Buying a Tablet for the Holidays? You Might Want to Wait

by Reads (26,444)

The holidays are here, and tablets will undoubtedly be on both kid and adult wish lists. But with the next generation of tablets queued up for a CES 2012 unveiling in January, and the iPad 3 likely for launch soon thereafter, is now a good time to buy a tablet?

That’s almost a rhetorical question; given the rapid rate mobile technology develops. There is never a ‘right time’ to buy a device. Why? Because chances are something with more impressive specs is only a month away from release.

While this is particularly true with smartphones, tablets are not immune. Take a look at the Motorola Xoom and Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1. Both are current-generation tablets, released months apart, but the Tab 10.1 is a much more impressive piece of hardware. It’s thinner and lighter than the Xoom, and its display is top notch.

The device that launched the mobile tablet craze, the original Apple iPad, is especially showing its age. It’s bulky, it lacks a camera (which is now a standard feature on all tablets, including the iPad 2) and its single-core processer has trouble with high-end apps, particularly games. Though Apple extended its life with iOS 5, it’s unclear the Mac maker will support the soon to be two-year-old tablet with future updates once the iPad 3 launches.

So for an answer to the question, let’s look at the features slated for the next generation of mobile tablets. What will you miss out on if you get your tablet this holiday season?

Processor
We’ll know the next generation of tablets by their processors. Currently, the iPad 2 and its best ARM-based competitors run off of dual-core processors. Tablets with quad-core processors are now on the horizon with the first, the ASUS Transformer Prime and its quad-core NVIDIA Tegra 3 system on a chip, already announced and slated for release by the end of 2011, while others from Acer and Lenovo are also rumored for launch.

Simply put, tablets with quad-core processors will be able to do more. They will be able to run more complex apps and multitask more efficiently. They will offer a near PC-like experience (at least nearer than their dual-core counterparts), and users will particularly notice it in games, where the 3D and lighting effects will be superior to current-gen offerings.

None of this will happen overnight once the first quad-core tablet ships. It will take developers a while to write apps able to take advantage in the core boost. That said, NVIDIA has announced plans to launch approximately 40 games designed specifically for the chip, with many available in the Tegra Zone Android app, by the end of the year. And especially later on during the quad-core lifecycle, there will likely be apps dual-core tablets will have trouble handling, and that single core tablets like the original iPad won’t be able to run at all.

Display
We are approaching tablet displays with 300 plus pixels per inch, which is near the limit the human eye can actually discern, according to those who know about such things. Smartphones are already there, but tablets are stuck between approximately 130 and 150 pixels per inch. The T-Mobile SpringBoard tops most with a 216 PPI count, but that is because it has the same resolution as most of the 10.1 tablets (1280 x 800) in a smaller, 7-inch display.

The next generation of tablet will probably hit 300 PPI, and while they will definitely be impressive, even the worst tablet display of this generation is good enough for common tablet tasks. In addition, PPI and other display specs don’t solely determine picture quality, which also depends on screen brightness, color reproduction, viewing angles, and a host of other elements.

One display area tablets could really improve in the coming generations is screen glare. It’s a problem they all share due to the glossy display panels. While there is little indication any specific tablet is moving in this direction, Nippon Electric Glass recently showed off “invisible glass” that has little to no reflection. It shouldn’t be long before that, or related technology, finds its way to tablets.

A glasses-free 3D tablet may also hit the market in 2012, as there are already a handful of smartphone with the technology. ASUS announced such a device at Computex earlier this summer, the EeePad MeMO, but it’s unclear when or if that will launch.

Operating System
Google Android is due for a major upgrade from Honeycomb (version 3.x) to Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS, version 4.0). A few manufacturers have confirmed ICS upgrades for their respective Honeycomb tablets, including ASUS and Motorola, and it’s a safe bet that others will follow suit.

The same cannot be said for the tablets that run Gingerbread. The HTC Flyer is pegged for a Honeycomb update, and it’s unclear if it will receive much more. The same goes for its Sprint variant, the EVO View 4G, as well as the original Samsung Galaxy Tab.

The tablets that run a heavily tweaked version of Android, namely the new Kindle Fire and NOOK Tablet will almost certainly never see an official ICS upgrade.

The Apple iPad 2 should also see some support following the iPad 3 release, including updates to the next few major iOS updates, as evident by Apple’s past support for older devices. The BlackBerry PlayBook could also see an upgrade to the new BBX operating system, whenever that launches, and at the very least, an update to BlackBerry Tablet OS 2.0 that will bring the Android app player and native email apps (it’s scheduled for launch in February following numerous delays). The HP TouchPad, should you find one available, is on its last legs and will probably not see any major updates to webOS aside from minor bug fixes.

Those holding out for a Windows 8 tablet will probably be waiting for a long time. Microsoft has not announced a release date, and most estimates peg it for the second half of 2012. Even then, the first tablets to support the OS, especially the ARM tablets, will probably have the usual kinks, bugs and high price tag associated with first generation technology.

In other words, waiting for Windows 8 is not a good reason to avoid buying a tablet now. The Samsung Series 7 Slate doubles as the reference design for Windows 8 developers and it will run Windows 8 when it finally ships. In fact, most tablet PCs shipping with Windows 7 will be able to run Windows 8. NotebookReview tested out the developer preview on an underpowered netbook, and it performed smoothly. Chances are it will do the same on tablet PCs with similar, Intel Atom-powered specs.


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