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Buyers guide: Why you should buy a tablet PC

What you need to know about the new spate of slates

Tablet PCs bridge the gap between what PCs and Mobile phones do. Unlike earlier, arguably premature efforts to transform tablet computing into a mass-market reality, today's models are here to stay. The new wave of slates is rolling in fast and furious, here's just what you need to know about the new generation of tablets.

Tablet PCs: Form - a clean slate

As yet, few rules constrain this burgeoning category, so you should expect to encounter a multitude of assorted designs, ranging from tiny slates that are barely distinguishable from iPods to devices that rival a netbook in size and power.

The most popular slate so far is the Apple iPad. The iPad measures 9.5x7.5x0.5in and carries a 9.7in screen. Because the iPad is about the size of a typical spiral-bound paper notebook, it looks and feels familiar to most users on an unconscious level.
But a number of new devices, including the Samsung Galaxy Tab, are challenging the notion that so large a tablet is ideal for mobile use. The 7in screens that these machines carry make them more portable than the iPad, and major wireless carriers are lining up to offer them with 3G service.

Meanwhile, at the larger end of the spectrum, a company called Kno is producing a line of Linux-based slates aimed at the textbook market. Inspired by bulky college texts, the Kno tablets measure 14in diagonally; a planned future release promises a foldable double-slate format that will enable students to view two full-size pages at once.
If you want a tablet with a roomy screen but 14in is too big for your taste, you can look forward to another contender from an established laptop manufacturer: Asus has announced that it has plans to begin producing a Windows 7-based slate equipped with a 12in screen.

Simultaneously, eBook readers such as the Amazon Kindle are seeking to compete in the tablet market. It's too early to tell whether users and the industry will ultimately favour a particular size and format for tablets, though the diversity of early slate offerings suggests that if a standard does eventually emerge, it won't happen for quite some time.

Tablet PCs: Choose your OS

If picking a tablet of the right size for your needs sounds daunting, steel yourself: You face another layer of options when it comes to choosing an operating system. At this writing, at least five OS platforms are competing for your attention in the marketplace.

Apple's iOS, which powers the iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch, currently leads the pack, thanks to its compatibility with a massive selection of more than 300,000 apps. Google Android is on the march, however. The OS behind the majority of non-Apple tablet offerings, Android will be available on more than a dozen major tablet releases in 2011, and it will continue to surface in multiple versions due to Google's flexible open-source policies. At press time, current tablets offer Android versions 1.6, 2.0, 2.1, and 2.2.

Microsoft continues to advance Windows 7 as an option on tablets such as the HP Slate 500 and Archos 9 PC tablet. BlackBerry maker Research in Motion is releasing a slate driven by the lesser-known QNX operating system (a Unix variant) in early 2011. And HP's recent acquisition of Palm suggests that the company may be planning to move into the tablet arena with a WebOS slate of its own. Amidst all this action from big-time manufacturers, a number of smaller companies such as Fusion Garage and Kno continue to develop their own Linux-based platforms that defy casual classification.

If you have already sworn allegiance to one platform or another, your choice could be an easy one. But if you prefer to base your decision on a careful comparison of features and utility, the coming barrage of tablet op­­erating systems could make the old Windows-Mac platform war look like a teddy bear's picnic..

NEXT PAGE: Great expectations

  1. The new spate of slates
  2. A clean slate
  3. Great expectations
  4. A few more hurdles

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