The world of computing is at a crossroads. The primary computer for most users today is not a PC; it's a phone. While the PC sits on a desk at the office or on a coffee table at home, smartphones go everywhere with us and integrate into every part of our lives. But despite getting smarter and smarter, phones are too small to replace PCs completely. We need a device that bridges the gap between what PCs do and what mobile phones do. That device has arrived. Welcome to the age of the tablet.
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, offering a tsunami of diverse options for every user.
Break From the Past
The concept of a tablet PC isn't new, but its definition has radically changed. What we used to call a tablet was just a laptop with a screen that swiveled around and folded back, yielding a bulky machine that was uncomfortable to carry as a slate and awkward to use as a laptop. That unsatisfactory hybrid was simply where the state of technology took us in previous efforts to create "tablet" or "slate" computers.
Things shifted thanks to advances in smartphone technology. When the Apple iPad hit the market last spring, critics quickly dubbed it a giant iPhone without the phone. That description speaks to the technology that makes possible the iPad's appealing dimensions, but it does not do justice to the iPad. In fact, the iPad altered everything we thought we knew about tablets, and other hardware manufacturers are following up on Apple's success quickly.
Today's tablet is exactly what the name implies: a thin slab, dominated by its screen. These slender systems generally max out at 1.5 pounds, and few of them take up more space in your bag than an old-fashioned composition book would. The software for tablets has changed, as well. Instead of struggling to run a full-fledged version of Windows, which requires a significant amount of processing power and isn't optimized for use with a touchscreen, most new tablet models released nowadays run a relatively lightweight, touchscreen-focused mobile operating system such as Apple iOS or Google Android.
In the coming year, we are bound to see an astounding array of new tablets, including offerings from every major computer and phone maker, in many different sizes.
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 9.5 inches tall by 7.5 inches wide by 0.5 inch thick and carries a 9.7-inch 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 7-inch 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 14 inches 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 14 inches 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 12-inch screen.
Simultaneously, e-book readers such as the Barnes and Noble Nookcolor are seeking to compete with the tablet category. The Nookcolor runs Android 2.1 but is optimized for reading and for apps that B&N chooses to offer (it lacks Google's Android Market); nonetheless, with its 7-inch color display and support for apps, it blurs the definition of a tablet.
It's too early to tell whether users and the industry will ultimately favor 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.