Hot for tablet


— 10:11 PM on June 3, 2010

I'll admit it. I'm hot for tablet. Not since Lego started doing Star Wars kits have I been this excited about a new toy. I want one deeply. Desperately.

But I also have standards.

Despite all the heads she's turned in the past few months, I'm not hot for iPad. There's no denying the fact that the iPad has attractive qualities—it's a marvel of industrial design with a slick user interface, a gorgeous screen, and impressive battery life. However, the arbitrary Jobs Knows Best restrictions that impair the iPad offend my sensibilities, and I can't bring myself to pay for the privilege of submitting to Apple's stranglehold on the device.

Despite my disdain for the attitude that governs the iPad, I would prefer a slate more akin to a big iPod touch than a fully functional Windows PC. Perhaps that's because I'm looking for something to complement my ultraportable notebook rather than replace it. I don't need Windows on what will essentially be a web surfing and media consumption device, nor do I want to deal with all the baggage that comes along with supporting the OS. There are plenty of viable alternatives, including Linux variants, Android, WebOS, and Microsoft's own Windows Embedded Compact 7

Tablet lust has driven me to scour Computex reports for signs of a suitable subject, but none has passed muster. The Windows 7 slates look pricey, bulky, and I still haven't seen a compelling multitouch-enabled interface for the OS. Devices that have taken the overgrown smartphone route look more promising, but they're a little too barebones for my tastes.

Rather than simply lobbing criticism from the safety of the Benchmarking Sweatshop, I'm going to try to be more constructive. File this under "man seeking tablet," if you must.

For me, a tablet's user interface is by far the most its important element. The iPhone set the bar here, and anything less than a snappy, multitouch-infused GUI isn't going to cut it. I can do without eye candy and fancy transition effects if they're going to slow things down at all. First and foremost, the interface needs to feel fast and responsive. A good interface will also require a display with sufficient touchscreen sensitivity. I don't need pinpoint stylus precision, but tracking must feel accurate and keep up with quick gesture flicks.

As for the screen itself, 10-12 inches seems like the sweet spot. I've spent a lot of time with the TN panels in my Eee PC and Acer ultraportable notebook, and I could live with similar displays in budget slates. However, I'd be willing to cough up some extra cash for an IPS panel with richer colors or an e-ink display that has usable text in direct sunlight.

For a device that's perfect for video playback, a widescreen aspect ratio makes sense. 1024x600 is only going to be good enough if we're talking about a 10" system that's selling for around $300, which should be doable given the price of netbooks with that screen size and resolution. I'd prefer to have at least 1280x720 pixels for true 720p playback, and I certainly wouldn't mind the same 1366x768 resolution as my ultraportable. 1366 vertical pixels would be great for reading or surfing in portrait mode.

I'm not particular about the silicon behind the screen, but Intel's Moorestown platform and Nvidia's second-gen Tegra system-on-chip look like the best candidates. Fluid HD video playback is a must, and I'd like to be able to pipe 1080p content over HDMI with the audio stream intact. A robust graphics processor for gaming would be nice, too, although I could easily live without one.

Flash support isn't negotiable, though. Regardless of how I feel about Flash's hunger for hardware resources, I want a tablet that can access the web in its entirety. Streaming video doesn't have to be buttery smooth at 1080p resolution, but standard-definition content better play back perfectly, and without bringing the browser to its knees.

In terms of connectivity, I'd like an HDMI output alongside analog headphone and microphone jacks. Such a device should probably have a webcam, and it absolutely needs a USB port. Really, a couple of USB ports would be ideal to make it easier for users to attach accessories like keyboards while still leaving a plug free for a charging cable, thumb drive, or missile launcher. Proprietary connectors have no place here.

Obviously, such a device needs Wi-Fi connectivity. Some kind of cellular broadband support is probably prudent, as well, although that's an option I would definitely leave off budget models.

Solid-state storage is the way to go for tablets, and depending on the operating system's footprint, 8 or 16GB might be a decent starting point for a base configuration. Of course, there's going to have to be an SD card slot that allows users to expand the system's storage capacity easily.

The iPad has been criticized for being too heavy to comfortably hold with one hand. I don't see slates getting much lighter without resorting to more exotic and expensive materials that I'd rather not pay a premium for, though. Manufacturers definitely shouldn't skimp on battery capacity to shed weight. I don't need all-day run times, but it's hard to imagine shelling out for a slate that couldn't surf the web for at least eight hours between charges.

Oh, and no glossy plastic. Anywhere. Ever.

As far as I can tell, no one tablet combines all the elements I've outlined. I'm not asking for the moon here; everything on my wish list can be found in existing tablets, netbooks, and budget ultraportable notebooks, all of which cost less than the $500 minimum for one of Steve's slates. The problem appears to be that my current sweet spot lies somewhere between Windows 7 tablets and overgrown smartphones. Unfortunately, my tablet lust will apparently have to go unquenched for now in the hope that the two camps will converge, collide, or copulate to create the perfect slate—for me, anyway.

   
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