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: A few more hurdles
Before we can celebrate our arrival at a magnificent slate-driven future, however, the industry must surmount several serious technical obstacles. The most significant hurdles come in the form of the operating-system platforms themselves, along with the big software companies that make them.
The stakes couldn't be higher for the software giants: There is ample reason to doubt that more than a few major platforms can thrive in the tablet marketplace over the long haul, a point that Apple, Google and Microsoft are keenly aware of as they spar over patent rights and internet standards in hopes of achieving tablet supremacy. The availability of apps on the contending platforms will be a key factor in this fight.
Even as the platform makers fight among themselves, each presents a unique set of challenges to its own developers. Apple's opaque and restrictive policies with regard to app approval remain a disincentive for many iOS developers. Google's apparent aloofness over fragmentation and device standards in Android makes it difficult for app creators to support the growing variety of screen sizes and hardware specs that Android comprehends; and by Google's own admission, Android 2.x and even the forthcoming Android 3.0 are not optimised for use on a tablet. For its part, Microsoft's Windows 7 isn't optimised for touch as Android and iOS are, and that deficiency will make it harder for users to select appropriate software to use on their Win 7 tablets.
In the meantime, developers will have to work overtime to port their applications across multiple hardware and software platforms - an undertaking that is fraught with unpleasant challenges - as they try to reach as many users as possible.
Tablet PCs: Why to buy
If you're a conservative tech consumer with no wish to experience life on the unsettled frontier, tablets aren't yet for you. But if you're adventurous - or you need a device to fill what used to be a void in available products - these lean machines offer plenty of useful apps and features.
Mobile web browsing is generally satisfying: If all you want to do is read the latest news on your favourite sites, you'll discover that ditching the touchpad and keyboard of a standard laptop in favour of a spacious touchscreen will enable you to swipe and tap your way effortlessly around the net. Reading books - particularly in the dark, where dead-tree books and E-Ink-based readers alike tend to fail without the aid of external lighting attachments - can be a joy on a good tablet. Amazon's Kindle app, and Kobo.com's eBooks app all support multiple OS and device platforms, so you can begin reading on one device, put it down, and move to another device without losing your place.
Watching video on a tablet is a great way to unwind during a long flight without having to park a netbook or laptop on your tray table. And when you're connected via Wi-Fi, streaming services are awesome. Mobile email on a tablet is an order of magnitude easier to manage than mobile email on a phone. Nevertheless, you won't be tempted to write your next dissertation on a tablet's on-screen keyboard: The amount of space viewable on the display shrinks considerably when you activate the on-screen keyboard, and the unfriendly ergonomics will soon have your back muscles crying out for a massage.
See also: Buyers guide: laptop, netbook or tablet?