Tablet Tsunami: iPad mini, Surface and Others

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Have you bought your tablet yet?  I haven’t, but I am thinking about it.  We are reaching to point where those of us without a tablet are in the minority.   According to some surveys over half of the U.S. Internet users will have a tablet by the end of the year.  The Consumer Electronics Association reports that U.S. ownership of tablets is 31% as of the end of October and continues to rise.  With all the major new tablets introduced last week you may be next to buy one.

Apple’s new iPad mini seems to be a big hit just like all new Apple products seem to be.  Its 7.9 inch screen is bigger than the 7 inch screens on the new Google Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HD.  That represents about 7 more square inches of surface area which is noticeable.  But the mini’s resolution is only 1024x768 pixels compared to 1280x800 pixels on the other two tablets.  That is not a huge difference and you probably won’t notice it without a side-by-side A-B comparison.  And no, it is not a retina display as on the regular iPad and the iPhones.

The new mini also has front and rear cameras unlike the competition’s single front camera.  In addition the new mini is lighter and thinner and has longer battery life.  It offers Wi-Fi and a cellular option.  No doubt the number of apps available will influence many.  Total Apple apps run over 700k with about 275k optimized for tablets.  The Google Nexus has about as many Android apps but the Kindle Fire HD is lacking in that department.

In general the iPad mini is just a smaller version of its big brother.  The big downside is its price.  The cheapest version is $329.  You can get a Nexus 7 or Kindle Fire HD for $130 less.  That’s big bucks to many.  Just keep in mind, they all do basically the same thing.

Speaking of the mini’s big brother, Apple also announced a new improved version of its flagship iPad.  It has the killer 9.7 inch 2048x1536 pixel retina display and now features a faster A6X processor and a higher res rear FaceTime camera.  Faster Wi-Fi 802.11n on 2.4 and 5 GHz is included and LTE is now offered on the cellular models.   Battery life hangs in at 10+ hours.  Price is still $499 to start. That is one great upgrade.

The other major tablet announcement is from Microsoft.  Their Surface tablets are also very appealing.  It is a new ball game when Microsoft gets into the hardware business.  They obviously were uncomfortable with their laptop supporters in providing a timely platform for their new Windows 8 touch screen OS.  Of course they are also counting on Dell, hp, Lenovo, etc to offer laptops and tablets that use Windows 8.  And they will.  With laptops beginning to fade as tablets take over center stage, they are all looking for the next big thing.  Ultrabooks and tablets are it.

The Surface comes in two versions one with Windows RT OS and the other with Windows 8 Pro OS. Both have the 10.6 inch screen.  The RT version has a screen resolution of 1366x768 while the Windows 8 Pro version offers 1920x1080 pixel resolution.  Remember, Windows 8 is a touch screen OS.

The RT model uses a special variant of Windows 8 that runs on ARM processors.  The processor in the RT is a NVIDIA Tegra 3 quad core that is ARM-based.  The Windows 8 Pro version uses a standard Intel Core i5 processor so is more like a laptop.  The RT comes with special versions of Word, PowerPoint, Excel, and OneNote.  The Intel processor version runs all the usual Office software that runs on Windows 7.  Both have full USB 2.0 ports, a major advantage.

One interesting feature of the Surface models is the cover that converts into a keyboard. It is a standard size keyboard and helps you avoid the touch screen keyboards of the iPads.  I haven’t tried the new keyboard yet but I have been making errors for years on iPhone keyboards and I have not gotten better at it.  The new RT keyboard should be a hit for those of us who hate touch screen keyboards.  Front and rear facing cameras are included.

Communications options include Bluetooth 4.0 as well as full Wi-Fi 802.11a/b/g/n.  No cellular option is currently available.  The RT is available now at a competitive $499.  The Windows 8 Pro model will be available in the near future.  The RT is an excellent alternative to the iPad.  It will become more competitive as its repertoire of apps grows.

There are many other Windows 8 tablets coming on line.  RT tablets include the Asus VivoTab RT and the Dell XPS 10.  Windows 8 tablets using the Intel processor include the HP ElitePad 900 and Envy X2.  Lenovo has the IdeaTab Lynx and Samsung is introducing the ATIV Smart PC 500T.  You have lots of other choices but as you have seen, only the Apple and Microsoft products get all the hype and attention.

And I should also mention the Nexus 10, Google’s new larger tablet made by Samsung.  It too is an iPad and Surface RT competitor with a spectacular 2560x1600 pixel display.  It runs Android 4.2 the latest version and has access to all those 700k or so apps.  It is available for $399 in basic form which should really make it competitive.  It is worth a look when it becomes available in mid-November.

Some say that these tablets are the death of PCs and laptops.  I doubt that but they will decrease the volume of those legacy products significantly.  Ultrabooks will keep laptops on the map for a while longer and as memory prices continue to decline.  Then tablets will take over that spot.  Big screens, large disk drive capacities, and major pieces of software will keep the desktop PC around for years in the enterprise.  Laptops will probably morph into tablets as will most e-readers. 

I also see tablets as playing a major role in education.  As their prices decline, more and more textbooks will be in e-book form, online education will grow, and lots of auxiliary educational materials will be developed for tablets.

Am I getting a tablet?  Not yet.  I fear that I will become a couch potato like some I have seen.  They don’t want to leave the hypnotic effect of the tablet for anything.  Tablet addiction is a real phenomenon.  So I think I will go for the iPhone 5 upgrade first.  It will do everything the iPad and other tablets do but you can put it in your pocket and I can use it as a hot spot for my laptop.  And I will still use my old Kindle.  What are you going to do?

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Lou Frenzel

Lou Frenzel is the Communications Technology Editor for Electronic Design Magazine where he writes articles, columns, blogs, technology reports, and online material on the wireless, communications...
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