CES 2011: The Best Tablets

For months, we've known that this year's CES would be overrun with tablets from a myriad of manufacturers. Now that we've seen the collective industry response to the iPad, it's easier to see which companies are on the right track, and which are still struggling. Here is our take on the three iPad competitors to keep an eye on.

Motorola Xoom
Motorola was the first tablet-maker to cause a big stir at the show. Their Xoom was the first tablet announced that featured Google's Android 3.0 operating system. Android 3.0 (nicknamed "Honeycomb") is the first Android version that's been built specifically for the large screen size and more powerful processors of tablets. Google has insisted for months that the current 2.x versions of Android were never intended to make the leap from phone to tablet, but that didn't stop manufacturers from rolling out lots of Android 2.2 and Android 2.3 tablets anyway.

The Xoom looked and felt great in the hand, but it was hard to get a sense of the real software. While the demo units were actually running Android 3.0, all attendees got to see running were video demos of Android 3.0. Still, the tablet-optimized version seems worth the wait, with much better layouts, menu, and browser options.

Notion Ink Adam
After seeing the progress in Android 3.0, I think its a safe bet to avoid any Android tablet that isn't built on Honeycomb, with one exception: the Adam, by Notion Ink. Although we didn't get to try the Adam ourselves, its unique features still place it near the top of our list. To start with, the Indian startup company spent much of the past year working on the Eden UI. It's an interface layer that sits on top of Android 2.2, but completely changes the way applications are handled on a tablet. Eden breaks up the screen real estate into three vertical bands. Here, each application can run in a semi-interactive mode (think widgets, with more functionality) without using the resources required by the full app.

The Adam also has some unique hardware features. The Pixel Qi display gives users the ability to read outside, while sipping power and extending battery life. The Adam also has a unique rolled edge, which can be gripped in both portrait or landscape mode. And the camera is on a swivel, that allows it to face forward or backward. (This seems much simpler than having two different cameras, which almost every other tablet featured.)

Still, there are some reasons for concern. The Eden UI means that the Adam can't support stock Android apps or the app market. Notion Ink plans on launching its own app store, but the burden will be on them to make sure Adam users are getting ported version of the most popular apps. And Notion Ink is running out of time to actually ship a real product, with the current run of Adam's already sold out. How the rather untested startup can handle the demand is still an open question.

RIM PlayBook
Research in Motion was looking to make a statement with their new PlayBook tablet, and they largely succeeded. Multitasking on the PlayBook seemed to work great, and the user interface both looked good and felt responsive.

RIM has always marched to the beat of their own drum, and their tablet offering is no different. Rather than running Android or Windows (as almost every other tablet at CES did), the PlayBook runs an operating system developed by QNX. QNX made its name by building multi-threaded operating systems for embedded systems. Because of that background, the PlayBook really seems to take advantage of its dual-core processor.

But even though the PlayBook was a very impressive piece of hardware, RIM may be at a disadvantage when it comes to app ecosystem. Developers have flocked to both iOS and Android, but its unlikely that a third tablet OS can generate its own developer ecosystem. That will leave the burden to RIM to populate the PlayBook with competitive apps, all while they continue to support their BlackBerry 6 operating system on smartphones. RIM plans to eventually move their smartphones to the QNX OS as well, but Google and Apple won't be sitting still.

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