iPad rivals catching up: Can iPad 3 keep them at bay?

Apple's competitors are packing in better hardware, software, and features. CNET looks at a few of the advantages they hold over the iPad.

Can the iPad 3 hold off its rivals? James Martin/CNET

Apple should be blowing us away with the iPad 3, but it probably won't.

The latest rumors call for a higher resolution screen on par with the iPhone's Retina Display, a possible upgrade to the iOS software, and possibly a few other improvements. That's certainly enough to draw the Apple faithful and sell a ton of iPads. But with the rapid advances that the competition is making, will it be enough to secure the company's continued dominance in the tablet business?

Sure, the iPad has been a blockbuster franchise for Apple. In the fourth quarter alone, Apple sold 15.4 million units --outstripping what the competition sold for the entire year.

But the iPad 2 doesn't represent the pinnacle of all technology. In fact, the iPad 2's specifications fall short versus some of the other devices in the market. Beyond the specs, companies have worked hard to ensure that it offers features, hardware, or services that set it apart from Apple's monster tablet.

We'll find out on Wednesday if the iPad 3 raises the bar again, or merely tacks on a few incremental advances. For now, here's a breakdown of what some of the competition can offer that's lacking in the iPad:

Amazon Kindle Fire
At first glance, the Fire's biggest advantage is price. It's hard to argue with a $200 tablet. Sure, the specs aren't the greatest, and it feels sluggish at times, but it's not a bad experience for the price. Another key feature is the access to Amazon Prime and its streaming video service. Apple has iTunes, but it doesn't have its own dedicated service for streaming video for a low flat rate.

The Kindle Fire also boasts its own custom Silk Browser, which is supposed to enable faster Web surfing through a cached architecture. It's debatable whether Silk is that much better.

Asus Transformer Prime
The Prime uses Nvidia's quad-core processor, which on paper means two more cores than the iPad's dual-core chip (Nvidia would argue there's yet another stealth "ninja" core in there as well).

But the Prime's best feature is its detachable keyboard, which makes it a virtual laptop. One of the best parts is that the keyboard actually powers the tablet, giving it some extra juice on those days when you're away from an outlet.

The tablet also has Ice Cream Sandwich, the latest flavor of Android meant to bridge the gap between the smartphone and tablet user interface. Only time will tell if that's a true advantage.

Asus Padfone
Okay, the Padfone may be more of a gimmick than anything else, but you have to hand it to Asus for going even bolder with its Transformer concept. The phone part of the Padfone docks into the tablet part , giving you a bigger screen. The tablet itself, like the Transformer Prime, can dock into a keyboard, creating a pseudo-laptop.

It also offers a stylus headset that's connected to the tablet/phone combination via Bluetooth, and can be used to answer phone calls while the phone is docked.

Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1
Say what you will about the 5-inch Galaxy Note, the Galaxy Note 10.1 is a tablet that makes sense. Its main advantage, like its 5-inch brother, is the S-Pen stylus , which works extremely well on the larger surface.

The S-Pen this time around has been improved with a clip, "eraser" on top, and is more comfortable to use.

Like the Transformer Prime, it also offers Android's Ice Cream Sandwich variant.

Also like many other competing tablets, it features a higher quality 2-megapixel front-facing camera, something the iPad 2 lacks. Hopefully, Apple addresses this issue, which has been a barrier to high-quality video chatting.

Research in Motion PlayBook 2.0
I've given the PlayBook a hard time in the past , but the folks at RIM took me through some of the features of the updated software, and I have to say, they are pretty slick. From the deeper integration of the contact and calendar list with social networks, to the visual cues of the calendar--for instance, bigger numbers mean a busier day--the company has shown it is paying attention to the details.

Its recently launched Mobile Fusion service, which finally brings secure e-mail to its PlayBook, is something that may turn some IT managers' heads. Features like the ability to send a "kill command" to wipe just the work data, and not the personal information, are a step in the right direction for RIM.

It's priced at $200 like the Kindle Fire, but that's more a result of market demand than an early intent to create a more affordable competitor.

Of course, these tablets all have their share of weaknesses as well, but that doesn't take away from the fact these features are ones that iPad users would certainly appreciate, and indicate that gap between Apple and its rivals isn't as wide as most people think.

 

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