CES 2011 Tablet Wrap: The Market Takes Shape

by Reads (34,012)

Going into CES 2011, TabletPCReview boldly predicted that Windows 7 tablets — and not their Android counterparts — would dominate the tablet talk in Vegas. And while a handful of buzz-worthy devices surfaced from Asus, Samsung and others, and the news that Windows ARM support will mean big things for tablets in the future, the combined Windows tablet CES news failed to eclipse what we believe is the major tablet narrative coming out of Vegas. Read on as we look back at this CES as the moment the tablet market segments finally materialized.

Consumption Devices

Regular TPCR readers know there is a world of difference between inking machines like the HP Slate 500 and the Apple iPad. Generally, one is for production (Slate 500) and the other consumption (iPad), even though their consumers generically referred to both as “tablets.”

CES featured dozens of tablets that could fairly be labeled consumption devices, including the upcoming Android Honeycomb tablets from LG, Motorola and Toshiba. These could also fairly be called “CES MIA devices” as the LG G-Tablet was not on the show floor for public viewing, the Toshiba “Next-Gen” tablet was shown running Android 2.2, and the much-teased-and-anticipated Motorola Xoom was running a demo video instead of the full OS.

We got our hands on both the Toshiba tablet and the Motorola Xoom, and from a hardware perspective, the Toshiba tablet impressed with its removable battery. It’s not a minor feature, but it is a significant gamble for Toshiba. The company sacrificed a sleek single-piece body and probably a few millimeters of thinness to potentially extend the use of its device for consumers beyond the original battery’s half-life. Will consumers forgo a small amount of mobility for expanded usability?

We’ll see when both the Xoom and Toshiba tablet hit the market following the Honeycomb launch in the Spring.

The Samsung Galaxy Tab was also at CES, grabbing headlines for first, a major price drop, then the announcement of the Wi-Fi Galaxy Tab (finally), and the surprise announcement of a Verizon 4G Galaxy Tab.BlackBerry PlayBook

Of all the tablets in this market class on the show floor, the BlackBerry PlayBook made the best impression on TPCR. Perhaps it’s because our expectations had lowered on RIM’s enterprise-friendly tablet due to some recent bad press, but when we finally got our hands on it ? wow! It was fast, powerful, and responsive. This was best exemplified by the PlayBook running two HD movies simultaneously as we seamlessly finger-swiped between the two, often times pausing the swipe with both clips half in-screen.

Outside of the Galaxy Tab and the Dell Streak 7, which Dell claims will ship in weeks, we expect to see the BlackBerry PlayBook before the others. Officially, the release date is Q1 for the Wi-Fi version and summertime for the Sprint 4G verison, but a BlackBerry rep told us it was safe to “hold your breath” waiting for the Wi-Fi PlayBook to arrive.

Consumption Segmentation

For our money, the most interesting development at CES was the Panasonic Viera Tablet unveiling because it and the Vizio Via tablet, announced before the show, are the first tablets we would consider serious home theater devices, and part of a new tablet class.

Panasonic Viera TabletBoth run Android and at least the Panasonic Viera Tablet syncs wirelessly with Panasonic televisions (we assume the Via Tablet will do the same with Vizio televisions, but that is not confirmed). TPCR witnessed the Viera Tablet in action, as a rep loaded up a soccer game on the tablet and wirelessly sent it to a connected Panasonic HDTV via Viera Connect with a finger swipe. It was very cool, and possibilities to combine tablet apps with home theater and home entertainment are endless. Immediately thoughts turn to fantasy football applications that track stats and scores each Sunday during the NFL season, or chat apps to connect and comment with friends during awards shows or other television events.

This works with Panasonic because it has a large ecosystem of products that Panasonic hopes to connect, and I suspect Samsung and Sony will follow suit with home theater tablets of their own (or add features to existing devices, in Samsung’s case). In fact, conversations with Sony reps off the show floor strongly implied the company was working on a similar device.

The Panasonic Viera Tablet is a tablet in name and appearance, but Panasonic reps were quick to suggest it is more of an extension of the home theater than it is an iPad competitor. While spec, price and availability details were scant, we expect Panasonic to at least offer a Viera Tablet bundled with Panasonic HDTVs.

Sliders, Transformers and Hybrids

Unique tablet form factors each incorporating a keyboard also made appearances at CES 2011, suggesting that while touch is popular for navigation, consumers still dig the QWERTY, especially for content production. One needs to look no further than the preponderance of iPad keyboard cases for further evidence.Samsung Sliding 7 Series PC

For our money, no two devices more artfully incorporated the keyboard than the Samsung Sliding PC 7 Series and the Asus Eee Pad slider. Both are incredibly thin considering they are hiding a full keyboard ? much thinner than the swivel-screen Dell Inspiron Duo ? and while Samsung kept its slider behind velvet rope and well out of reach on the show floor, we spent some extensive time with the Asus device.

Interestingly, Asus will ship the Eee Pad Slider with Google Android Honeycomb instead of Windows 7, which the Slider supports, making the Eee Pad one of the only keyboard-toting devices to run Google’s tablet OS. We are eager to try the Android experience with a keyboard as we assume Google engineers put much effort into making Android Honeycomb a more productive OS for touch alone.

With this crop of sliders, the hardware and build quality will mark the key differences between the winners and losers. Constantly moving parts wear down over time and a slider that can’t stay slid is only half as good as a fully-functional unit.

On the detachable keyboard front, two contenders emerged from CES, both with different takes on the form factor. While we were impressed by the Asus Transformer, which was the thinnest tablet we handled at CES, the Lenovo IdeaPad U1 is just as innovative today as it was last year when it was first revealed. This, thanks to a two-processor unit that runs Windows while docked, and Android (version unconfirmed, but we say Honeycomb) when in slate mode.

The risk for Lenovo is that they could create two half-baked products in hopes they combine to form one?complete experience, but the fact that the company is selling the LePad tablet as a separate unit suggests Lenovo is confident in its hybrid device. Another hurdle could be price. While not officially revealed, the U1 could cost upwards of $1,300 based on the confirmed price in China. The Eee Pad Transfomer, while only running Honeycomb, will cost $399 to $699.

Windows 7 slates

Fujitsu, Lenovo, Asus, Motion Computing and others must have been paying attention to HP and the success of the Slate 500. All four companies have Windows 7 Slates lined up for 2011, with the Asus Eee Slate EP121 already available for pre-order.Asus Eee Slate EP121

The target market segment: business, business, business. Every company we spoke with highlighted the business usage of Windows 7 slates, particularly in the health care, education, insurance, and retail sectors where active digitizers with pen input and Windows 7 must combine with mobility and battery performance to create a useful machine.

The Asus EP121 will be the largest of the bunch with a 12.1-inch, and Asus is offering a Bluetooth keyboard bundle option. The others are sticking with mobility, bringing a much smaller Windows 7 ? similar in size to the Slate 500 — to market later in 2011.

Tablets in 2011

Coming out of CES, these are market divisions: consumption/mobile tablets, home theater tablets, slider/transformer tablets, and Windows 7 slates ? to make no mention of the low powered Android tablets marketed as color eReaders (and there were plenty of those at CES).

TabletPCReview is confident this will remain through the year, despite the many twists and turns the tablet market has taken over the past 12 months.

The companies are set, the devices are ready, now we wait and see who will emerge from 2011 victorious. Something tells me Apple will announce a competitor in the coming weeks that could be an early favorite in the mobile/consumption category.

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