Should you wait to buy a tablet?
Is now a good time to buy a tablet computer, or is it worthwhile to wait? CNET Senior Editor Donald Bell surveys the current state of tablets and offers his best guess for the future.
The hype around tablets is deafening this year--but is it really the right time to buy one? It's a good question (and a loaded one), so let's get to the bottom of it.
What features are you waiting for?
Currently, the Apple iPad holds the majority stake in the tablet market, with a growing share coming from Android-based tablets like the
From where I'm sitting, there's not much more we can ask of tablets. Sure, I wish the iPad had cameras and FaceTime video chat support, but it's certainly not crippled without it. There are the features that could always be better, such as processor speed, screen resolution, and battery life, but those are moving targets you can never pin down.
We've seen some manufacturers break new ground with dual-screen designs (
If there's one killer feature I believe consumers are really aching for, it's competition. Currently, the iPad is running the show and not much else is even competing in the 10-inch arena. If you wait, you're almost guaranteed more competitors, but it's doubtful they'll offer many more features than the iPad, simply because there aren't many compelling features left on the table.
What products are on the horizon?
We have a pretty good idea of what to expect from tablets in 2011. There will almost certainly be another iPad, and it will likely land in April again, because Apple tends to recycle release time frames. If I had to predict it, the next iPad will be thinner, more powerful, and include front and rear cameras with FaceTime support. If those are the killer features you've been waiting for, April of 2011 is just around the corner--so by all means, wait. Then again, with Apple's resale values what they are, you could probably buy an iPad now, and sell it at a modest depreciation in March without much hassle.
To keep things interesting, 2011 will likely see Google releasing a tablet-optimized version of Android (rumored for), chock full of tablet-optimized apps. If Google can pull it off and keep the OS and its apps from fragmenting in a new direction, it'll have (or, arguably, maintain) the strongest contending tablet OS to take on the iPad's iOS.
The bad news is that there's nothing to suggest that the other issues we've had with Android-based tablets will disappear. Drawing on our experience with the Galaxy Tab and the
Fortunately, there are many successful companies betting on Android to work as a strong, viable tablet OS. With the reputation of so many at stake, we're bound to see more Android-based tablets spring forward as strong contenders to the iPad. But getting back to the original question, will that day be worth waiting for?
Even if an Android 3.0 tablet arrives with must-have features, at what point is a product too late? We've seen how Apple swooped in and dominated the MP3 player space with the
Beyond Android, we know we'll be looking at the BlackBerry PlayBook in the first quarter of 2011. It looks like a powerful competitor to the iPad. Like the Samsung Galaxy Tab, though, its 7-inch screen size puts its total dimensions at half the size of the iPad--which can be seen as a blessing or a curse. BlackBerry also doesn't have the app inventory of Apple or Google, which may be a deal breaker for many right out of the gate.
We also expect that HP will finally reveal a tablet running the WebOS platform it acquired from Palm. HP has a history for great hardware, and itsdemonstrates that the company has what it takes to pull the trigger on a feature-packed 9-inch tablet. That said, HP will need to pull off some serious PR maneuvers to raise WebOS from its grave and pitch it to consumers (and app developers) as a hot new product--not an exhumed corpse.
There are also outlier products: Linux tablets, Chromium tablets, Windows 7/CE tablets. I haven't seen anything promised from these camps to make me optimistic, but CES 2011 could have me changing my tune.
Will things get cheaper?
Technology always gets cheaper, and tablets are no exception. To me, the iPad's most tantalizing competitor right now isn't the comparably priced Galaxy Tab, but the
Given that most of today's tablets already have the features we're looking for, one of the only areas of innovation left is price. The Nook Color is a great example. It has a tenth of the features of the $500 iPad, but at $250, it's burdened with far fewer expectations. With it, you can browse the Web, check your e-mail, read a book, and listen to music. You don't get all the technology--the apps, GPS, Bluetooth, 3G, cameras, video chat, games--but for many, that's just fine.
Whether you're buying a car, a computer, or a box of cereal, the anxiety that comes along with making the right buying decision is always proportional to the amount of money at stake. Will there be a $199 tablet in 2011 that's actually worth your time? I think there's a good chance of it, but like the Nook Color, it won't be riding the cutting edge.
If you really want a tablet, there aren't many compelling arguments for waiting. From a technology perspective, there are no game-changers on the horizon, as far as we can tell. That said, we expect that low-priced tablets will flourish in the coming years, so steer clear of two-year carrier contracts if you want to stay nimble.