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CES Tablet Extravaganza: Motorola, RIM, Toshiba & Asus Stand Out

CES provided a tableau of what buyers can expect in tablets, nearly all of them evolutionary hardware improvements over the currently-shipping iPad, none of them available now, and most of them, predictably, clones. Here's a guide, based on a modest round of discussions and demonstrations at a frenzied CES; videos included where appropriate.
Left-Hand Turns

A few companies decided to add a little spice to the tablet mix, introducing elements like dual screens (NEC) and slide-out keyboards (Asus and Samsung), and even a dual-OS option (Lenovo).

NEC Dual Screen Android Cloud Communicator. The dual-screen concept, championed by NEC, is compelling, if incomplete. The ability to break content over two 7-inch displays provides plenty of useful applications, from education to demonstration to book reading, and frankly even just an ability to view web pages side-by-side. Alas, NEC's oddly-named Cloud Communicator is merely a concept device, and while the company expects to ship in the first half of the year, it must get Google and the legion of Android developers on board with some exciting ideas before it takes hold, because other than this neat little trick, the device isn't as heavily powered as some of the others -- a single processor, a single camera, and no video out, for example.

Asus Eee Pad. Asus announced a handful of tablets right before CES kicked off. I didn't get my own preview of these devices -- but TabletPC Review did an excellent job covering Asus. (Video included.) The Eee Pad 121 is a 12-inch, dual core (Intel) unit running Windows 7. But the Eee Pad Slider was the most interesting device -- an Android tablet with a slide-out keyboard. It's a 10-inch unit with dual core processing, 1 GB or RAM and 16 GB or 32 GB of storage; also front and rear-facing cameras, orientation lock, HDMI out and USB. It weighs slightly less than two pounds--so it's a little heavier than others, but it packs in every high-end feature. Samsung also announced a slider -- the Sliding 7 Series, a Windows 7 device shipping in March for $700.

Lenovo IdeaPad U1. Last year at CES, Lenovo gave the world a glimpse of its IdeaPad, which it finally seems ready to ship. It's sort of an Intel-based notebook, but it snaps out to become a tablet. What's more, it can switch (with the flip of a switch) between Windows 7 and Android in notebook mode, and run Android in tablet mode (it also switches processors when in tablet mode). Lenovo has designed its own user interface on top of Android.

All The Rest

Motion Computing has been building rugged tablets since 2001. Its Motion CL900 runs Windows 7, uses both pen and touch input, weights 2.1 pounds, and will cost slightly less than $1,000. (A quick video demonstration appears below.) The unit also has front and rear-facing cameras, a $150-dock with multiple USB ports and an Ethernet port. The company claims eight hours of battery life. LG announced G-Slate, an Android tablet running on T-Mobile's HSPA+ (technically 4G) network, but it didn't have a device on hand, nor any pictures of it. Finally, Dell also announced a 4G tablet running on T-Mobile's network; it is a 7-inch unit that is expected in just a few weeks.

Predictions:

Most of the CES tablet buzz surrounded Motorola, and while Xoom looks like a beautiful device, the hype seemed to hover more around its exclusive access to Honeycomb, which in the end ran only in a pre-recorded video. The Xoom and Toshiba's unnamed tablet are best positioned to challenge the iPad from a hardware point of view; although one suspects that if Apple can come out with an iPad that includes cameras, dual core processing, and 4G support (not to mention multi-carrier distribution) it will be hard to unseat, even facing all of these exciting new players.

For a while, the challenge for all Android tablets will be whether developers can make the Android marketplace as popular and rich as the iTunes App Store. RIM will be challenged even more in that regard.

The Asus Slider may seem to be done in by its girth, but it sure offers everything the others do, plus the keyboard. I suspect it will be a force in the early going. Prediction: The slider will be a sleeper.

While 4G could be a differentiator for Sansung, Dell and LG, it's only a matter of time before that advantage goes away; and perhaps some time before users can really exploit that advantage anyway.

Besides the raw speed of the hardware, and the connection speed of the networks the devices run on, users should also be wary of battery life. While the vendors claim anywhere from 5 - 8 hours, multiple radios, multiple fast processors, big screens, sensors and cameras will challenge battery life despite those claims.

Fritz Nelson is the editorial director for InformationWeek and the Executive Producer of TechWebTV. Fritz writes about startups and established companies alike, but likes to exploit multiple forms of media into his writing.

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