Hard Choices in Hardware
Buying a tablet? Obviously, Apple's iOS-based iPad 2 has a huge lead in the number of available apps over Android-based and WebOS-based tablets. But nose around the respective app stores and look at the offerings applicable to your area of study. You may find more resources available in one platform than in the others. Storage remains a differentiator. You'll need to get used to storing documents in the cloud, too, on services like Google Docs or through apps like Evernote--especially if you choose an iPad. Alternatively, you can buy a storage device that connects to the tablet over Wi-Fi. Google's Android gives you a little more flexible: Some tablets have MicroSD card slots, SD Card slots, or even USB ports.
The hardware differences between tablets are vast, however, and they will determine how easily you can share documents and files.
Apple's iPad 2, with its 9.7-inch, 1024-by-768-pixel touchscreen and its 0.34-inch thickness sets the standard in walkaround computing, providing Wi-Fi connectivity in its least expensive version and 3G mobile broadband at the top of the scale. The main challengers to the iPad are the numerous tablets that run Google's Android 3.1 Honeycomb operating system. The Android tablets seem better suited to saving and accessing files, but the experience can vary greatly from one tablet to another. Current standard-bearers among 10.1-inch Android 3-class tablets include the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1--which is microscopically thinner than the iPad 2--and the Motorola Xoom.
Some unique tablets, including the Asus Transformer mentioned earlier, are making an impact on the market. The HTC Flyer, for example, is a snappy 7-inch Android 2.2 tablet with a cool extra: an active stylus that lets you write on the screen as easily as you could handle a pen and paper. For now, the software that the stylus works with is limited to HTC's offerings, but you can't get pen input elsewhere. Still, a tablet with a 7-inch won't be able to replace your laptop.
A solid example of a usable Windows 7 tablet is the Fujitsu LifeBook T580, a convertible system that offers a real keyboard and a display that rotates so that you can open and shut the unit like a netbook or use it as a thick but powerful tablet. With a 10.1-inch display, a four-finger capacitive touchscreen that supports digital pens, and an Intel Core i3 or i5 processor, this convertible laptop packs a reasonable punch for its small size. On the other hand, it starts at $999, a price comparable to what you'd pay for a netbook and a tablet together.
So what's the bottom line for students? The notebook is still the all-around king of campus computing, but a well-chosen tablet can lighten your backpack as you roam campus and can help you make more-efficient use of a school day.
Robert S. Anthony is a New York-based technology journalist. He writes a tech blog called The Paper PC.