Which Tablet Is Best for You?
Advantage: Android 3.0
The clear advantage in Web browsing goes to Android 3.0 tablets. The native Android browser has a tabbed interface that makes navigating a multitude of Web pages remarkably easy. And content on those tabs updates continuously as long as you're just shifting among tabs, not apps. The visual bookmark design--with thumbnails of your pages--helps you quickly access favorite items. I also appreciate the support for Adobe Flash Player 10.2--it means that users don't miss out on the large portion of the Web that relies on Flash. Another benefit of Android: You can download alternative Web browsers, such as Mozilla's Firefox 4 for Mobile.
In comparison, iOS 4.3 and BlackBerry Tablet OS feel stuck in the dark ages of Web browsing. Since their respective native browsers access only one Web page at a time, you must exit one page before you browse to another. Switching among pages is much faster and smoother in Android's tabbed design than it is on either iOS 4.3 or BlackBerry Tablet OS. And neither of those OSs updates a page dynamically.
In addition, iOS's mobile Safari browser limits the number of windows you can have open at a time, and displays bookmarks as only a text list. And as with e-mail, iOS restricts how the Web browser handles downloads. You don't download files, per se; instead, if a supported file (for example, a Word doc or a PDF) is on a page, that file will open in a separate browser window. From there, you'll have the option to open the file in apps that have been hooked into the Web browser, such as Apple's iWork apps, Dropbox, iBooks, or Photo Roll. But you can't download .zip files, video files, or any file format that iOS does not support.
I like the fact that the BlackBerry Tablet OS browser supports Flash, but I'm disappointed with its uneven behavior. It lets you save a JPEG to a Downloads folder that's accessible via the browser; in my hands-on tests, however, I couldn't open the JPEGs I downloaded on the device. I had similar problems with some Word docs and PDFs I downloaded, too, though other files saved and opened just fine in the PlayBook's preinstalled apps (Adobe Reader for PDFs, and the Microsoft Office-compatible Word To Go, Sheet To Go, and Slideshow To Go). Stranger still, tapping on a file didn't consistently bring up the action to save it--though when I did get the chance to save a file, the PlayBook also allowed me to rename it on the spot. Another frustration: The Download folder didn't consistently retain a history of the downloaded files; without that, or a general file browser that would let me rummage on the tablet myself, those files seemed lost to the ether.
The WebOS browser on the TouchPad works much as it does on WebOS cell phones. Each browser window behaves as its own activity card, and you can stack those cards together or view them individually.
In addition to examining how the tablets display images and video and play music, I looked at how they allow users to import music and video, as well as to purchase it.
I didn't pick an outright winner simply because no one mobile OS gets enough right in this respect. Which mobile OS you deem best for media management will depend in part on your shopping habits and on how you plan to use your tablet.
The iPad's tight integration with the iTunes store makes buying new audio and video on Apple's tablet exceedingly easy. Love it or hate it, iTunes is the dominant marketplace for digital media, and the iPad benefits greatly. iTunes desktop software remains fairly good at organizing and tracking your media, as well as at syncing that media onto your tablet. However, although you can add your own videos and music--as well as photos--to the iTunes library on your PC, in order to play that media on your iPad you have to sync the tablet with your PC's iTunes library. You can't just do a quick drag-and-drop file transfer, as you can with Android 3.0. Nonetheless, if you already have an iPod or iPhone, and you shop in iTunes, the iPad will fit in perfectly with how you buy music and video.
At the time of my testing, Google had no comparable music or video store for its Android OS (though persistent rumors indicate that it might soon launch Google Music, reportedly a digital storefront). With an Android tablet, you can shop at a variety of media stores--for example, the Amazon MP3 app for Android lets you buy music at the Amazon MP3 store and play it with the Amazon Cloud Player, and Samsung offers its Media Hub for music and video downloads on its Android tablets. It's great to have choices, but if you use different stores you could end up with music that you can't play together in the same music library (Media Hub content plays only inside that app, for example).
Beyond the shopping, Android 3.0 is capable of solid media management--most of the time. Syncing via Windows Media Player is simple, but if you prefer to drag and drop music files, that works just fine, too. The same goes for video files, though Android 3.0 surprisingly lacks support for WMV files, among others. Most of the Android 3.0 tablets I've seen have a widescreen aspect ratio, which is perfect for HD movies. Plus, you get Flash support for online video (note, however, that Hulu generally blocks access from Android devices). Google's redesigned music player is appealing in its aesthetics and usability.
Unfortunately, since Android 3.0 lacks a dedicated video player, your videos are meshed into the Gallery with your photos. And the version of Android 3.0 that ships on all of the tablets I tried has a major imaging bug: Android 3.0's Gallery app doesn't render images clearly--images look unsharp, and fuzzy. A Google rep told me that the company was aware of the problem, but offered no timeline for a fix. Sure, I like how the Gallery lets me view image EXIF data, but that information doesn't do me much good if I can't tell whether the image is actually sharp.
BlackBerry Tablet OS's media handling is a mixed bag. It does some things extraordinarily well: For example, the OS can power two different graphics activities simultaneously, so you can output 1080p video via HDMI to a TV and still surf the Web on the PlayBook. In my hands-on tests, Flash video played fine inside a Web page, though it occasionally had sizing issues that made it difficult for the in-browser Flash player on YouTube (and Hulu.com video) to resize to the PlayBook's screen.
You can buy music on a PlayBook through 7digital, the same DRM-free store you can use via a BlackBerry phone. RIM plans to offer a video store, but it isn't ready just yet.
I appreciated how smoothly the BlackBerry Tablet OS let me exit and resume YouTube and other videos while navigating among open apps; when I popped back to a video, it resumed playback instantly, with no stutters or hesitation. This OS had no issue with playing WMV, AVI, or even .mov files I shot on my iPhone. Images looked great--crisp and sharp--but the Pictures app is fairly plain, with few options for setting up slideshows or navigating shots, and no additional options such as viewing EXIF data and other image properties. I did have difficulty getting vertical images to rotate from the horizontal (though the same images do so just fine on Android 3.0); RIM says that function will be coming in a future update.
RIM makes getting content onto the PlayBook fairly easy. You have to install an app on your desktop, and then use it to transfer files to the device wirelessly (it acts as a wireless hard drive) or use the app's guided sync and transfer options. Impressively, it grabbed music from my iTunes library, skipping over some songs only because those tracks were protected by digital rights management. The music player built in to BlackBerry Tablet OS looks fine and operates smoothly, though its layout took a little getting used to and building playlists on the fly wasn't as easy as I'd like.
Since no tablet does everything you could want with the OS alone, you must have apps. Apple's iOS enjoys a definite advantage in this regard. At last count, more than 64,000 of the 350,000 apps in the App Store were optimized for the iPad. No matter what you want to do on your iPad, you'll likely find something that does it in the Apple App Store.
In contrast, only a hundred-plus Android apps are optimized for use on Android 3.0 and the larger screens of tablets. More apps are on their way--though it's not certain how much of the current Android app boom will be devoted to tablets. And I've had mixed experiences with apps that aren't intended for Android 3.0: Sometimes they work fine, sometimes they function but look a bit off, and sometimes they crash.
RIM says it launched BlackBerry Tablet OS with 3000 apps in its AppWorld store. Unfortunately none of the apps I downloaded particularly impressed me--some appeared to be simple, almost DOS-like in their design. RIM says the PlayBook will be able to run Android 2.x apps, but not 3.0 apps, sold via its AppWorld store; but the Android Player emulator that will enable the function, as well as the emulator that will run BlackBerry phone apps, won't be available until later this summer. At launch, the PlayBook lacks compelling apps to complement its (mostly) compelling hardware and mobile OS.
Best Overall Impression
I find a lot to like among all the contending tablet OSs, and wish I could cobble those appealing elements together into a single, awesome mobile OS.
But barring that, I believe that Apple's iOS remains the best tablet operating system overall. That may be a surprise to you, given that I prefer other OSs for many of the individual functions I looked at. On the whole, however, iOS delivers the best-formed environment for both productivity and entertainment.
Once Google addresses Android 3.0's drawbacks and more developers release tablet-optimized apps, Android 3.0 will be in a dogfight with iOS. But by then, who knows what Apple might introduce for iOS 5?
Meanwhile, businesspeople who already depend on BlackBerry phones should value the way those handsets will interact with the PlayBook, as well as the built-in security of the platform--and for that audience, such capabilities will outweigh many of the PlayBook's other weaknesses.