webOS offers a completely different user experience when compared to iOS and Android. It is a highly visually appealing operating system and uses HP's innovative Synergy contact management system.

RIM PlayBook

Last of the major tablets is RIM's PlayBook. It will become available in the coming weeks as a Wi-Fi-only device, with WiMax, HSPA+, and LTE versions to arrive later this year. The PlayBook has a 7-inch screen and runs RIM's new QNX-based operating system. Where all the above devices use platforms that have garnered at least some measure of success in the market, RIM's customized version of QNX is untested on a tablet device for the enterprise. Even so, RIM is extremely confident in its forthcoming tablet.

How Will This Shake Out?

I think there will be two defining features that make or break these devices: Screen size and the OS experience.

Tablet makers are setting things up for a showdown with respect to screen size. One camp is offering 7-inch devices and the other camp is offering 10-inch devices. Over time, users will migrate to one size or the other and stick to it.

Obviously, the operating system will play the biggest role, though. People who are already invested in Android smartphones are more apt to pick a tablet that runs Honeycomb. Same applies to webOS users and BlackBerry users. The question remains, which will score the most defections from other platforms? Can RIM convince Android users to return to the RIM fold? Or can Motorola convince iPad users to give up on iOS?

While each device and platform will enjoy some measure of success with its existing customer base, eating the market share of others will define their overall success for the long term.

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