Tablet Wars 2012: Competitors size up Apple

Tablet Wars

With January in the books, it’s clear that the tablet wars of 2012 have yet to be fought. But who will emerge as King? It’s safe to say Apple’s iPad 3, rumored for a March 29th release date, will come roaring out of the gate. However, Android competition is just warming up. The full-HD Asus Transformer Prime TF700 (TF301?) and more affordable Lenovo IdeaPad S2, both with transforming keyboard docks, are looking to eat into the laptop / ultrabook market (and putting another nail into the coffin of Netbooks…are those still around?), while the Asus Memo 370T looks to continue where the Nook Tablet and Kindle Fire left off; with an affordable, Tegra 3, 7″ model. Finally, barriers will be broken with the Samsung Galaxy Tab 11.6, possibly unveiled at the Mobile World Congress later this month.

With so much happening in just the first half of 2012, what tablet size should you sink your hard-earned cash into? Here’s a breakdown of the contenders:

7″ – Is that a tablet in your pocket, or are you just really happy to see me?

Tablet In PocketHaving owned the Nook Color and Blackberry PlayBook as well as larger devices, I can say that the 7″ size is here to stay (although Steve Jobs would have disagreed). After all, a device is only as useful as how much you use it, and the added portability means I’ll take it with me more often. Asus’ upcoming 7″ Memo 370T Tegra 3 tablet (CNET’s Best of CES 2012), is just $250, and is the one to watch right now. Quad-core, 1GB RAM, 1280×720 IPS screen, 8MP camera – and one of the few tablets that will fit in your jacket pocket or cargo pants. While 2011 may have been the year of the Nook and Fire e-reader / Tablet hybrids, I predict 2012 will see the return of the vanilla 7″ Android Tablet, started in 2010 by the original Galaxy Tab.

Will Apple get in the game here? Sources say a rumored iPad mini is unlikely, although I think there could be a market for it in the future. As for smaller devices such as the 5.3″ Galaxy Note, as long as you can hold it up as a phone with a straight face (arguably, you can), I would group it in the smartphone category, which has been pushing screen sizes up for years.

PROS:

  • Small enough for large pockets and most purses
  • Ideal size and weight for e-book reading
  • Generally lower cost than comparable 10″ models

CONS:

  • Smaller screen makes for weak laptop replacement
  • Some have less features than more expensive models (for example, the Kindle Fire lacks hardware volume buttons and a camera)

10″ – I have one, can I sell my laptop now? Maybe, not so fast.

iPad and LaptopIt’s clear that the 10″ tablet is the current standard. Starting with the iPad, to the Xoom, Tab 10.1, TouchPad, Transformer, Icona, Thrive, Viewpad, Sony Tablet S…the list goes on; almost every company threw their hat into the 10″ ring, hoping to be the next “iPad killer”. But few could slow down the run of Apple and their massive App Store, save for the (comparably) modest success of Samsung’s Galaxy Tab 10.1.

However, the opponent’s cards are still being dealt. In my opinion, Asus and their Transformer series are really onto something here. The popularity of the Prime (currently sold out in many stores) demonstrates that there is a growing segment who want to replace their laptop / ultrabook, but don’t feel the iPad (or devices with separate, often clumsy add-on keyboards) are the answer. Android tablets also have the edge in video watching, with virtually all models sporting widescreen displays.

Transformer PrimeHaving seen the Prime in action, I can see why many would want to ditch their boring Windows or Mac machine. It’s extremely svelte; with the keyboard firmly snapped in place, it feels like the best of both worlds – multitouch Android OS, boosted 18+ hour battery life, USB, mini-HDMI, keyboard and trackpad that folds into a razor thin, 2.5 lb clamshell. Pop it out and you have a powerful, lightweight tablet. This opens up a whole new market for students (Transformerforums has threads regarding the Prime and student use) or professionals who may not do heavy office work, but still need a mouse and keyboard for documents and e-mails. And since Apple likely won’t risk hurting Macbook sales with a transforming iPad, this paves the way for other companies such as Asus and Lenovo.

What about Microsoft? Comparable Windows 8 tablets face significant hurdles with ARM models only arriving late this year, so they are largely out of the equation. Therefore, I would bank on the iPad 3 and it’s huge App ecosystem (improvements are significant, so if you get iPad 2 now you’ll regret it!) or if typing is important, the Transformer Prime with keyboard dock. Finally, if you just need a thin, no-frills model, the discounted ($399) Galaxy Tab 10.1 makes for an attractive option.

PROS:

  • Comfortable screen size for most tasks
  • Possible laptop replacement, especially transforming models
  • Lots of selection, including upcoming iPad 3

CONS:

  • Too large and heavy for pockets and (most) purses, requires separate carrying case
  • Current models have low pixel density (although improving drastically this year)

11″ and beyond – Is bigger really better?

Big TabletWith a new market etched out by the Transformer Prime, the next logical step is “why not go bigger?”. Samsung’s Galaxy Tab 11.6 is clearly banking on that, pairing a large, ultra-high resolution screen (rumored at 2560×1600) with other high-end components. If Asus and others follow suit with bigger, transforming models, we could see a further encroachment into the high-end laptop space with 11, 12, 13″ or larger screens, previously only held by big, heavy, and expensive Windows 7 tablet PCs.

And what’s stopping the size from inching up? If you take a look inside Starbucks or Second Cup, more and more people are leaving their laptops at home for their tablet. However from a notebook perspective, screens like on the iPad and Prime are comparatively puny; so, just as minuscule Netbooks took over shops and hotel rooms a couple years ago, we’re back to the eye-straining screen sizes of yesteryear when smaller tablets are docked at arm’s length. Therefore, I predict more companies will finally venture above the “iPad standard”, and further push the boundaries between “laptop companion” and “laptop replacement”. Since the laptop standard is between 10 and 17 inches; what’s keeping tablets from expanding to 12, 13 inches or larger?

PROS:

  • Highest prospect for full-size laptop replacement
  • Increased resolution and screen real estate

CONS:

  • Heavier and larger, less comfortable for long handheld sessions
  • Likely higher cost

Everything in-between – Too little, too late?

Xyboard 8.2"Let’s not forget that many companies are trying on every size in-between. The Galaxy Tab 8.9 (let’s call it 9″), Archos 80 G9, Motorola Xyboard 8.2″ – everyone is clamoring for another piece of the tablet pie. Also, the just-released Galaxy Tab 7.7 at 335g is the lightest tablet yet, with a fast dual-core CPU and housing the first Super AMOLED screen on a tablet, which distinguishes it from the rest of the pack. But unless there are compelling reason to buy them (Note: low price was by far the most important factor in the Kindle Fire’s success, and the Galaxy Tab 8.9 currently costs more than the 10″ model), I think these tablets could remain a niche product due to their late arrivals and reduced portability and screen sizes compared to established 7″ and 10″ models, respectively. Do you think 8-9″ tablets will catch on?

Wrap-Up

The first half of 2012 is looking to be an extremely exciting time for tablets. While the iPad is still the dominant player, Android continues to grow in tablet market share (up to 39% from 29% in 2011), while other OS’s still only occupy 3% of the market – but the gap is shrinking fast. And while the market for 7″ tablets is continuing to grow, sizes are pushing past 10″ for the first time and combined with more convertible models, we should see some interesting competition with the laptop market.

Of course, things are changing so rapidly that it’s near impossible to keep up, so to help you out here’s the useful Comparison of tablet computers wiki, which should keep you in the know. What tablet(s) do you use right now and why, and what are you looking forward to most in 2012?

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