The tablet computer has become the latest must-have device to take on the road. Mark Prigg asks whether any of the new breed can rival the iPad.
The tablet market owes its entire existence to one product – Apple’s iPad. Although several firms had previously tried to launch large touchscreen gadgets – most notably Microsoft – a lack of software and fiddly interfaces doomed them all.
However, when Steve Jobs took to the stage last January to reveal the iPad, suddenly the tablet became the must-have gadget for both consumers and business people. Barely a year later, the world has gone tablet crazy. Apple is expected to have sold roughly ten million iPads in 12 months, and dozens of competitors have appeared.
The main competition is from tablets running Google’s Android software, and there are some really interesting sizes and shapes available – although the line between a tablet and a big smartphone does tend to get a little blurred.
The rise of the tablet is also bad news for makers of netbooks and ultra-portable laptops – increasingly, tablets can do everything they can but in a smaller, more portable package. But the real key to tablets has to be the apps, and while Apple rules the roost here, Google is catching up.
Still, this remains a market in its infancy. We are yet to see players such as Blackberry – currently working on a tablet called the Playbook (to be released in 2011) – and Nokia fully reveal their hand.
Juniper Research (juniperresearch.com) predicts that tablet shipments will reach 81 million a year by 2015, while more electronics and handset vendors are set to enter the fray. So it seems the tablet is here to stay – and is set to give the netbooks and ultraportables a real run for their money.
These days, it’s tough to open a newspaper or magazine or turn on the TV without hearing about the iPad – and Steve Jobs’ “magical” device has surpassed even Apple’s expectations.
Outside of the home, the iPad has really gained a foothold in the corporate world in the past few months. It’s now a common sight in the boardroom, as well as on long-haul flights, where the long battery life of about ten hours makes it great for watching your own movies.
With the recent release of the iOS4.2 mobile operating system, the iPad received a welcome upgrade to its software, adding the ability to multitask and store apps in folders. It makes a huge difference, and means the iPad is far more useful as a business tool.
There are flaws, though – a camera would be useful, both for video-conferencing and taking snaps, and a home screen showing your diary and emails would work well. It’s also a little big to use while out and about.
However, the large number of apps available, along with its ease of use, mean that despite attempts from other manufacturers, the iPad is still, by some considerable margin, the best tablet on the market – and is likely to stay that way for some time.
PROS Incredibly easy to use, vast range of apps
CONS Expensive, touch-typists may struggle with keyboard
Samsung Galaxy Tab
Billed by many as the first real competitor to the iPad, Samsung’s Galaxy Tab is an incredibly well-built and thought-out gadget. The seven-inch screen is smaller than the iPad’s 9.7-inch one and this makes a big difference in terms of portability, so it means you’re far more likely to use it when you’re out and about. In fact, this is its biggest advantage over the iPad, as you can (just) fit it into a suit pocket.
The Tab can also act as a phone, although even Samsung admits you will look like a complete idiot taking a call on it, and recommends using a Bluetooth headset. The unit runs Google’s Android software, and it works very well. Unlike the iPad, you can install “widgets” on your home screen that show you live weather or your diary for the day. It also has access to Google’s Marketplace so you can download apps. However, Samsung has also created its own app store and pre-installed some really impressive ones, including a media player and ebook reader, to give it an advantage.
Overall, the Tab is a superb first effort at taking on Apple’s stranglehold. For commuters looking for a pocket-sized ebook reader that can also handle email and a bit of web browsing, it’s perfect. The lack of decent high-resolution apps does hold it back somewhat, but over time we may well see this change, and the Tab could yet be the gadget that dents the iPad’s sales – it’s just not quite there yet.
PROS Highly portable, great build quality
CONS Lack of apps – only a handful of Samsung’s own applications are high quality and optimised for the Galaxy Tab
From £399 (O2 exclusive)
The Streak is an interesting device, falling somewhere between a smartphone and a tablet. With a five-inch screen, it still looks pretty silly when you make a phone call, but you can (just) get away with having this as your only gadget.
In fact, in use, the Streak does quickly feel like a giant phone rather than a shrunken tablet, and this is actually a good thing – as the iPad has shown, bigger screen tablets do tend to get left at home or in the briefcase.
The Streak is solidly built, and runs Google’s Android software. However, Dell has decided to cram in as much as possible on-screen, meaning it’s a little fiddly to use – fewer, larger buttons would have been a better bet. There’s a
five-megapixel camera, and a front-facing lens for video calling.
On the whole, the Dell is a strange proposition. It’s a bit big to be a phone and a tad small to be a tablet. This, combined with the slightly complex interface, means the Dell doesn’t quite hit the mark.
PROS Unique size is perfect for those looking for a halfway house between phone and tablet
CONS Interface is too fiddly
From free (various operators)
Microsoft is yet to fully reveal its tablet plans but that has not stopped HTC from making the HD7, a big-screen mobile that gives a glimpse of what a Windows tablet could be like.
It runs Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 (WP7) software and has a 4.3-inch screen. It’s about as big as you’d want a mobile phone to be, but doesn’t quite qualify as a tablet. The build quality is superb and the design slick – it feels like a high-quality product, right down to the well thought-out kickstand on the back for watching films.
Microsoft has not had much of a presence in the mobile market but has changed that with its latest software. WP7 has a great range of quality applications that rivals Android’s and the unit itself is slick and simple to use, relying on swiping across the screen to move through menus. It’s extremely fast, and the icon-based interface works well. It also has some nice touches, such as the ability to see a person’s details, tweets and Facebook updates from their contact page.
There is an impressive version of Office, which could be a boon for the corporate market – it will even sync with Microsoft’s online storage service so you can work on documents on multiple machines easily. Overall, the HD7 is a great mobile phone, and boasts the best keyboard on any gadget here, even the iPad. As a tablet it’s a little too small but it bodes well for Microsoft’s future in this market.
PROS Impressive software, easy to use, great keyboard
CONS Screen is a little small to qualify as a tablet
£299 (16GB version)
Archos has been quietly building a name for itself as a purveyor of media tablets, and it has embraced the Android market fully with everything from MP3 players to this, a 10.1-inch tablet.
The screen is excellent, and it’s also a powerful device, meaning HD video looks excellent. Archos claims up to seven hours of playback and ten hours of web surfing via the in-built wifi. It’s also got an HDMI port for hooking up to a TV, and a USB port so you can easily plug in a camera and recharge it.
The design is very good, the built-in kickstand means watching films is easy, the touchscreen is responsive and the keyboard works well. Archos is developing its own app store for the device as, unfortunately, it doesn’t currently have access to Google’s Marketplace. This is a big oversight but could well change with a software upgrade, so it’s worth checking if you’re considering buying one.
Overall, this is a decent, big-screen option hampered only by a lack of applications. If Archos can add Google’s apps, this could be a serious contender but as it stands, the Archos really only excels as a portable video player.
PROS Great screen
CONS Lack of apps
Disgo tablet 6,000
Disgo may not be a brand most business users are familiar with but it has made a name for itself in affordable electronics. The seven-inch Disgo Tablet 6,000 is undoubtedly a low-end device, feeling chunky and a little cheaply built. All the same, it’s actually not a bad little tablet for the home, and is something that would be perfect as a kitchen gadget or something for the kids’ bedroom, especially as you can easily plug it into a TV to watch a film.
As a multimedia player, it’s excellent, and the Android software means there is a reasonable number of decent games for it too. It’s not something you’d want to use as a business tool, but it does go to show just how wide the tablet market is spreading.
PROS Low price
CONS Poor build quality
Being able to speak to your computer has long been a staple of science fiction, but with the latest advances in processing power, it’s finally becoming a reality. And with tablets taking hold in the corporate market, it seems that life without a keyboard is getting closer than ever.
Dragon Naturally Speaking 11 Home (£79, nuance.com) is the market leader, and is extremely impressive. After about 15 minutes of set-up, during which time it scans your documents for commonly used words and learns your accent, you are ready to go. It’s best to use a dedicated headset but after a bit of training, the system is surprisingly good – although you do still need to proof-read everything to correct the inevitable errors. The firm claims a 99 per cent success rate, which I would say is a slight over-estimation, but this is still a surprisingly good solution, and there’s even a version for mobile phones.
There are also some other good options for mobile phone users, in particular Google Mobile (google.com/mobile), which works exceptionally well. Available for iPhones, iPads and Android devices as a free app, Google has even expanded it into a near-instant translation service, allowing you to speak in one language, then see text in another. It uses the vast power of Google’s servers to crunch and translate the data, and shows the company is definitely one to watch in the dictation arena.