Once a luxury, then a necessity, laptops are quickly becoming obsolete; replaced by a thinner, leaner and sexier alternative: tablets. In fact, during the last year tablet ownership has tripled among the college crowd.
Technology evolves at a breakneck pace. Though we featured a tablet breakdown in last summer’s issue, your choices this year are twice as good, for considerably less coin.
Tablets were popularized by Apple's original iPad, but the geeks at Cupertino are no longer the only game in town (Apple fanboys and fangirls, cover your ears now) -- and they're certainly no longer the best game in town. From Transforming tablets to “phablets” and eReaders on steroids, there's something out there to suit just about anyone.
While there's no denying the iPad dominates the tablet arena, a fascinating competitor has snuck up on Apple. Amazon's Kindle Fire is 3 inches smaller and not remotely as powerful. Yet Amazon is taking deep bites into Apple's sales. Why? For most people, the iPad is used primarily for consuming content and playing games; something the Fire is allows you to do for an average of $300 less. Now even the Fire has worthy alternatives, so read on for our recommendations!
THE SEVEN INCHERS
Toshiba Excite 7.7
Toshiba's 10" Thrive was well received, and now they're getting into the 7-inch game. Available by the time this issue goes to print, Toshiba's Excite 7.7 is a powerhouse. The AMOLED display will put the best laptop screens to shame, with deep contrast and amazing color. Truly, it's a dazzling display; you won't want to turn your eyes away. It also packs near-console quality graphics with a quad-core NVIDIA Tegra 3 processor. It's not going to disappoint TV junkies or movie lovers either, with its HD output. The only thing that won't get you excited about the Excite 7.7 is the price: $499.
Another 7-inch contender deserves your attention, and it's only half the price:
Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 (7.0)
In late April, Samsung did something that is making Amazon, Apple, and every tablet maker in the world sweat bullets: They released a 7" tablet with incredible specs, Ice Cream Sandwich (aka Android 4.0), front and rear cameras, 8GB of built in storage, expandable MicroSD storage, and a snappy dual-core processor. And they did it for $250.
If Amazon's 7-inch $200 Kindle Fire is eating away at iPad sales, you can expect Samsung's new 7-incher to eat away at Kindle Fire sales, considering it costs $50 more and gives you a more open, robust experience. Like the Amazon ecosystem? Just install the Amazon App Store on top of the Android Market (now called Google Play) and you have the best of both worlds. Perfect for mobile gaming, HD movies, reading, web browsing, tweeting, and if you want to get serious, just sync a Bluetooth keyboard with it and use it for hammering out those lengthier emails and reports using Google Docs or the free Polaris Office.
THE TEN INCHERS
ASUS Transformer TF300
We've spent extensive time with the Transformer line, and it blows away the iPad in the features department, and does so at a tantalizing price: $380. HDMI out? Check. Expandable storage? Check. USB connectivity? Check. The latest version of Android? Check. WiFi and GPS? Of course. And with the optional $149 keyboard dock, you not only turn this sexy tablet into a slim laptop, but also juice it up with an extra 6 hours of battery life, giving you between 14-18 hours depending on usage. Oh, and you can plug a USB gamepad into it and play a variety of console-quality games.
We could spend 1000 more words explaining why the ASUS Transformer trumps the iPad, but trust us when we say that if you're not married to Apple's ecosystem, this is the first 10" tablet to consider.
Lenovo Thinkpad Tablet
We’re not gonna lie: Lenovo’s Thinkpad Tablet isn’t going to turn heads, but it will stand up to abuse. The IPS screen has Corning Gorilla Glass, and this is one rugged, durable slate. The Thinkpad Pen lets you annotate docs or take shorthand notes. The optional (but essential) folio case wraps the tablet in leather and adds a fully functional keyboard and optical trackpoint to the mix. And as all tablets should (we’re glaring at you, iPad) it has mini HDMI, micro USB, and a 3-in-1 media card reader.
Here’s the thing: This one is marketed toward the business professional, but after our time with it, we confidently recommend it for the serious student. It puts productivity front and center, and its lack of fragility means it’s a reliable computing companion.
The modern e-Reader isn’t just for reading books. Amazon and Barnes & Noble both offer 7” tablets at $199. They’re designed to purely consume content, and both excel at it. Which one you decide to buy may come down to brand loyalty and personal preference. We’ve spent a month with each, and here’s a rundown of their pros and cons:
Barnes & Noble NOOK Tablet
PROS: Amplified Editions of eBooks give the Nook Tablet a decidedly awesome edge. Listening to William Shatner wax nostalgic inside the virtual pages of Shatner Rules or watching Kevin Smith be his hilarious, raunchy, transparently honest self before each chapter in Tough Sh*t is delightful, and nearly addictive. The video playback and display quality is better than the Kindle Fire, and it has 2 important features the Fire lacks: expandable storage and actual volume and home buttons.
CONS: The NOOK Shop has a limited selection of apps and games compared to Amazon’s App Store, and anyone who already loves the Amazon ecosystem is best served choosing the Fire.
Amazon Kindle Fire
PROS: The Fire ships with your Amazon account built-in, which is both awesome and diabolically evil. If you love the Amazon ecosystem, then buying movies, books and music with 1-click makes the experience a breeze.
CONS: The Fire has an uninspired, chunky design, and the screen isn’t as vivid as the Nook Tablet’s. It also lacks any physical buttons which means extra clicks to do something as simple as adjust volume or brightness.
RISE OF THE PHABLET
What the heck is a phablet? You can thank Samsung for that term, even though it’s snarky tech journalists who coined the phrase. The GALAXY Note is Samsung’s newest AT&T 4G LTE phone, and it’s been our constant companion on the road. It’s $299 with a 2-year contract and worth every penny. The 5.3” HD AMOLED screen is massive for a phone and has insane pixel density (translation: it’s gorgeous), but after you grow accustomed to it, we’d wager you’ll have a bit less love for the iPhone. It also has a stylus, giving you an edge during sessions of “Draw Something!” or shorthand note-taking.
Like the ASUS Transformer line, we could spend 1000 words convincing why it’s amazing, but all you have to do is cruise into your local AT&T store or a Best Buy, hold it in your hands for 60 seconds, and the truth will slap you in the face.
Beyond that, it has an 8MP camera, microSD slot, super-snappy dual-core processor, and is large enough to do just about anything you want, while being compact enough to stay your mobile companion. Expect other phone manufacturers to start adopting this “phablet” design soon!
iHome iDM5 | Bluetooth Tablet Workstation
iHome’s iDM5 won iLounge.com’s Best of Show 2012 for good reason: It offers a complete solution for turning your tablet into a productivity workhorse. It boasts a stand that will accommodate any tablet from your 10” iPad to the “phablet” sized Samsung GALAXY Note, and a chimp-simple bluetooth system. Via Bluetooth, the iDM5 provides a full sized keyboard, microphone, speakerphone, and surprisingly loud, rich audio that can be pumped in through any bluetooth device, or the included auxiliary line-in jack. It even sports two USB ports for charging your iPhone or other USB powered devices.
Essentially, it’s an affordable gateway to your favorite tablet becoming your desktop replacement.
Our only gripe with the iDM5 is the lack of any securing mechanism to hold your tablet in place beyond the raised shelf, though to be fair it is meant to stay stationary. Outside of that minor complaint, you can’t go wrong with the iDM5, especially at a suggested retail price of $129.99.
eGlide XL Pro 2 10” Tablet
A 10” tablet for $219 sounds like a pipe dream, but that’s exactly what Ematic is delivering with their newly announced eGlide XL Pro 2. Let’s be clear from the onset: This budget offering isn’t for the gamers in the house, as its modest 1GHz CPU and 400MHz GPU won’t be competing with the New iPad for eyecandy. What it does provide is exceptional value: 4GB of built-in storage (expandable to 32GB with a cheap MicroSD card), built in WiFi, a front-facing camera, gyroscope, and “Ice Cream Sandwich,” the newest version of Android.
It even packs in something to compete with SIRI: The Ematic Digital Assistant & Navigator. EDAN for short, this personal voice-operated assistant comes pre-installed, and allows users to use only their voice to compose emails, post Facebook and Twitter updates, and find local restuarants and movie times.
All of this for $20 more than a Kindle Fire sounds like a bargain to us.