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Tablets...Theeeeeey’re Back!

By Ryan Morse- January 30, 2011

Tablet devices are bursting back onto the scene and stand to be on the most-wanted gadget list for many geeks in the near future. Rallied by the success of Apple’s iPad, manufacturers are charging back into the tablet form factor, offering both familiar and innovative ways for us to interact with our machines. In this TechTip, we’re talkin’ tablets!

What Makes a Tablet?

A tablet, more properly known as a tablet personal computer, is a medium-sized portable personal computer where a pen or touchscreen is used as the primary interface, as opposed to a keyboard and mouse. Some tablet PCs have a hardware keyboard attached while others feature touch-based interfaces and accomplish the task of character input with on-screen keyboard emulation or hand-writing recognition. Tablets are intended to be portable and mobile so they can be used in places where notebook and desktop PCs are impractical. To be portable, tablets are usually built with a wireless connection to provide local network access or an Internet connection. To stay portable, tablets require an internal battery and to make the most of their power source, are made with components that consume very little power compared to their bigger, more powerful brothers. Since power consumption is scaled back to maximize battery life, tablets often do not provide as much functionality as a notebook or desktop, but with their larger screen sizes, tablet PCs accomplish many tasks that handheld PCs cannot.

Back? What do you mean, “back?”

Tablets were first intended to be used to replace notepads or clipboards, so hand-writing recognition or sketching capability were key features. A few early ancestors of today’s tablets were introduced in the 1980s that offered hand-writing recognition, but things didn’t really take off until the early 1990s, when a company called the GO corporation announced PenPoint OS, the first operating system designed specifically for pen computers. Not to be outdone, Microsoft and Apple began to develop pen computing solutions of their own. This in turn, brought about IBM’s first ThinkPad, the 700T. A few other companies took their crack at tablets, but these products failed to sell well because of technological limitations of the time, causing the market to fade into nothing by 1995. Microsoft attempted to resurrect the tablet by creating their own Tablet PC specification, a pen computer prototype that would run a modified version of Windows XP, called the Tablet PC Edition. This brought pen computing back to life, but it only kept it on the fringe. Since it was a modified version of a desktop operating system, it wasn’t particularly well-suited to pen or touch interfaces.

The Perfect Tech-Storm

Tablets of today are almost a different kind of device entirely, and while they share similarities with their predecessors, they’ve evolved from a few different market conditions. The first condition, and I think the most important one, was the evolution of cheap cellphones into smartphones that became tiny computers all by themselves, complete with their own mobile operating systems. They became the hot new market in the tech industry. From there, smartphones began to integrate finger-based interfaces for touchscreens as the cost per inch of these screens, as well as the cost and size of flash memory,  was gradually reduced.  But even with all these pieces, nobody was in a hurry to pour money into a market that was littered with failures.

We have our notebook computers,  but they are still too cumbersome to use all the time, and we have our smartphones, but the screens are too small to use for extended periods of time. This left room for improvement, something that’s perfect for a short flight or keeping on the couch next to you for when you need to know where you’ve seen that character actor before. Enter the cheap netbook!  A netbook is a smaller notebook, usually with a 10-inch screen, a keyboard & touchpad, and a WiFi connection. They make use of low-power CPUs that are sufficient for most Internet-related activities. Most every PC manufacturer took notice that these little machines were flying out of their inventory in the past couple years. Unfortunately, most netbooks were made to run on light versions of Windows that provided a poor experience while suffering from poor performance with Adobe Flash.

The Modern Tablet

Today’s tablets are built with capacitive touchscreens and 3G of WiFi connections, but they also feature operating systems that were designed for mobile hardware, something most of their predecessors lacked. It’s no secret that the best in class tablet at the moment is the Apple iPad as many manufacturers have begun to copy its design, but it’s still not quite perfect. It was released back in April of 2010 and it’s beginning to show its age as a first generation device, plus, the rest of the industry is trying to catch up. But never fear, rumors are already swirling about what new features and improvements will be found in the “iPad 2”.

Everybody back in the water!

With the iPad’s success, due to its refined design and user experience, in what was a virtually uncontested market, it’s a race for everyone else to try and carve their piece of the pie. The iPad’s high price point along with its hardware and software restrictions leave more than enough room for innovation and competition. At CES 2011, it was obvious that manufacturers are aiming to do just that. This year’s mobile tablet offerings are going to include faster dual-core ARM processors, 3G or even 4G network connections with data plans, and will be thin and light while sporting high resolution screens. Google’s next Android OS firmware update, codenamed Honeycomb and expected to be released in Februrary, is going to be optimized for tablets, which will give software developers and manufacturers a great opportunity to get back into the tablet game. Last year, the Hewlett-Packard Company (HP) purchased Palm, Inc., the makers of the Palm Pilot, after Palm announced they were developing a new mobile operating system called webOS. If that doesn’t make it clear that tablets are the new trend, Microsoft announced at CES 2011 that Windows 8 will run on ARM CPUs. Tablets are definitely on the way back, and this time, with the full force of the industry behind them!

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