With CES in action this week in Las Vegas, as usual, you can bet that Apple’s absence will be felt more than ever. Apple doesn’t do the trade show circuit; they even stopped attending the Macworld Expo, emphasizing their own specially targeted media events, and the ability to reach customers via a growing retail chain and online presence. And I haven’t even begun to include the massive press coverage to which everything Apple does — or might do, or won’t do — is subjected.
Last year, with the arrival of Apple’s tablet looming heavily on the event, some PC makers introduced tablet prototypes, mostly running Windows 7. Few if any actually hit the marketplace, since the arrival of the iPad changed the rules. Suddenly, tablets, which went virtually nowhere for nearly a decade, were the “in” product of the 21st century. iPad killers of several stripes were introduced, but, aside from the Samsung Galaxy Tab, few demonstrated the potential for decent sales. And Samsung’s product, stung by middling reviews, may not do as well after an initial 600,000 units were shipped in its first month on sale.
Most pathetic was the claim that HP’s tablet was a success because they sold 9,000 rather than 5,000 units, as originally expected. Yes, businesses must have been lining up outside of HP’s headquarters to get their hands on one.
Now there will be loads of press releases of not just tablets, but smartphones, 3D TVs and lots of other gear, emerging from CES. Some of these products will go on sale right away. Others will be prototypes with launch dates somewhere in the indefinite future; some of these will go on sale, others will vanish without a trace.
Regardless, tablet makers will be looking closely at the iPad for inspiration. They will build product design presentations, and add bullet points for each feature that they believe trumps what Apple is offering. That will be the main basis on which to claim superiority. Their contention will probably be buttressed by Consumer Reports, which is totally unable to understand issues of usability and vast operating system differences.
You can see the approach in, say, the Samsung Galaxy Tab, with front and rear cameras, whereas the iPad has none. But it’s quite likely that will change in version 2.0. At the same time, the tablet form factor is terribly awkward for regular photography. This is why your MacBook (any version) doesn’t have a rear camera either, but Apple’s rivals in the consumer electronics business don’t see things that way. A feature that Apple doesn’t have is a feature that must be added, however unnecessary and however badly implemented.
Unfortunately, far too many members of the media will examine these new tablets and use the specs as a means of evaluation. Of course, if they don’t have hands-on experience with them, that may be the way they can be compared. But the differences between the products are far more than the raw components, or the feature breakdowns. You want to know how well the features are implemented, particularly since, with the Android OS, a version certified for tablets, version 2.4, has not yet been released.
If the reporters do get a hands-on, you’d want to know about the flexibility and fluidity of the operating system and, frankly, how snappy the interface feels and the quality of the touch screen. The latter is an issue even Consumer Reports is able to write about. No, they can’t be all the same.
The other question is how many of these tablets will stick with 7-inch displays, or have something between nine and ten inches to match the iPad. And if they do have similar screen sizes, will they be lighter, easier to carry around and use? Certainly a net weight of around one pound or less will make a tablet easier to manage for extended reading and other chores that involve the use of one hand. That’s an area where the first iPad actually suffers, which is one reason why the speculation points to a thinner, lighter form factor for the next version.
You’d also want to know the purchase price, and whether or not a data contract is a requirement. That can seriously impact the price (making an expensive product seem cheaper), and also impair your flexibility. At least with the iPad 3G, you can buy your data plans by the month, and not be stuck with paying that fee for two years, whether you need to or not, or suffering from an early termination fee if you cancel before the expiration date.
This isn’t to say that a subsidy deal isn’t a good idea. If you are reasonably certain that you’ll need a data plan year-round, you might save a fair amount of money on the original product purchase.
Regardless, one thing is sure: Until the new tablets get direct comparisons with the next iPad, a real evaluation of the advantages and otherwise will be largely guesswork. Some members of the media may think they’re able to write reviews without using the actual products, but I’ve never seen that happen in the real world.