Tackling the Tablet Conundrum: Which One is Right For You?

Jon Phillips

Do you even need a tablet? If so, which one? We review the current crop of tablet mainstays. We explain the hardware and OS features that matter the most. Follow along as we unravel what tablets are actually good for.

When a consumer electronics category confuses the masses, it’s usually because the technology is hard to understand on a fundamental level. Have you ever tried to explain texture fill rates to your GPU-ignorant brother-in-law? Or RAID levels to your mom—who shouldn’t even be asking about RAID in the first place?

Videocards and storage devices can confuse the lay consumer, but at least the prospective hardware buyer usually knows he or she needs a videocard or storage device in the first place. Your game won’t play at a high resolution? A new videocard is probably the answer. Your hard drive is full? It’s time for more storage.

But tablets are different. From a raw technology standpoint, they’re not particularly hard to understand. They’re closed-box systems, and the specs of competing devices generally fall within a narrow range.

The bigger question concerns whether anyone even needs a tablet. TV commercials, tech pundits, and even the struggling magazine and book industries would have you believe that tablets are essential 21st‑century gear. But note-book replacements they are not, and this has to be reconciled before any tablet purchase.

Some Maximum PC staffers couldn’t live without their tablets, but others show no interest in them whatsoever. It all comes down to individual use cases. No one really “needs” a tablet, but many people are discovering that a tablet is a wonderful supplement to their core hardware arsenals. In fact, Maximum‑caliber tech enthusiasts are often the folks best served by tablets. But you need to know what they do well, what they do poorly, and which hardware and software features really matter at the end of the day.

In the following pages, we’ll explain all of that, plus review the eight most-talked-about models currently available. Six of the contenders run Google’s tablet OS, Android 3.0 (aka Honeycomb) . Another, the iPad 2 , runs the latest version of Apple’s iOS. The final entrant is RIM’s oddball PlayBook, which is tied to a software ecosystem so funky, the PlayBook can’t really be included in any serious tablet conversation. The most oddball tablet of all—HP’s WebOS-based TouchPad—was left out entirely because it was discontinued a few weeks before we started working on this article.

Excited? Anxious? Maybe a little scared? Simmer down, amigo. Tablets are a confusing proposition, but they need not be feared.

Tablet Talents and Tablet Fails

Before you begin comparison shopping, make sure a tablet is right for you

We'll get into specific use cases in a moment, but let's first provide an overview of how tablets trump notebooks, their closest hardware cousins.

First, they're imminently more wieldy. By eschewing a hinged clamshell design and mechanical hard drive, a tablet is lighter and less delicate. It's easier to tote in a book bag, and you'll feel more comfortable tossing it on your couch or mattress.

Second, a tablet is the perfect device for "kick-back computing." When you're chilling on your couch, supine and relaxed, you'll probably find it easier to hold and manipulate a tablet than a note-book. And thanks to their virtual keyboards, data entry on a tablet is easier, too—assuming you don't have much to enter (more about that soon). All in all, if you want to perform computer-like tasks while lying on your back, tablets are a goshsend.

Third, apps. Even in the Android Market (whose offering compare in neither volume nor quality to those of Apple's App Store), there are hundreds of awesome apps that don't have desktop counterparts. Indeed, some of the most interesting software development of the last two years has been focused in the tablet space. These apps make unique use of touch navigation, accelerometers, and location awareness, and will probably never find a home in your Windows computer.

Now let's dig a little deeper into what tablets do—and don't do—well.


Tablets absolutely rock for card and parlor games, sim golf, and pinball—like the feature-filled Navy Seals board, which is part of a $2.99 war-themed pinball pack from Gameprom (iOS only).

Touch controls suck for first-person shooters and action sports games, but you won't find a better platform for card games, casino sims, virtual pool, trivia challenges, and digital versions of Scrabble, Yahtzee, and other "family game night" fare. Tablets are also tailor-made for physics-based games like Angry Birds , Cut the Rope, and Doodle Jump—all use touch control and accelerometers to fantastic (and addictive) effect. EA just released an iPad version of Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12 (tablets are perfect for golf games), and Gameprom's pinball sims are probably the best tablet games of all. There are currently three tables available for Android tablets, and seven for the iPad. All boast excellent ball physics, and are chock-full of the ramps, targets, and table toys you'd find in a late-model Williams pinball machine.

According to a March 2011 survey conducted by Google's AdMob subsidiary, gaming ranks highest among all tablet use cases. Given the survey's timing, the vast majority of the 1,400-plus queried must have been iPad owners, as Honeycomb-based tablets (the first real Android tablets) weren't yet available. In today's climate, where Android devices reportedly account for one out of every five tablets sold, we might expect games usage to slip just a little—if only because Honeycomb supports fewer killer games, and the platform is decidedly more utilitarian than iOS. All of which leads us to…


Available for both Honeycomb and iOS, the IMDB app provides access to the world's best database for checking TV and movie information.

In the March AdMob survey, participants were asked to name all the ways in which they use their tablets. "Playing games" took the lead with 84 percent, but this was followed closely by "searching for information" (78 percent) and "emailing" (74 percent). What's more, 82 percent said they primarily use their tablets at home. The upshot? Tablets are ideal for web-surfing and emailing from the comfort of one's couch, bed, or chaise lounge! And this is really how most people—even power users—use their tablets. To wit: A February 2011 In-Stat survey ranked emailing and web-browsing as the top two tablet uses.

Web surfing and email already top the charts of desktop use, and tablets simply deliver those services without the inconvenience of ambulatory visits to a stationary device. So, if you check email about 100 times a day, and are unable to survive without constant fact-checking on Wikipedia, IMDB, and the like, then a tablet might perfectly suit your lifestyle needs. Even better, many notable news, reference, and cooking sites offer slick app wrappers for their web content, providing navigational experiences that better their own web offerings.


Social media is all about quick check-ins and look-ups wherever and whenever you want, and tablets suit this activity perfectly. Twitter's eponymous app offers a UI that's vastly more feature-rich and user-friendly than the service's website interface, and it's available for both Honeycomb and iPad.

Facebook makes smartphone apps for both platforms, but hasn't released any versions optimized for the more generous screen dimensions of tablets. The company expects you to use its web interface when posting and liking on tablets, and that's fine by us, as the site renders well in the neighborhood of 10 diagonal inches. And because Facebook activity rarely involves extended data input, virtual keyboards are suitable for anything you may need to post.


On the iPad, you can stream the latest ABC video content—one of a few video streaming services that just isn't available on Honeycomb.

You're not going to gather the whole family around a tablet for a night of movies and popcorn, but both Honeycomb tablets and iPads have the rendering power and screen dimensions for satisfying single-person video viewing. Both platforms render onscreen video at 720p, and Honeycomb tablets can output 1080p via HDMI, if you absolutely must assemble the clan around the big screen.

Both tablets have slick YouTube apps, but Team iPad pulls ahead of Honeycomb when it comes to streaming Hollywood movies and TV shows. For example: Netflix subscribers can stream "Watch Instantly" content on their iPads, but the Lenovo IdeaPad K1 is the only Honeycomb tablet to support Netflix streaming without a hack. And then there's HBO, ABC, and Xfinity On Demand. All offer video streaming via iOS apps, but Honeycomb support is nowhere to be found. Both tablet platforms let you rent and download content from their online stores, but the offerings in Apple's App Store are vastly better than what you'll find in Android Market.

All that said, Honeycomb tablets do support a wide variety of video codecs, and because they don't interface with the clusterfrack that is iTunes, it's much easier to rip DVDs and quickly place video files in your Android video folder. The end result is a very effective platform for video playback—at home, on an airplane, wherever.


Junior astronomers can use Google Sky Map on their Honeycomb devices. Just point your tablet to the heavens, and see what stars lie above.

Apple's "There's an app for that" campaign positions the iPad as a platform for sundry lifestyle activities one can only imagine. That's an optimistic promise. If you buy a tablet, you'll find almost all your activity in the realm of gaming, email, and web browsing. Having said that, certain eclectic souls may stumble upon a niche, highly focused tablet app that dovetails just perfectly with their own business or enthusiast needs.

For example, OmniGraffle (iOS only) is perfect for creating flowcharts, diagrams, and other quasi-freehand drawing during business meetings. Or let's say you're a hardcore astronomy nerd. With Star Walk (iOS only), you can point your iPad 2 at the skies for augmented reality overlays of constellation and satellite information. Google Sky Map performs a similar function for Honeycomb, but without augmented reality features. Other apps specialize in music and art creation, medical services, and even credit card processing, so you can use your tablet to collect payments on the road. These are all very niche-use cases—but for the people who use tablets in these ways, the benefits are profound.

Are you sufficiently stoked to buy a tablet? Not so fast, laddie. We'll now describe what tablets don't do well.


If you're looking to read e-books into the wee hours of the night, eschew a tablet for an e-reader like the Barnes & Noble Nook. The "first edition" version displays soothing E ink for reading, while a secondary screen uses a color LCD for navigation.

There's an undeniable convenience in loading hundreds of e-books into a single hardware device that's already shaped like a book. But, sorry, we're not fans of reading long-form content on tablets. Projected-light displays (like the LCDs found in all tablets) often cause discomfort and eyestrain during long periods of extended, continuous use. So, while we're happy to use tablets to catch up on the latest news headlines, we'll not so happily partake in an all-day George R.R. Martin marathon.

If you really want to get your e-book on, invest in a dedicated e-reader like the Amazon Kindle or Barnes & Noble Nook . Both use E Ink, which displays grayscale text and images with soothing, eyeball-friendly reflected light. Relative to tablets, dedicated e-readers also perform much better in direct sunlight, and are imminently more portable than even the thinnest, lightest tablets, such as the iPad 2 and Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 .


The best smartphone cameras trump the best tablet cameras. In fact, the camera on the iPhone 4 is one of the best phone cameras available, while the camera on the iPad 2 is one of the worst cameras you'll find on any tablet. That should tell you what the market-leading tablet vendor thinks of cameras on its larger mobile devices.

Tablet cameras are generally crappy, suffering from compression artifacting, color shifts, and other image-quality problems. And once you consider the truism that the best camera is the one you have with you, then we have to ask why anyone would ever carry around a big-honking tablet for photo-acquisition purposes. Use your phone instead. It's in your pocket.

Having said that, we'll reserve just a wee bit of respect for the video creation capabilities of any Android device that comes with Google's Movie Studio app. Chasing the action with a 10-inch tablet in your hands may not be easy, but the app lets you quickly grab all the video clips already sitting in your device, edit them with titles, still photos, transition effects, and audio tracks, and then output everything to a single new video in one fell swoop. It's plenty adequate—and quite convenient—for YouTube vlogging and similarly low-level video projects.


The virtual keyboards on tablets offer generous layouts, but you won't receive any tactile feedback—and auto-correction can lead to many mistakes.

Tapping out sentences on the virtual keyboard of a tablet beats smartphone data input any day, but we don't know anyone who can touch-type on either iPad or Honeycomb tablets. Besides lacking tactile feedback, the auto-correction features of both iOS and Android lead to vexing spelling mistakes. Even worse: Turning off auto-correction leads to text that looks like something Latka Gravas might utter in his native tongue.

Sure, you can buy a keyboard dock for the Asus EeePad Transformer, but you still won't be able to use any Windows apps.

Yes, you can connect to a Bluetooth keyboard (rarely a satisfying or even reliable solution), and some tablets—notably the Asus EeePad Transformer —can be teamed with physical keyboard dock accessories. But to what end? You might be approximating a computer workstation, but iOS and Honeycomb don't support any office, productivity, or serious content creation apps that would make you want to ditch your desktop or even notebook (and don't even mention Polaris on Office, which comes on the EeePad—it's quite vexing in and of itself). The upshot is that neither tablet platform makes sense for extended typing projects, and a tablet just can't serve as your only computing device when you're working out of hotel rooms on the road.


There's no iOS or Honeycomb version of Steam , and you'll find no Dead Island, Portal, or WoW. Get our drift? 'Nuff said.

Platform Battle: Which OS is Best for You

The decision between an iPad 2 and a Honeycomb tablet comes down to your personality type and your priorities

Nvidia is promoting 19 games in its Tegra Zone app. Not much to see here, folks. But, hey, at least someone is trying to promote gaming on Honeycomb.

Don't worry, we're not going to make you read this whole section just to find out if you should align yourself with iOS or Honeycomb. It basically comes down to this: As a platform, Honeycomb offers greater UI flexibility and user controls than iOS. It also bests iOS in web browsing (perhaps the most important tablet service) and has superior hooks into all Google products, apps, and features. Honeycomb isn't a refined OS, per se, and it does suffer some vexing user experience issues. But it's the OS we recommend for hardcore PC types who value a more Windows-like experience in terms of multitasking, file transfers, and UI tweakage.

The iPad 2, meanwhile, can't be beat for its app support: By huge leaps and bounds, the offerings in Apple's App Store crush what you'll find in Android Market. Apple's iOS is also more intuitive and easier to use than Honeycomb. All in all, if you're a Mac user—or just the type who subscribes to that "let's sacrifice power and flexibility for simplicity" ethos—then get yourself an iPad 2.

With that as a preamble, let's compare iPad 2 with the Honeycomb cartel in five key areas, and we'll also explain why Windows and BlackBerry tablets can't even be considered.


The number of apps designed for iPad and iPad 2 so rudely dominates the number of apps designed for Honeycomb, we're almost tempted to say, "Oh, flunk it—just run down to your local Apple Store and throw down." According to a running list on Androidcentral.com, there are currently 292 apps optimized for Honeycomb. The Apple Store, meanwhile, reported 121,807 iPad apps as of 2:15 PST on Sept. 12, 2011.

Honeycomb's most painful app shortcoming is a dearth of killer games. Nvidia is trying to support Honeycomb as a gaming platform via its Tegra Zone shopping center, but with a current inventory of just 19 games, this gateway to fun isn't really hopping. Adding insult to injury, various Honeycomb apps aren't as polished or complete as their iPad counterparts. For example, there's noticeable ball lag in the Honeycomb version of Pinball HD, and Honeycomb's Xfinity app supports "play now" streaming for only a single device.

Words of wiz: Check Android Central's Honeycomb app list and also look carefully at the apps that come preinstalled on the Honeycomb tablet you're thinking of buying. If your brain can't resolve the limited offerings of what you find, then buy an iPad 2 instead.

Blackberry? No, Not An Option

Despite rumors that RIM is planning to discontinue its much-less-than-celebrated tablet offering, the BlackBerry PlayBook continues to putter along. This gives RIM's QNX-based OS platform a little bit of breathing room before the inevitable axe falls and provides shoppers in BlackBerry App World with a 7-inch tablet on which to download software.

Yep, 7 inches. That's the size of the current PlayBook, and all indicators suggest a 10-inch version will never be offered. Instead, BlackBerry is working on a dual-core uber-phone that would be running the QNX-based OS (a different OS than the one powering current BlackBerry smartphones). So, as a tablet platform, the PlayBook doesn't have legs. And as a current tablet option, the PlayBook really can't be considered. It's too small, its app universe can't compete with iOS or Android, and (worst of all) to access email and calendar, you have to use a wireless tether to your damn BlackBerry phone!


For those people who intend to use their tablets only for email and information searches, Honeycomb might be the better platform. Honeycomb's built-in Browser app is a dead ringer for Chrome, and supports tabbed windows, direct hooks into Google voice search, and (most importantly) Adobe Flash. These three features are missing from the iOS browser.

If you're an iPad user, you can download a third-party iOS browser that supports tabs, but none are very fast or even satisfying. But it's the lack of Adobe Flash that really hurts iOS. Web developers have instituted Flash workarounds in anticipation of all the iOS devices that will access their sites, but we still find web content that won't load on our iPads.

Both tablet platforms have a Google Maps app, but the Honeycomb version comes with extra features—like the Places tool, which helps you quickly find food, drink, and other sorts of merriment.

The iPad has a fine email app, but like all iOS apps, you have to exit the app and enter an OS-level Settings app to manipulate fine controls (e.g., font size). In Honeycomb apps, all settings are quickly available in the app itself. We also appreciate that Google voice input is immediately accessible in so many Honeycomb apps. Besides using it to dictate browser searches, you'll also find it surfaced in Maps (a much richer Google Maps experience than you'll find on iPad); Talk (an instant messaging client); Navigation (a turn-by-turn directions app); and on the virtual keyboard itself. Voice control is surprisingly adept at identifying common words, and it takes all the auto-correction pain out of text chat in the Talk app.


The more we use Honeycomb, the more we appreciate the freedom it affords Maximum-caliber power users. As stated above, settings menus are located in-app; no trips to a central Settings app are required. Honeycomb also supports true multitasking, whereas iOS does not. For example, let's say you're rendering a time-consuming video project in Movie Studio. An alert for an important email pops up in your Honeycomb system tray (the system tray is another feature not yet available in iOS), and you can jet on over to your Gmail app to read it—all without suspending the video rendering in progress. In iOS and iMovie, you would never get the alert in the first place, and if you decided to jump over to your Mail app on a lark, your iMovie rendering would suspend until you returned.

And then there are desktop Widgets. Apple doesn't like a cluttered desktop. You can have icons on it or dead space, and that's it. But Honeycomb supports a thriving ecosystem for desktop widgets that show everything from your latest incoming email and tweets, to snazzy graphical representations of the current time, weather, news headlines, and more. It all puts a vibrant, real-time spin on your desktop, and it's a key reason to buy a Honeycomb tablet over an iPad.

In Honeycomb, you can fill up to five desktop panels with interactive widgets that update in real time. It's like viewing an app without loading an app.

But for true power users, the rebels among us, simply being able to avoid iTunes for file management may be the best reason of all to join Team Honeycomb. Sure, if you've spent your whole life playing in the walled garden of iTunes, you might be OK with the draconian limits and convoluted operating procedures that Apple imposes on music and video transfers. But Honeycomb tablets ain't having none of that—you can simply drag and drop music and video files from your PC to tablet. It's a revelation. Traveling to Asia? Just rip 18 hours of movies to a compatible codec, drop it on your Honeycomb tablet, and you're good to go.

Windows Tablets? Too Slow, Too Clunky

We sometimes forget there's a tablet version of Windows 7—probably because it's a big, bloated mess when running on the underpowered tablet hardware that suffers the indignity of running it. We've been playing with it on the Viewsonic ViewPad 10 , which dual-boots between Android 2.2 and Win7, and the Win7 side of the experience is vexing to no end.

It's difficult to say whether the tablet's 1.66GHz Intel Pine Trail processor is woefully underpowered for the OS, or if touch navigation in Win7 is a rushed-out, kludge job. But the bottom line is that the OS doesn't offer any of the multitouch gestures available in iOS or Honeycomb. Instead, you use your finger to move a cursor, and this operation is both slow and imprecise. And when the tablet is churning away in apps, it just plain chugs.

Forget about Win7. If Microsoft has any future in tablets, it will be tied to Win8.


The size, resolution, and aspect ratio of your tablet's display affect your entire user experience. Right now, we feel that Honeycomb devices have the upper hand in this area. As far as total diagonal inches, they're just a tad larger than the iPad (10.1 inches to the iPad's 9.7). But Honeycomb tablets offer a 1280x800 resolution where the iPads clock in at 1024x768. The extra resolution is appreciated for greater pixel density in visual content (132ppi for the iPads; 160ppi for Honeycomb tablets), as is Honeycomb's 16:10 aspect ratio. When you're watching wide-format HD content, Honeycomb tablets don't letterbox nearly as badly as the iPads.

Rumors say the next-gen iPad 3 will have an ultra-high definition 2048x1536 "retina display." That's peachy, but this pixel grid would appear in the current 9.7-inch screen size. With more than 100,000 apps coded for a 4:3 aspect ratio, it would be madness for Apple to switch to a widescreen format at this late a date, and a display larger than 10 inches would make for an unwieldy beast.


As we've said before, it's easier to just jab your power button and begin, um, "doing stuff" on an iPad relative to a Honeycomb device. Apple's desktop is cleaner and doesn't suffer much "What am I supposed to do now?" ambiguity. Because it exposes nothing more than app icons, operation is a simple matter of hitting an icon and working within the simple GUI of whatever IOS app you've launched.

Honeycomb, meanwhile isn't "difficult," per se (and certainly not to Maximum-echelon users), but its interface is more complex, and Android apps tend to be more clumsily designed in general. You're given more user-controlled options across the OS, and this can lead to confusion among newbs. And while it's true that using iTunes for the file-management of your personal media is a PITA, the entire discovery and downloading process of store content is easier in iOS than in Android.

But Honeycomb's biggest user-experience problem is "system fragmentation." Not all Honeycomb updates are available for all Honeycomb tablets at the same time. As a result, the current field of Honeycomb devices is fragmented between OS versions 3.1 and 3.2. Even worse, device support for Honeycomb apps can also be staggered. A glaring example: At press time, only the Asus EeePad Transformer and Lenovo IdeaPad K1 were approved to run streaming video content in the Netflix app.

Bottomline: If you're buying a tablet for a tech-challenged loved one , get an iPad 2.

Hardware Specs: What to Look For

You won't find much variation in internal components, making head-to-head hardware comparisons that much more difficult

Ok, so you're sold on buying a tablet, and you've even chosen between the iPad 2 and a Honeycomb variant. Now it's time to arm yourself with specs knowledge for comparison shopping. Most tablets are markedly similar, but here's what matters most.


Every Honeycomb we've tested comes with the same 1GHz dual-core Tegra 2 chip.

Every Honeycomb tablet released thus far contains the same 1GHz Nvidia Tegra 2 chip and 1GB of RAM. This dual-core Nvidia silicon is based on the ARM Cortex A9 architecture. The iPad 2 also contains a 1GHz dual-core chip—the Apple A5—and it is also of the A9 persuasion. The iPad 2, however, comes with just 512MB of RAM. Smartphones are already shipping with 1.2GHz dual-core chips, so expect next-gen tablets to scale accordingly.


All Honeycomb tablets ship with a 10.1-inch, 1280x800 display—per the Android 3.1 spec. What differs, however is screen quality. The display of the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 is bright, vibrant, and relatively true. The screen of the Motorola Xoom , meanwhile, is so dim and dull (and fraught with bad off-axis viewing), some critics suspect Motorola is using inferior twisted-nematic (TN) display technology. Bottom line: All Honeycomb tablets bear the same screen dimensions and resolution, so make sure the one you purchase looks great on a pixel-by-pixel basis.

As for the iPad 2 , it uses the same 9.7-inch, 1024x768 display found in the original iPad. Its brightness and color accuracy are laudable, but we prefer the greater resolution and 16:10 aspect ratio of the Honeycomb models.


Today's tablets typically offer 8, 16, 32, or 64 gigs of solid-state storage. Want more storage? Then buy a more expensive model. And if you suspect that you'll be wanting a lot of storage space—and storage flexibility—look for a Honeycomb tablet that supports SD cards (giving a second life to all those random memory cards sitting in the bottom of your camera bag). The Toshiba Thrive even supports a full-size SD card, good for 128GB of extra storage.


Every tablet includes Wi-Fi support. Some include 3G support as an option, and some (like the Asus Transformer) currently don't offer a 3G version at all. This is our take on tablet 3G service: It's expensive. It can't be rolled up into our existing smartphone data plans. And we already have 3G service built into our smartphones. If we need to check email or look up a piece of information in an area without free Wi-Fi, we'll use our phones. There's no reason to avoid a tablet with 3G support, and it's nice to have that support in a pinch. But if you're pinching pennies, it's probably not worth the investment.


As we stated before, there are very few reasons to care much about camera quality. Still, all modern tablets come with both front- and rear-facing cameras, so you might as well get the best cameras possible. Front cameras are only appropriate for (grainy) video chat, and usually range between 1.2MP and 2MP. Rear cameras typically fall right at 5MP, but we say to focus on image quality instead of cold, hard megapixel numbers. And if you really must give a damn about your tablet's camera, you may as well get one with LED flash.


The Toshiba Thrive stands alone in offering both full-size USB and HDMI ports.

Android tablets are relatively cookie-cutter—except when it comes to ports, car slots, and power cables. What kind of USB ports does your tablet include—micro, mini, full, or none at all? What about HDMI—micro, mini, full, or none at all? Full-port support for both USB and HDMI are most welcome. SD card support is also a plus. And get this: The Toshiba Thrive has a user-swappable battery.

Unfortunately, all of the tablets we discuss in this article depend on different proprietary power connectors, and none of the tablets with USB ports can charge via these ports. The downside is that you may find yourself powerless and SOL when the inevitable cable misplacement occurs.


The Lenovo tablet has a rubbery back panel that's less cold to the touch and easier to grip than what you'll find on snazzier-looking competitors.

We know we'll catch heat for saying this, but we don't think a tablet's weight is that important. Just how weak do you have to be to quibble over the 1.65 pounds of the Lenovo K1 relative to the 1.33 pounds of the iPad 2? We're much more interested in tablet's thinness (the iPad 2 and Galaxy Tab 10.1 rule this roost), and its backing material. In fact, we rather like the grippy, rubberized back panels of the Toshiba and Lenovo tablets.

Tablets Through the Ages:

5,300 Years Old and Trendier Than Ever!

With simmering iPad 2 rumors and dazzling Honeycomb previews at CES, it was clear within the first week of 2011 that this would be the year of the tablet. But before you settle down to compose a self-congratulatory tweet on your shiny new slate, consider that this year's models are really the culmination of some 5,300 years' worth of tablet ingenuity . That's right: Our current tablet fever can be traced all the way back to the first people to record history on a slab of hardware—really hard hardware. OMG, indeed.

3300 BCE
Sumerian Cuneiform Tablets

The Sumerians built one of the first urban societies more than 5,000 years ago in Southern Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq). And, consistent with urban culture, they had their minds on their money, and their money on their minds. Sumerians first developed their glyph-based writing system with a stylus on a clay tablet in order to document financial transactions. Their system of characters and symbols constantly evolved, and was used as late as the year 100 CE, long after the culture's spoken language died out.

CA. 1300 BCE
The Ten Commandments

The details of Moses's life are, let's just say, highly disputed. Nonetheless, as the story goes, Moses received the Ten Commandments from God at the top of Mount Sinai and transcribed them on stone tablets. Upon descending the mountain and witnessing his people worshiping false idols, he destroyed the tablets in a rage, thus voiding their warranty. Moses returned to the mountain and inscribed two fresh tablets, which to this day continue to arouse mixed feelings.

CA. 500 BCE
Greek Wax Tablet

Developing all that democracy and fighting all those Persians required much note-taking. The ancient Greeks' solution? Wooden tablets covered with a layer of wax. Writing into the wax with a stylus took much more pressure than writing with ink on parchment, but wax was all they had, and they used a straight-edge, spatula-like tool to erase.

CA. 1600
Erasable Writing Tablet

In Shakespeare's Hamlet, written 1599-1601, the tragic protagonist muses, "From the table of my memory I'll wipe away all trivial fond records…" Metaphorical? Perhaps. Yet also literal. Small, portable writing tablets with erasable pages existed in those times. A mixture of gesso and glue covered the pages to make them erasable when written on with a metal stylus. Very convenient when you want to erase "By Christopher Marlowe" from the title page.

Etch A Sketch

A French electrician in the late 1950s hatched a plan to make a drawing toy with a joystick, glass, and aluminum powder. Several degrees of separation later, the concept ended up in Bryan, Ohio where the Ohio Art Company redesigned and manufactured it. Five decades later, the often used (but rarely mastered) Etch A Sketch continues to thrive.

Star Trek Electronic Clipboard

While we're still impatiently awaiting teleportation, the original Star Trek series predicted a number of technologies with varying degrees of accuracy. While it was ultimately a crudely made prop, the electronic clipboard's depiction of a multitouch computer input device was truly fantastical for the time. And if you were paying more attention to the device (later named the PADD) than to Uhuru, you're a true nerd.

Apple Graphics Tablet

Made for the Apple II desktop computer and Utopia Graphics System software, the Apple Graphics Tablet with wired stylus cost a down-to-earth $650. But it didn't sell well, and Apple discontinued it after the FCC discovered it caused radio frequency interference. D'oh!

Star Trek PADD

Beginning with Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1987, the PADD (Personal Access Display Device) imagined the potential of tablet computing before real-world technology could manifest it. Throughout that series, as well as in Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise, the PADDs continues to evolve, as citizens of the United Federation of Planets demanded better push notifications and unlimited data plans.

Grid Systems GridPad

This portable tablet PC (one of the first) had a 10-inch monochrome screen, tethered pen, 1MB RAM, and a price tag of about $3,000, including software. Its 4.5-pound weight was considered svelte, and it sold pretty well while collecting good reviews. But business happens, after AST took over ownership and tanked in the mid-'90s, the GridPad went down with the ship.

Compaq Concerto

One of the early models to run Windows for Pen Computing (Microsoft's first attempt at a tablet OS), the Concerto cost an intimidating $2,500. Even a $1,000 price drop didn't do the trick, and Concerto fizzled out in 1994. The computer itself is hidden behind the display, so the keyboard can be fully detached, allowing users to pen-compute themselves into an altered state somewhere between blithe indifference and total apathy.

Newton MessagePad 100

Who could forget the Newton OS, Apple's first tablet platform? Its popularity was somewhere between the current Apple iOS and voluntary castration. Although widely considered a failure, the Newton OS hung around for five years after the initial MessagePad 100. After Apple discontinued Newton in 1998, Steve Jobs reabsorbed the technology, and two ex-Newton developers created the OS for the original iPod.

USRobotics (Palm) Pilot 5000

Anyone of a certain age remembers when the Palm Pilot had the lockdown on the PDA market and a future filled with nothing but sunny skies. The Pilot 5000 launched in March 1996 (when Palm was a subsidiary of USRobotics). It made waves with its Graffiti handwriting recognition, and adoption of apps before apps were even, err, apps. The four main apps—date book, address book, to-do list, and memo pad—seem pedestrian now, but they were a revelation 15 years ago.

Tablet PC

COMDEX, Fall 2001: Bill Gates delivers his annual keynote speech, unveils a slew of tablet prototypes, and decrees that “Tablet PCs” will rule the landscape in five years. In short order, the industry releases devices like the HP TC-1100 pictured here, and tech geeks discover that Windows XP Tablet PC Edition, which requires stylus-driven text input, isn’t really easy to use. Tablets suffer a bad name for approximately seven more years—proving Bill is quite the optimistic soothsayer vis-à-vis when things will rule.

Microsoft Ultra-Mobile PC

Some five years after Bill Gates promised Tablet PC dominance, Microsoft's tablet OS was updated to Windows XP Tablet PC Edition 2005, and slotted for smaller, stylus-dependent touch-screen devices called Ultra-Mobile PCs, or UMPCs. The Samsung Q1 was one of the first, and initially cost $1,100. Sadly, Windows wasn't very well adapted to the tiny screens, and UMPC hardware lacked the juice to power the OS very well.

Axiotron Modbook

It’s the touch-screen Mac (yes, Mac) that Apple never made, and probably never will. Axiotron, sick of seeing Windows users have all the Tablet PC fun, created the Modbook, which is basically the guts and OS of a MacBook converted into a touch-screen tablet computer. Axiotron charged $800 in 2007 (and $900 now) to modify a customer’s Apple laptop into a tablet. Even today, Mac users who want to get touchy-feely with “real” software rather than just apps have no other options.

The Avatar Tablet

All kinds of anguished teens and other goofs reported being clinically bummed out after seeing Avatar because they had to live on Earth rather than Pandora. But the true torment came when tech geeks realized they couldn’t have access to RDA Corporation’s slick transparent tablet computer. That thing was seriously badass. Full multitouch and brilliant color emanated from a seemingly ordinary piece of Plexiglas powered wirelessly by the pain and suffering of giant blue humanoids.

Apple iPad

Perhaps you’ve heard of the iPad. Apple has sold 15 million units of the world’s first “post-PC” tablet. As the first runaway tablet success in what we’ll call the post-PDA world, the iPad set a high bar for the myriad tablet competitors that have come since—or have yet to surface. The iPad’s intuitive interface and huge library of third-party apps has endeared it to a huge population of non-computer enthusiasts.

Samsung Galaxy Tab

While it wasn’t the first “serious iPad competitor,” the Galaxy Tab was the best of 2010’s crop of iPad opponents. It ran Android 2.2, had front and rear cameras, a beautiful 7-inch screen, and a zippy 1GHz Samsung processor. Although the screen still didn’t offer enough real estate to make the iPad tremble in its dock and pee a little, it suggested good things to come.

Motorola Xoom

The first tablet to really challenge the iPad, the Motorola Xoom launched a few weeks before the iPad 2 with a 10.1-inch screen and Android 3.0 (Honeycomb). While it has impressive hardware, including much better cameras than the iPad 2, the battle for tablet supremacy may come down to the quality and quantity of available apps. Honeycomb-optimized apps are still extremely sparse, while the iPad counts more than 65,000 native apps.

Apple iPad 2

The second-gen iPad adds front and rear cameras, a dual-core processor, and some new software extras. It’s also thinner and lighter. While not an earth-shattering update, the iPad 2 sold out in a day and waiting lists were still up to three weeks long a month after its release. The runaway iPad freight train now simply thrives off momentum. With such a following and a huge, established developer base, it will take a true tablet superhero to derail this baby.

Hardware Head-to-Head

(to Head, to Head, to Head, to Head, to Head…)

In the following eight reviews, some of which appeared in previous issues, we do our best to differentiate among eight popular (or at least talked-about) tablets shipping today. The Honeycomb entries bear exceedingly similar specs, so we did our best to tease out differentiating factors. Please note that at Maximum PC we don’t update our official review scores, even when revisiting products in more technologically advanced times. You will find, however, that we provide insight on how scores might change.

Apple iPad 2

iPad Part Deux is the slickest, most idiot-proof, most aesthetically striking tablet around. It hooks directly into the greatest App Store in the world, and software developer support from both big-name studios and indies isn’t showing any signs of fatigue. This second iPad version includes a 1GHz dual-core CPU, and comes in a wide variety of storage and data connectivity configurations (16GB, 32GB, or 64GB, with or without 3G support). Hardware-wise, though, all iterations are hobbled by just 512MB of RAM and a rear-facing camera that we find to be craptacular.

The 9.7-inch display is bright and accurate, but its pixel density isn’t world-class, and the 4:3 aspect ratio seems oh-so-déclassé. Still, the iPad 2 is one of the thinnest, lightest tablets available (0.34 inches, 1.33 pounds), but you’ll pay a premium for its fancy-pants design. You may be better served by waiting for the iPad 3, which could hit retail by November.

$500 (16GB, Wi-Fi only) to $830 (64GB, Wi-Fi+3G)

Motorola Xoom

When we reviewed the world's first Honeycomb tablet in March, we gave it a 9 verdict for all the great things that Honeycomb does well. Some five tablets later, however, the Xoom doesn't quite zoom the way it used to. It's been updated to Android 3.1, and there's now a 3G version available, but the base hardware doesn't match up to specs you'll find in newer competitors.

USB is limited to a Micro USB port, the 5MP rear camera isn't as good as those found on competing models, and industrial design is thick and heavy (0.5 inches, 1.6 pounds) compared to tablets that offer more hardware doodads. Most glaringly, the Xoom display is the worst among all Honeycomb devices. It's demonstrably dim compared to the rest of the pack, text rendering is grainy, and off-axis viewing is poor. The Xoom would likely receive a 6 or 7 verdict if reviewed in today's environment.

$600 (32GB Wi-Fi+3G version w/o data plan)

Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1

Hands down, the Tab 10.1 boasts the most impressive industrial design of any Honeycomb tablet, and its depth and weight (0.34 inches, 1.24 pounds) actually beat the iPad 2—at least in the weight department, which we don't care about much, but still. More importantly, the Tab 10.1 offers the best display in this entire tablet hoedown. Samsung doesn't promote it as one of its extra-fancy "Super TFT" displays, but it's noticeably brighter, more vibrant, and just plain more exciting than any other tablet display we've seen.

If reviewed today, this device (currently running Android 3.1) would still receive the 9 verdict that we awarded it in late June. The industrial design and LCD still garner high accolades. We will note, however, that the Tab 10.1 lacks a few features that make other Honeycomb tablets intriguing. Its rear camera is only 3MP (though image quality doesn't suffer for it), and you won't find built-in USB and SD card ports of any kind.

$500 (16GB, Wi-Fi only) to $630 (32GB, Wi-Fi+4G LTE)

Asus EeePad Transformer

For folks who really think a Honeycomb tablet can replace a notebook, Asus delivers the EeePad Transformer. Paired with an optional keyboard dock ($150 MSRP), this Android 3.2 tablet delivers the tactile response of real-world chiclets, and provides extra battery life, some quick-launch keys, and two USB ports, to boot. After many months of use, we concede that the included Polaris Office suite isn't a viable long-term substitute for MS Office on a Windows notebook, but it's better than nothing in a pinch.

At 0.51 inches thick and 1.5 pounds, the Transformer is thicker and heavier than the iPad 2 and Tab 10.1. And thanks to speakers lodged at opposing ends, it's also longer by about an inch. But have you seen the price? The Transformer is priced to move. Reviewed today, this tablet wouldn't earn a verdict less than an 8, and still may even deserve a 9.

$400 (16GB, Wi-Fi only)

Lenovo IdeaPad K1

It may not be the slimmest or prettiest Honeycomb device, but the K1 is packed with useful features. Specs-wise, you get a nice (but not world-class) screen, Android 3.1, a 5MP camera, and microSD and Mini HDMI ports. Weight and width are portly at 1.65 pounds and 0.52 inches, and 3G isn't enabled in the U.S., but we dig the back panel, which is warm and grippy.

The Lenovo is newbie-friendly and comes packed with apps. The home screen is preconfigured with quick-launch buttons for the browser, as well as for email, e-books, and music and video playback. But the pièce de résistance is the preinstalled Netflix app—and this version plays streaming video! That's such a win. The K1 doesn't have full-size ports, and its screen can't beat Samsung's. But we love the software build and can forgive the chub. It only gets a verdict of 8, because Netflix streaming isn't worth a full verdict point.

$450/$500 (16GB/32GB Wi-Fi only)

Toshiba Thrive

What we love: the grippy back panel, a user-replaceable battery (buy a second at $90 for double the juice!) and full-size USB, SD, and HDMI ports. That's right: full ports. Now you can drag-and-drop data from USB keys, add up to 128GB of extra flash storage, and hook the Thrive into your living room TV with no adapters. These are fantastic—albeit heft-enhancing—features.

What we dislike: The chassis is chubby (1.6 pounds, 0.63 inches) and screen quality is just so-so. It's also hard to locate and operate the on/off button and volume rocker without looking straight at them, and the front panel is adorned with annoying LEDs reporting on power, battery, and wireless status. 3G isn't available, and you won't find any interesting apps installed, à la the Lenovo. But port and juice junkies looking for an inexpensive, solid Android 3.1 tablet must consider the Thrive. You can even buy an 8GB version!

$380/$400/$480 (8GB/16GB/32GB Wi-Fi only)

Acer Iconia Tab A500

At this point in the arc of the Honeycomb tablet story, there really isn't any reason to consider the Iconia Tab A500, except maybe its bargain-basement street prices. The tablet is pudgy at 0.5 inches deep and 1.6 pounds. It doesn't have full-size HDMI or SD slots. There's no user-swappable battery. There aren't any special app packages or Netflix streaming support. You get a so-so 5MP rear camera, a pretty standard display, and microSD and Micro HDMI ports. Really, the most "exciting" thing of all about the A500 is its full-size USB port (along with a second Micro USB). And that alone generates about as much excitement as a box of raisins on Halloween.

Industrial design? Meh. Even if you can forgive the porkiness of the chassis, we're left uninspired by the brushed-aluminum strips flanking the top and bottom of the display. The A500 gets points just for playing, but we don't know why anyone would buy one.

$450/$500 (16GB/32GB Wi-Fi only)

RIM BlackBerry Playbook

Can you consider a 7-inch tablet viable in a fight where everyone else is wielding 10-inch devices? And when email is such an essential mobility feature, can you accept a tablet that depends on phone tethering for this service? And can you support an app store that makes even the Android Market look like the Mall of America in terms of inventory volume and variety?

In the case of the PlayBook, we have to answer no to each question. Pixel for pixel, this tablet has a perfectly fine 1024x600 screen, and we even appreciate the speedy, fluid OS (though having to swipe the screen perimeter to return home is an unnecessary affectation). But we still can't find a single reason to recommend this tablet outlier—unless you don't care about apps (especially games) or are some kind of BlackBerry fanboy with a nihilistic urge to support a tablet platform without a future. Revisionist history says the PlayBook deserves a 5 verdict.

$500, $600, $700 (16GB/32GB/64GB Wi-Fi only)

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