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.

Photo of iPad and Tab tablets.
Your best tablet options at the moment: the Apple iPad and Samsung Galaxy Tab. Donald Bell/CNET

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 Samsung Galaxy Tab. The features you can expect from this current crop of tablets include the core capabilities of e-mail, Web browsing, and multimedia playback, along with Wi-Fi, cellular, and Bluetooth wireless communication. Other features--such as gaming, over-the-air media downloads, printing, keyboard support, supported App stores, e-book reading, cameras, video chat, GPS navigation, and multitasking--are also available on today's crop of tablets.

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 (Entourage Edge, Toshiba Libretto W100), or impressively large screens (JooJoo), or small screens (Archos 28), but nothing that's shaken our belief that 7 to 10 inches is the Goldilocks zone for tablets. Too big, and things get unwieldy. Too small, and you may as well be using a smartphone.

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.

Image of Android honeycomb.
Android 3.0 (Honeycomb) may bring to the OS some needed optimizations for large-screen tablets.

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 Honeycomb ), 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 Dell Streak, the best Android tablets have so far come hand-in-hand with two-year carrier contracts or bloated off-contract prices. The Android-based tablets that have dodged carrier lock-ins (Nook Color, Archos 7) have done so without the official Google App Market, which is a critical component of Android's appeal.

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 iPod, and maintained that momentum even in the face of strong competition from Microsoft, Samsung, Creative, and countless others. The tablet space could be a repeat performance from Apple, if manufacturers don't act quickly.

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 its HP Slate 500 demonstrates 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.

Photo of Nook Color.
The Nook Color's built-in Web browser lets you surf the Internet. There's no support for Flash right now, but Barnes & Noble says it's coming via a 2011 firmware upgrade. CNET/Sarah Tew

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 Barnes & Noble Nook Color, priced at $250.

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.

Conclusion
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.

 

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