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Technology: Tablet computers

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The technology page is sponsored by Aon Benfield
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Tablet computers are not new, but current models do things differently: previous tablets used full versions of the Windows operating system, which wasn’t designed for such small, keyboard-less computers. That meant they were effectively just cut-down versions of proper computers.

The Apple iPad started from scratch with a new operating system designed for touch-screens, which it ran quickly and efficiently (making the best of a limited battery) and did what people wanted. It gives users access to a huge library of ‘apps’, small programs that do anything from showing flight details to working as a spirit level or a stethoscope.

Several imitators appeared, though most of them have been flawed. They generally run either Windows (thus falling victim to the earlier tablets’ flaws) or the Google Android operating system. Android is designed for mobile phones, and the current edition (version 2.2) is not particularly suitable for tablets.

There’s a new version 3 of Android, codenamed Honeycomb, due some time in the first quarter of 2011, designed to fix all those problems and which will be used by the next generation of Android tablets. Little is known about those new devices, though: models are expected from Toshiba, Samsung and others, but the only confirmed one so far is the Motorola Xoom, likewise due in the first quarter of 2010.

The other interesting competitor, though it’s not here yet, is made by RIM, maker of the Blackberry handsets. Announced in September 2010, the BlackBerry Playbook was shown off at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. However, RIM is not expecting to have it on sale in the USA for a few weeks, and it hasn’t even committed to release dates for the rest of the world. In a recent interview a senior RIM product manager alluded to the Playbook being available in the UK “quite soon” but didn’t give any indication about other countries.

What we do know about the Playbook is that it is designed with business users in mind, something the iPad isn’t. While the iPad has several excellent business applications available (it can view and edit Office documents and has some good charting tools, for instance), most of the things it does are geared towards home users. Rim’s clear business pedigree means its tablet will be work-minded.

The iPad and Samsung Galaxy Tab both connect to wireless networks and mobile phone networks, meaning that if you insert a phone sim tied to an appropriate contract (one that includes a data allowance) you can get online from anywhere there’s a phone signal.

The first edition of the Playbook will only be able to connect to wireless networks but it will be possible to ‘pair’ the Playbook with a Blackberry phone and access the internet through the phone’s connection. It will have a 7-inch screen compared with the iPad’s 10-inch display, but it will improve on the iPad in other ways: it supports the Flash format used by lots of websites, which the iPad doesn’t, and it links to the Blackberry Enterprise Server for easy access to e-mail, calendar, contacts and other tools. It has a camera that can also shoot high-definition video (the iPad doesn’t have a camera).

For now, though, the best contender to the iPad is the Samsung Galaxy Tab. This uses Android version 2.2, which suffers from being designed for phones, not tablets. It has a (non-HD) camera but most of the available apps are designed for phones, so they have to be magnified to fit the larger screen and so don’t look good.

That being the case, at the moment I’d wait for the Playbook and Android 3 tablets to become available. For now the iPad has the best interface and apps, and though it lacks Flash it is still very impressive. But as the Playbook and ‘Honeycomb’ devices are due soon, it’s worth waiting a few weeks to see what the next generation offers.


Anthony Dhanendran is the reviews editor of Computeractive