After almost a year in which the Apple iPad has been virtually the only game in town, a new generation of tablets has arrived to take it on.
We bought and have begun testing a batch of competitors from Archos, Dell, Motorola, and ViewSonic. Some of them have 10-inch screens like the iPad; the rest have 7-inch screens. Other features and specifications can be seen in How the newest models stack up, along with those of the iPad's new successor, the iPad 2. We'll have more on the newest tablets next month.
Already, though, the Motorola Xoom has become the iPad's chief rival, thanks to its feature set, including a 10-inch display, and its operating system, designed for tablets. Here's what to expect if you decide to buy a tablet:
Easy-to-use touch screens based on capacitive technology are now widely available. All of the new models in the table also feature Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity, a front-facing webcam, and GPS capability. The Android-based models can be expanded using built-in USB ports and slots for SD flash-memory cards.
The iPad 2, which we couldn't buy in time to test for this report, has no flash slot or USB port. It accepts adapters with those connections, but the USB adapter is compatible with just a few types of USB peripherals, such as keyboards and cameras.
Competition hasn't yet lowered prices. Still, Apple, long known in the computer market for charging more than competitors, has managed to offer more than the other tablet brands for a lower price.
For example, other tablets of a similar size that use Google's Android operating system require a costly long-term data contract, or cost more than the iPad 2 without one, or lack 3G data capability altogether and can connect to the Internet only via Wi-Fi, such as through a home router. Such Wi-Fi-only tablets also can't access the primary Android app store, Google's Android Market.
A model might cost less if you buy it with a data plan than without one. If you're considering doing that, find out whether you can cancel the plan early on without a stiff penalty. Otherwise, it might be cheaper in the long run to buy a 3G-capable model, such as the $430 ViewSonic ViewPad 7, without a contract.
The iPad 2's display should perform as well as the original iPad's, among the best tablet displays we've tested. It has excellent color and is viewable from almost any angle without degrading the image. The Motorola Xoom's display can be viewed from almost any direction, too, but it loses more contrast at off-angles than the iPad.
Images on the five other tablets below didn't wash out or darken when viewed from the sides in landscape mode, but they did in portrait mode, making for a slightly different view even between left and right eyes. The displays also had at least some bluish cast.
A tablet display's shape is as important as its size. In landscape (horizontal) mode, most have the short, wide shape of a digital TV. The iPad 2's display is squarer, similar to a traditional TV's.
A wider display is a better fit for movies and high-definition TV shows. And for a display of a given width, such a tablet can be shorter than a squarer tablet and easier to slip into a purse or briefcase. (The Xoom's case, for example, is a tad wider than an iPad's but about an inch shorter. Despite their different shapes, both occupy roughly the same area.)
Apple's approach has its advantages, too. In landscape mode, for example, the display's greater height lets the e-mail app display more messages in the inbox, assuming you use the same size text as on other tablets. When you're typing in landscape mode, an iPad can accommodate a taller onscreen keyboard or more content on the screen above the keyboard. In portrait mode, its display is less cramped when you're Web browsing or reading a magazine or an e-book. And when you're playing games that take advantage of a display's height and width, that screen also allows for a greater range of motion.
Hardware specifications don't tell the whole story. Portability, storage capacity, and weight are important. But less obvious differences in software, connectivity, and upgradability are critical, too.
Most Android tablets, for example, use Android version 2.2 or earlier, essentially the same software found on many smart phones. It's adequate for basic tasks, but Android 3.0 (also known as Honeycomb), found on the Motorola Xoom, takes better advantage of a tablet's larger display. For example, Honeycomb's browser has more features, including tabs. And its e-mail app displays the inbox and content of each message side by side. Even more important, new apps that are expected to be released for Android tablets in the coming months will require Android 3.0 or later.
Before buying a tablet with Android 2.2 or earlier, find out whether you can upgrade it to 3.0 in the near future. And with faster, 4G data networks becoming more widely available, 4G capability, or at least the ability to upgrade to it, is also a plus.
The HP Slate 500 and BlackBerry PlayBook aren't included in the table but have limitations that should give potential buyers pause. The HP uses the Windows 7 operating system, which we found awkward to control by finger on the tablet's 8.9-inch multitouch screen. It's strictly for business users who need full Windows compatibility and are willing to use the supplied stylus. The 7-inch BlackBerry, which isn't available yet, will have a proprietary operating system, is expected to be introduced without a native e-mail app, and won't be able to connect to a 3G data network unless you tether it to a BlackBerry smart phone.
Among many on the horizon, two promising models that probably won't be available until summer are the 9.7-inch HP TouchPad (which uses a proprietary operating system) and the 10.1-inch Toshiba Tablet (Android), which will reportedly have a user-replaceable battery, a rare feature in a tablet.