By Rob Pegoraro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 3, 2010; 9:38 PM
It's not quite accurate to say that only two categories of tablet exist - the iPad and Everything That's Not the iPad. But that description isn't far off.
Apple's $499-and-up touch-screen device continues to define this category, more than half a year after its arrival in stores. If you've ever used an iPhone or an iPod Touch, you know how to use this thing. If not, the odds are good that a friend can teach you in a few minutes. The iPad also benefits from an enormous and growing selection of applications written for its 9.7-inch screen.
Of the six different iPad configurations, the entry-level, Wi-Fi-only, 16-gigabyte model remains the best choice in most cases. The extra memory of pricier versions won't matter to most users, while the 3G iPad's mobile-broadband access will be almost as irrelevant to users who only take it from their home to a friend's or to a Wi-Fi-equipped coffee shop.
But Apple's tablet misses some marks of its own. Without a camera, it's shut out of FaceTime video calls with iPhone, iPod Touch and Mac users. Its need to be connected to a computer for setup and operating-system updates makes it unusable as somebody's only means of accessing the Web. More than six months after its launch, it can't be too long before a new version arrives. And even $499 can be a lot of money.
If not the iPad, what else?
Samsung's Galaxy Tab, by its specifications and features alone, would be the obvious choice for iPad refuse-niks. But this smaller, lighter Android device doesn't have an equally shrunken price - largely because it's sold only in 3G versions customized for the major wireless carriers. So either you sign up for a two-year wireless-data contract (which only lowers the Tab's price to $399.99 at best) or you pay "unsubsidized" prices of $599.99 or $649.99.
The Galaxy Tab does include front and back video cameras, a browser that can play Adobe Flash content (sometimes after a pause or a stutter), and access to the Android Market (though some apps fail to fill the screen and most aren't customized for that larger space). But its video-calling software comes nowhere near the ease of Apple's FaceTime. And Samsung earns an extra foul for shipping this thing with a proprietary data/power USB connector - who does this company think it is, Apple?
If not the Tab, what else?
Here's where the market gets fragmented.
For now, the most interesting iPad alternative looks to be Barnes & Noble's NookColor. Although the bookstore chain pitches this $249 Wi-Fi tablet as an e-book reader, it also can serve as a good Web-access tool. Its seven-inch color LCD doesn't exhibit the Tab's distracting pauses to redraw text after scrolling or zooming in, and its simplicity means there's less to learn overall.
You read books and magazines on this thing; you browse the Web; you can carry around photos and music and a movie or two on its 8 GB of internal storage; you can run some simple apps. (The NookColor runs a pruned version of Android without access to the Android Market, although B&N plans to offer its own catalogue of simpler programs later on.) That's it.
For half the price of an iPad, it seems a reasonable trade-off - even if you never buy an e-book from B&N's store.
(Unfortunately, the NookColor's USB cable looks like a standard micro-USB connector but is just different enough to render it useless with other devices. Who does this company think it is, Samsung?)
If you step into any electronics store, you'll probably also see a variety of Android tablets from companies you may have never heard of. Tread carefully. Although their prices and features can look appealing, many of these devices run slowly and ship with outdated versions of Android. Some don't include the Android Market, either. If you can't confirm that one of these things offers at least the 2.1 version of Android and the Market, avoid it.
The cheapest tablet computers of all aren't usually thought of as computers: e-book readers such as Amazon's Kindle (still the best of this contingent, although it's due for its own update). Some e-readers advertise Web access, but don't kid yourself - browsing the Web on the sluggish, gray-scale "e-ink" displays of these devices is nowhere near the experience of even the worst no-name Android tablets. You buy these devices to read books, magazines and newspapers - in particular, outdoors, where e-ink screens look far more legible than standard LCDs. Everything else is a pleasant bonus at best.
Remember, though, that most e-book stores sell titles in proprietary formats locked down with "digital rights management" restrictions that make them unreadable on competing devices. Until that changes-Google's upcoming, Web-centric e-book store could give the market a shove - it would be a mistake to invest too much in either e-book hardware or titles.
On that note, if you're still unsure of what to get in a tablet device of any sort, it's not a bad time to wait. Between the uncertain timing of an update to the iPad and the arrival of a tablet-optimized 3.0 version of Android and such upcoming alternatives as Research In Motion's PlayBook and possible tablets running an upgraded version of HP's Palm WebOS software, there are good reasons to wish the gift-giving season could be pushed back six months.