CES: 11 tablets worth watching

11 plus next-gen iPad that could succeed in 2011

More than 80 tablet computers were shown at the four-day International Consumer Electronics Show, and one expert predicted that some of them won't last beyond the event.

So which tablets have the best chances of surviving through 2011?

Computerworld asked several analysts to weigh in on which devices are the ones to watch. Most would only list six machines, including the already announced Cius from Cisco Systems and Research In Motion's BlackBerry Playbook. At CES, it was learned that Verizon Wireless will carry the Cius on its LTE network and Sprint-Nextel will carry the Playbook on its WiMax network.

Here are some of the factors that will come into play in the flooded tablet market:

Price: Price will obviously make a major difference to buyers, although nearly all the products announced at CES didn't come with price tags. Most tablets today range in price from $400 to $650, with the Apple iPad starting at $499 for the Wi-Fi only model. (iPads that also offer 3G connectivity start at $629.) Some vendors said that in order to be competitive they would need to come in below current prices.

Screen size: Consumers and business users seem most attracted to tablets with 10-inch screens -- a fact that's evident because of the popularity of the 9.7-inch iPad, noted Ken Dulaney, an analyst at Gartner. But the 7-inch Galaxy Tab has done fairly well since its November introduction in the U.S., so it's not clear that 10 inches is the only ideal size.

Platform: Google's Android operating system was hot at CES, and its latest version -- Android 3.0, also known as Honeycomb -- will run on upcoming machines, including Motorola's Xoom, LG's G Slate and an as yet unnamed device from Toshiba. All of those devices will have screens that are 10 inches, or nearly 10 inches, in order to handle the higher resolution displays that Honeycomb is intended to support. Honeycomb tablets are judged by many experts to be the ones most likely to compete with the next-generation iPad for screen image clarity and size.

User interface and apps: Having plenty of apps to buy from an online store such as Apple's App Store as well as a quick and simple user tablet interface rank high in buyer's minds, Dulaney said. But other experts have argued that once more than 100,000 apps become available, including those in the Android Market, it may not matter how many apps a tablet platform supports. What will matter is whether a handful of specific mission-critical applications are available for a given device; that will be especially important to workers who want office productivity capabilities, such as the ability to create and edit documents and spreadsheets.

Advertising: The big unknown for the upcoming tablets is how well they will be promoted. Apple has experienced huge success with its ads on TV and in other media, and it also won in the first-to-market category, having launched the iPad last April. As soon as most of the CES-announced tablets are on the market, Apple will have launched a second-generation iPad, probably one with new features, such as two cameras for video chat.

The Apple brand, with its reputation for design and quality, speaks volumes about the intangible value of a brand, analysts noted. Behind a brand and image lie a whole range of factors that will matter, including a manufacturer's reputation for support and maintenance (or replacement) of its devices as well as a vendor's ability to quickly distribute its products to retailers, either through wireless carriers' stores or other venues.

With all these criteria in mind, here are 11 tablets from CES to watch in 2011:

BlackBerry Playbook: RIM's 7-inch tablet is the first to run on Sprint's WiMax network, but a W-Fi-only version is expected. It features the QNX Neutrino operating system that RIM acquired last year. RIM officials were quick to point out that, unlike the larger, heavier iPad, it's possible to hold the Playbook in one hand and pocket it easily.

Galaxy Tab: At CES, Samsung showed the same 7-inch Galaxy Tab body that is already on the market, but it said that a Wi-Fi-only version is on the way, as is a version for Verizon's LTE network. It seems clear that the newer versions will still run Android 2.2, not Version 3.0. Galaxy Tabs today sell for $400 to $650, depending on the carrier, and they only come with cellular connectivity, not Wi-Fi. Analysts believe a Wi-Fi-only version will be a big hit with customers who don't want to commit to a cellular plan.

Cisco Cius: This device was announced last year, and Cisco says it will have a strong enterprise orientation. Verizon will be the first to carry the Cius in the U.S. this spring. Cisco's tablet will have a 7-inch screen and will offer Wi-Fi connectivity, and it will include tools to help corporate IT shops prevent unwanted uses. Some analysts said that the fact that the Cius has a business focus will lead to strong sales, but others disagreed and said the Cius won't be able to compete with more popular consumer devices like the iPad, which people also want to use at work.

Samsung Galaxy Tab
The Samsung Galaxy Tab, with a 7-in. screen.
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