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Tablets: The best of 2011 and what to expect in 2012

2011 has arguably been the year of the tablet. Despite the original iPad released in 2010, the genre wasn’t totally carved out until February of this year with the launch of Honeycomb and the Motorola XOOM. Since then, Android tablets have infiltrated the market in every which way and at a range of sizes. Others have tried, with HP’s WebOS landing on the HP TouchPad and the RIM’s PlayBook running QNX, however the tablet wars have been well and truly dominated by iOS and Honeycomb.

Here we will take a look at the inbetweeners that blipped our radar, the losers that sunk and the tablets still standing in the wake of what 2011 left behind and what 2012 will bring to the table.

The Winners

1. Asus EeePad Transformer

Finally, innovation done right. Was the Asus EeePad Transformer the thinnest tablet of 2011? Did it have the slickest UI, best battery life or indeed the most internal storage? The answer to all the aforementioned is a resounding no, however the Asus Transformer EeePad Transformer isn’t just a tablet, it’s a netbook too. With the world of tech bidding the short-lived reign of the netbook farewell, many analysts would have probably tried to dissuade Asus from making their EeePad Transformer quite so foldable, however the companies conviction and ability to churn out innovative, premium hardware propelled the dual-core Tegra 2 powered device to the top of the Android tablet tables. Adding an air of productivity to an otherwise self-indulgent genre, having reviewed and used one for the majority of the year, we can certainly attest to the copious amount of functionality added by the keyboard dock – not least of all in terms of the additional 8 hours of battery life, two USB ports, full sized SD card slot and full-sized chicklet QWERTY keyboard with track-pad. Crowned by many, including Trusted Reviews as the king of gadgets 2011, we would argue that the Asus EeePad Transformer is the best tablet out there in terms of productivity and functionality.

2. Amazon Kindle Fire

Showing everyone exactly where the balance between affordability, quality and brand power lies, the Amazon Kindle Fire has been one of the real winners of 2011, at least in the States. Yet to land on home turf, across the pond the $199 tablet sales are topping a million units per week proving that despite no access to the Android Market and the 500k apps it bears, users are happy to compromise in order to get an affordable tablet with tight Amazon integration on board. Amazon’s proprietary user interface certainly lacks polish, but with a dual-core OMAP processor and 8GB of internal storage as well as decent capacitive display, given the solid physical specs, the fire will grow from strength to strength, with software updates on track to remedy the user experience woes. Due out in the UK in January 2012 at an unconfirmed price, we’d expect to see it retail for £179-£199 to compete with the likes of the Kobo Vox.

3. Apple iPad 2

Old faithful. In a genre overrun by meh, the Apple iPad 2 is the one tablet that in our opinion, offers a truly complete developed tablet experience and ecosystem for the average user, no accessories required. It’s thin, it’s light, it’s smooth, it’s solid and and it’s simple. Apps look great, the A5 processor motors everything along nicely and there’s no questioning its success. All it takes is a train journey through the heart of London and you’re likely to see at least 5 commuters lost in their 9.7-inch portals. With reasonable pricing starting at £399, storage options available as well as Wi-Fi and 3G models on the market, whether you’re looking to swipe and pan while watching TV, share content on the IPS display or keep up to speed with the latest current affairs to and from work, you won’t get a more refined experience than on an iPad.

Notable Mention: Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1

The iPad of the Androids, for anyone looking for a lithe, powerful tab, isn’t too fussed on typing and is heavily sold into the Android ecosystem, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 is the only real contender. Boasting a much slinkier chassis than the Asus EeePad Transformer, a bright, bold 10.1-inch display and some nifty accessories from Samsung in the form of a handy keyboard dock and super-skinny case, the Tab 10.1 proves that Android tablets can be standalone great. Loaded with Samsung’s TouchWiz for extra user-friendliness, with some of the really handy features found on the Samsung Galaxy S2 such as Music Hub adding 7 Digital integration and Reading Hub with Kobo, Zinio and Press Reader on board, the Tab 10.1 arrives on users doorsteps and hits the ground running. While the majority of 2011 was spent trying to convince courts it didn’t rip off the iPad, despite delayed launches and legal battles nothing can take away from the fact that the experience when using the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 is exceptional.

The Inbetweeners

1. Motorola XOOM

As the seminal Honeycomb tablet, we both expected great things from the Motorola XOOM and at the same time were prepared to make allowances for teething problems associated with the operating system in general. Paving the way for all Honeycomb tablets up to this day, on the Motorola XOOM is where we first saw the now ubiquitous 10.1 inch display coupled with 1280×800 resolution, as well as 1GHz dual-core tablet processor – features that have pervaded through to next-gen tablets. That said, the Motorola XOOM was decidedly mediocre for a tablet that cost more than an iPad, with a then inferior OS, screen and app selection. After the release of other Android tablets, offering far less bulk and more affordability, it became clear that the Motorola XOOM had missed a trick, settling itself firmly in the mediocre camp despite its stake as first on market.

2. Acer’s Iconia Tab A500

Despite delivering a solid spec-sheet virtually identical to almost every other Honeycomb tablet released in 2011, the Acer Iconia Tab A500 was one of those solid tabs with no stand-out points and some pretty disappointing battery life. It did offer a reasonable price when compared with the XOOM, however, when compared with its biggest rival, the Asus Eee Pad Transformer, with its foldable rather than mountable keyboard dock,it was inferior in every way.

3. Motorola XOOM 2

In the face of our criticism of the Motorola XOOM, the second coming, the XOOM 2 also landed in 2011 and improved upon many features that left the original looking so lacklustre in the face of the competition. Thinner, more powerful, additional ports, the Motorola XOOM 2 would have been a corker if it was released at the beginning of the year. Released internationally in the same month as the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime in the States, the Motorola XOOM 2 shows off less cores, less keyboard and less USPs in general. Sure, the inclusion of the IR port on the top end of the XOOM 2 and great note taking integration, not to mention super-fast web-browsing are pros, but with a yellowy palour to the screen and a design that just doesn’t feel as refined as the competition, we’re back to the mediocre camp for the Motorola XOOM series.

Notable mention: HTC Flyer

Speaking of tabs that lag behind the crowd, one tablet that epitomises Android’s fragmentation and lengthy update time-frames is the HTC Flyer. Measuring 7-inches and rocking a stylus for all those pen-centrics who miss the Windows mobile resistive charm of old, the HTC Flyer is perhaps most renowned as the tablet that made us wait. Force feeding us Gingerbread when all we wanted was Honeycomb it took over seven months for the HTC Flyer to get the version of Android many feel it should have been released with. That said, the Flyer offered solid performance even with Gingerbread and a more portable size, mixing up the good and the bad and landing the HTC Flyer in the inbetweeners camp – not quite great.

The losers

1. HP TouchPad

While HP’s webOS was once a bitter sweet tale filled with strife, hope and even promise, the sweet has well and truly soured, giving way to little more than bitter. The tipping point of this loss of hope came pretty much straight after the release of the HP TouchPad itself. Launching here in the UK on July 15th, after little over a month on the market, August the 18th saw the discontinuation of support for webOS from HP who acquired the ailing Palm in April 2010. A few rounds of fire-sales later and it was clear that official support for the tablet would die along with the marriage that brought it into the world. While there is continued development for the TouchPad with HP open sourcing webOS and Android developer communities such as CyanogenMod building Android ROMS for the hardware, with a 3.5 alpha released on the 15th of this month and a stable final build a long way off, unless you’re into your rooting and ROMing, it’s an RIP for HP’s TouchPad.


2. BlackBerry PlayBook

RIM in 2011. Less doom and gloom than webOS, but still a bumpy ride from start to finish, and at the heart of the journey – the BlackBerry PlayBook. One of the most hotly anticipated devices released over the past 12 months. With QNX on board and a departure from the archaic BB OS of old, the PlayBook’s innovative card style multi-tasking and processing muscle looked like it was showing Honeycomb tablets and indeed the mighty iPad a thing or two about delivering an engaging, finger friendly tablet experience. So much promise. Released 6 months into 2011 however with no native email support, contact / calendar integration or BlackBerry Messenger and everything took a nose dive, with users required to own both a PlayBook and a BlackBerry smartphone in order to access these services on their tab. Moving forward another 6 months and we’ve yet to see remedies for these issues hit consumer devices, making the PlayBook a glorified PMP for owners without a BlackBerry phone. The saddest thing? The PlayBook’s a great device. It could, it should have been BlackBerry’s triumphant halo mobile product, heralding the way for QNX on BlackBerry smartphones, but the reality is the BlackBerry PlayBook has shed light on RIM’s weaknesses in an age of OS updates.

 

3.ViewSonic ViewPad 7e

If there’s ever been a product that proves scrimping too much on quality to get the lowest price is a bad idea, the ViewPad 7e is it. Priced at £150, what the ViewPad 7e lacks in cost it makes up for in shortcomings. Pitched against the Kobo Vox eReader and upcoming Kindle Fire, despite some pretty strong competition, it still marches full steam ahead into 2012 with a resistive touch-screen, poor battery life, dated version of Android and an exceptionally poor 3-megapixel rear facing camera. If the Fire and Vox prove anything it’s that quality and affordability can indeed go hand in hand, so in the face of a generation of premium product bargain-hunters, the ViewSonic ViewPad 7e fails to make the grade, feeling at least 2 years behind the curb.

Notable mention: Fusion Garage Grid10

Innovation, we love it. Done right and you’re onto an Asus EeePad Transformer-esque winner, done less right however and the Fusion Garage 10 is an indication of what to expect. With its unique grid inspired interface overlayed on top of Android, it has all the potential to be really special. Although we haven’t see it yet, the gesture-centric UI however is however over-bearing, add to that under 5 hours of battery life, bulk and angular corners making it extremely uncomfortable to hold and you get something we wanted to like but simply couldn’t. Hopefully 2012 will bring with it a revised, polished Grid device to take all the innovation in the Fusion Garage 10, and make it work, but in its current state, this tablet and Grid OS will reside firmly in the archives of 2011.

2012 Predictions

If you’re holding off buying or upgrading your tablet until 2012, there are a few things you should know:

The Asus EeePad Transformer Prime is coming and its going to blow all other Android tablets out of the water, at least until the inevitable slew of quad-core Android tablets are unveiled from other manufacturers, probably this January at CES and February at MWC.

We will likely see a new Samsung Galaxy Tab, with many rumours suggesting it will boast an 11 inch high resolution display and a quad-core Nvidia Tegra 3 processor. Will we see an update to their 8.9 / 7-inch tabs there too? Who knows but if the success of the Kindle Fire is anything to go by, we probably will, along with a lot more 7-inch slates.

Google Nexus Tab. One of the major criticisms of Honeycomb is the lack of optimised apps. That fact coupled with a statement from Eric Schmidt when interviewed by an Italian newspaper earlier this week could well suggest mid 2012 will bring a Google tablet to the market, propagating the values of a stock Android experience in the tablet space as the Nexus line has done with Android phones.

iPad 3. While technically we don’t know anything about the iPad 3 for certain, we are nevertheless expecting to see one next year. With technical specs suggested to include a retina display provided by Sharp and a slightly thicker casing to accommodate for this, one area that remains shrouded in mystery is the processor. Will the iPad 3 get the A5 chip of old or the fabled A6? We can expect to hear more in spring 2012. There have also been rumours circulating of an iPad Mini measuring in at 7.85-inches to dampen the Kindle Fire’s flame.

Windows 8 tablets are on their way and Samsung and Nokia look like they will be playing ball. Expected to land half way through 2012, Microsoft’s Windows is seeing an OS unification bringing a version of Metro UI akin to that found on Windows Phone itself on to the Windows tablet. Now that both tablet and mobile iterations of iOS and Androod 4.0 are singing from the same hymn sheet, it makes sense for Windows to follow suite, providing consumers with a holistic ecosystem to rival Apple and Google across both mobile and slate.
 

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