Future Tech 2013: Tablets

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Nexus 7
Nexus 7: Google challenges the iPad.

Tablets have evolved at a lightning-fast pace. And for 2013, we expect another year of rapid and significant change in areas ranging from performance and displays to battery life and price.

Just two years ago, the tablet market that is so large today was in its infancy, dominated by Apple’s first-generation iPad. Android tablets were barely getting off the ground, and were saddled with an inappropriate cell-phone operating system slapped into a tablet’s larger case.

Today, we have competition and diversity. Apple’s iOS-based fourth-gen iPad and iPad mini still dominate, but Android-based tablets are finally making inroads. Leading the way is Google’s own Nexus lineup, consisting of the affordable 7-inch Nexus 7 (which starts at $199 and goes up to $299 with HSPA+ mobile broadband connectivity), and the 10.1-inch Nexus 10 (with its crazy-high resolution). Amazon’s Kindle Fire HD, a competing $199 tablet built around Amazon’s media and services and running Android apps sold through Amazon’s own store, has done well, too. And now Windows 8–based tablets are here, led by Microsoft’s own Surface With Windows RT tablet.

So what lies ahead? Big growth, for one thing: Research firm IDC expects worldwide tablet shipments to hit 165.9 million units in 2013, up from 117.1 million in 2012. And by 2016, IDC says, worldwide shipments should reach 261.4 million units. This growth will come at the ex­­pense of traditional laptops and desktops, and it will foster a growing acceptance of tablets as tools in everyday life, whether as a “second screen” to accompany your TV viewing, as an e-reader, or as a productivity tool.

One of 2013’s big stories is likely to be an impending processor battle. That may sound strange—after all, you rarely buy a tablet for its processor alone. And you get what you get—not a lot of customization or variation can be had for any particular model. But that circumstance doesn’t lessen the vigorous competition over tablet performance, and the processor inside can make all the difference in how snappy your tablet feels, or how well your favorite games play.

That’s where Nvidia’s expected refresh of its Tegra 3 system-on-chip platform comes in. This quad-core (plus a fifth, low-power core) processor has been a favorite choice in leading Android tablets for the past year, and it’s ready for a refresh.

A leaked roadmap that surfaced in 2012 indicated that the next platform, code-named Project Wayne, will incorporate four ARM Cortex-A15 processors, up from the Cortex-A9 in use in Tegra 3. Its use of A15 will put Tegra on a par with the Qualcomm S4 Pro and Samsung’s Exynos 5. With the new processor, we anticipate better system and graphics performance, along with better power management, which should translate into improved battery life, and LTE support. You can ex­­pect to see additional tablets based on Qualcomm’s S4 Pro as well as on ARM’s Cortex-A15 in the next year.

surface tablet
Microsoft Surface with Windows Pro helps bridge the gap between tablet and laptop.

Another processor battleground in 2012 pitted the aforementioned ARM-based platforms, with their efficient battery life, against x86-based platforms like Intel’s Clover Trail Atom and AMD’s Hondo. These processors may possess more performance oomph than the ARM processors, but battery life can lag. Their big benefit for Windows 8 tablets is that they can support full Windows 8 and all legacy applications that run in desktop mode. Few Clover Trail tablets shipped in 2012, but look for a deluge in 2013.

You won’t see more tablets running Texas Instruments’ OMAP platform (currently on the Amazon Kindle Fire HD and Barnes & Noble Nook HD). TI pulled out of the highly competitive mobile market to focus instead on embedded systems.

Microsoft Windows 8–based tablets will be 2013’s biggest tablet wild card. With Apple’s iOS tablets firmly en­­trenched, and Google’s Android challengers looking more polished and appealing than ever, can Microsoft tablets hold the same allure and appeal? That remains to be seen. However, the confusion between Windows RT and full Windows 8 tablets may worsen once Microsoft unleashes its highly anticipated Surface With Windows Pro tablet, expected in January 2013.

We expect more high-pixel-density tablets to hit the market in 2013, continuing a trend begun by Apple’s iPad With Retina Display and furthered by Barnes & Noble’s Nook HD. Look for 1280-by-800-pixel resolution to become the norm on 7-inch tablets, and 1920-by-1200-pixel resolution to pick up steam on 10.1-inch tablets. Optical bonding, which eliminates the display’s air gap, should become more common, too.

Competing with Apple’s breadth, other tablet software ecosystems continue to struggle. Google has made progress, albeit slowly, while Microsoft remains far behind in app count. We expect both Google and Microsoft to expand their respective ecosystems; the trick is whether their quality and quantity can compete with Apple’s strong base.

Look for more connected tablets, too. In late 2012 some of them finally hit the market. One was Google’s affordable, unlocked Nexus 7 WiFi + Mobile Data, which works with 200-plus carriers worldwide. By the end of 2013, we’ll look back on the connected Nexus 7 and realize that it was the start of a new trend.

Meanwhile, we expect to see prices continue to plummet over the course of the year. As demand skyrockets, so does production—and in response, prices fall. Given today’s cutthroat competition, it wouldn’t shock us to see a top-tier 10.1-inch Android tablet selling for $300 by the end of 2013.

This story, "Future Tech 2013: Tablets" was originally published by TechHive.

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