Apple invigorates tablet offerings

iPad attracts attention but other options are worth a look, too.

The first generation of tablet computers didn’t create much buzz, yet a range of new and improved devices have become the talk of the tech world.

Apple’s iPad may have attracted the most the attention when it was unveiled on Jan. 27, but the company that brought us iPhones and iPods isn’t the only one making a splash in the increasingly crowded marketplace.

Early tablet computers were basically laptops outfitted with a special, twistable hinge that allowed the screen to turn and lay flat, face-side up. They were often controlled by a stylus (remember the old Palm Pilot?) and some offered note-taking software that allowed people to use the stylus as a pen and the screen as paper.

Reviews of these first models were mixed and the products failed to appeal to the masses. First-generation tablets tended to cost more than a typical laptop; simply put, the novelty wasn’t enough to juice sales.

This new generation changes everything.

Thanks to screens with better touch controls, processors robust enough for proper computing and a fresh commitment from hardware makers to create compelling software, the tablet has been reborn.

These new-and-improved devices emphasize fun while nodding to function. Let’s take a look at a few of the options.

First, the most obvious: the Apple iPad. With a very attractive entry price (from $499) and a 3G wireless connectivity (for $15-plus a month), Apple’s premiere slate will put a lot of pressure on other tablet manufacturers when it hits stores next month. (The Wi-Fi model ships in March; the 3G version won’t be available until April).

The iPad will run on an enhanced version of the same operating system used by the iPhone and iPod and will have about 140,000 apps available at launch. Other features include a 9.7-inch touchscreen display, 10-hour battery life and a sleek, thin design. But with little internal storage (16 GB), no camera, no Flash capabilities and the inability to run multiple programs at the same time, Apple’s tablet isn’t powerful enough for road warriors looking to replace their laptops.

Meanwhile, several competing slates feature more bells and whistles (such as Android, Google’s mobile phone platform) and, thanks to Apple, will benefit from a level of interest from consumers who showed little interest until the iPad came along.

Some of these Apple alternatives are already available, and prices for higher-end models are anticipated to soften as manufacturers compete for their share of what’s still a fairly small niche market.

Of the tablet PCs available, the Asus Eee PC TC 91 is easily the most interesting—and no, I’m not just talking about its strange alpha-numeric name. A pioneer in the netbook market, Asus offers a Windows-based tablet with 16 GB of storage, an SD slot for additional storage, built-in Wi-Fi and a video chat-ready camera. But, with just five hours of battery life, this is not a powerful machine. It is best used like a netbook, for Web-based applications and light computing.

Still, at $550, the Asus Eee PC TC 91 is priced right, makes for a fun secondary laptop and is ideal for short business trips, a weekend getaway, or as a computer for the Web addict who needs to e-mail or Facebook while watching TV.

Eye-catching design meets affordability with Entourage Systems’ $490 tablet-esque offering, the Entourage Edge.

The Edge is a “dual book” that combines an e-reader on one side and a netbook on the other. The e-reader side uses black-and-white “e-ink” technology (like Amazon’s Kindle) and measures 9.7-inches diagonally.
Meanwhile, the color screen on the netbook side is larger, at 10.1-inches, and includes a virtual keyboard for typing. It includes Wi-Fi, runs Android and will be app-ready when it hits stores next month. One problem: The Edge has only 3 GB of built-in memory so you’ll need an SD card for additional storage. On the higher end, Fujitsu, HP and Lenovo all offer powerful tablet options. These babies range in price, from about $1,200 for the
Fujitsu Lifebook T1010 or the HP Pavilion tx2500z, to $1,800 for
the Lenovo ThinkPad X200 Tablet 7449.

In addition to their super-sexy names, these devices offer 80 to 160 GB of storage space, depending on the model—much more than the iPad and the Eee, combined.

Lenovo unveiled another, more interesting tablet last month at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, but unfortunately it won’t be available until this summer.

Called the Lenovo IdeaPad U1 Hybrid, the darling of CES features a detachable screen that can be used on its own as a web-enabled touch-controlled tablet or, when kept in its clamshell case, as a traditional laptop. As a laptop, it runs on Windows 7; as a touchscreen tablet, it uses Lenovo’s operating system, Skylight.

While two operating systems sound like a technological nightmare, Lenovo assures Windows 7 and Skylight are integrated and allow for users to switch between laptop and stand-alone tablet modes without having to reformat documents.

More than a tablet but not quite a typical laptop, Lenovo was right to call the device a hybrid PC. Consumers can call it whatever they want in June, when it’s expected to go on sale for about $1,000.

Chicago-based technology columnist Eric Benderoff writes about consumer electronics and runs, an editorial services firm. He frequently discusses tech trends and new gadgets on various national radio and TV programs.