Apple may have defined the modern tablet with its iPad, but as competing devices begin to hit the market, it's no longer the only tablet in town. Still, it's Apple's game to lose, and despite the emergence of so-called "iPad killers" like Samsung's Galaxy Tab, the sad truth for the upstarts is none of them stands out enough to knock Apple off its perch.
Like anything without an Apple logo, the wannabes all fall short on software, as the iPad now has 40,000 titles -- and growing -- in its App Store. Lower purchase and subscription costs, greater value, expandable hardware and standards-savvy browsing could give these new arrivals just enough room to offset the software shortfall, but nothing's going to derail the iPad/App Store juggernaut anytime soon.
For buyers not interested in Apple's tablet philosophy, choosing which alternative device makes the most sense largely depends on how it'll be used. Here are some of the strongest early alternatives:
Samsung Galaxy Tab
Likely the iPad's most serious competitor to-date, Samsung is already selling the device through Canadian carriers. The 7-inch device includes a number of features missing from Apple's tablet, like front- and rear-facing cameras, a memory card slot and support for more video standards and Flash-based Web sites. Thanks to its smaller screen (Apple's is 9.7 inches) it also weighs half as much. Cons include an app store that hasn't yet been optimized for tablets, an occasionally jittery interface and a price tag roughly equal to the 3G iPad. Canadians also can't buy this device outright: It only comes with a three-year commitment to a carrier.
RIM BlackBerry Playbook
When it ships to U.S. customers Q1 2011 and internationally by mid-year, the PlayBook will sport a new operating system and a built-in ability to tether to the Internet via existing BlackBerry devices. That last feature especially appeals to security-conscious corporate buyers as it leaves less data on the PlayBook itself, and avoids additional subscription costs or contracts.
HP Slate 500
HP's on-again, off-again device is now firmly on, with a Windows 7-based, business-targeted tablet that, although it's shipping to U.S. customers now (Canadians may see it early next year), is far too sober to make anyone's Christmas gift wish list. More exciting stuff comes next year: Consumer-targeted devices based on webOS, the well respected mobile operating system HP got when it acquired Palm in April.
The first version of this tablet sported an underwhelming 5-inch screen. But upcoming 7- and 10-inch versions will compete more aggressively for the heart of the market.
Acer, Archos, Asus, LG, Toshiba and Viewsonic join a growing list of hardware vendors expected to release tablets in the next few months. Citigroup last week pegged 2011 tablet sales at 35 million, of which 26 million would be iPads. FBR Capital Markets was even more optimistic, saying Apple would sell 30 million in a total tablet market of 40 million. Wherever the numbers fall, it's clear Apple will retain its lead, and the competitors will fight over the rest. The tablet fireworks are just beginning.