The iPad wasn't the first tablet computer, but it was the first one anyone actually wanted to buy. Simultaneously pointless and addictive, the iPad wants to be all things to all people. Is it an ebook reader, a video player, a Web brower, or simply a giant iPod touch? It's all of those things, but we think it's mostly a gloriously unnecessary gadget, that's simple to use and quick to turn on when you can't be bothered to boot up your laptop or squint at your smart phone.
The iPad has a 9.7-inch screen, and at 725g, it's too big and heavy to use in one hand for long. The huge screen and silky-smooth touch interface make it fantastic for browsing the Web, although we sorely miss having Flash on board, since it's used for so much of the Web's video, photos and navigation.
Simplicity is the iPad's great strength -- a simple home screen of icons makes it child's play to use. But it's not very customisable, and it's got nothing like the power of a netbook. It's not even a smart phone -- a 3G version of the iPad lets you stay connected over the mobile phone network, but you can't actually make phone calls on the iPad, just use the Internet.
iTunes is another double-edged sword. It makes it easy to buy music, movies and books for the iPad, whether connected to your computer or not, but you'll have to use the hideous desktop version of iTunes to back up and sync the iPad with your computer. And getting other types of files on to the iPad can be tricky, because you can't access its folders directly like other computers and smart phones.
Apps is a place where the iPad shines, however. The Apple App Store has proven wildly popular with developers, and it's stuffed with apps that specifically take advantage of the iPad's big screen. Some websites have also gotten in on the action, with a great iPad-specific site for Gmail, for example. You can even use iPhone apps on the iPad, although they don't look very good on a screen twice as big as the one for which they were designed.
Best for: Simplicity, size and apps Worst for: Flexibility, Flash websites and making phone calls
The Samsung Galaxy Tab has a 7-inch screen, and at only 380g, it's more of a paperback than the iPad's hefty hardback.
The Galaxy Tab runs the latest version of Android, version 2.2, which is getting better with every release. Although Android isn't as simple to use as Apple's OS, it's much more flexible, and you can customise the home screens with widgets that do everything from showing your latest Facebook updates to predicting the weather. It also supports Flash, which we loved in our tests on the Google Nexus One.
The Android App Market, however, isn't quite ready for the big screen. There are plenty of decent apps available, but so far, none of them are built with the Tab's 1,024x600-pixel display in mind. No doubt devs will get on that as soon as people start clamouring for it, but early adopters will have to be patient. And at least it will come with plenty of good stuff already loaded on, such as an ebook reader, to keep you occupied while you wait for the Android Market to catch up to your cutting-edge swag.
The Tab can also make phone calls, although we challenge you to look cool with this giant phone pressed up to your face. At least the Tab's status as a super-phone means we'll be able to get it on contract from the networks, which should cushion its painful £600 price tag.
Based on the success of the Samsung Galaxy S, one of our favourite Android phones, we've got high hopes for the Tab. We loved the Galaxy S' large and beautiful Super AMOLED screen, but its software proved flaky at times. We hope that won't be true of the Tab when we get one in for an in-depth review, especially since it's the sexiest-looking Android tablet out there.
Best for: Portability, Flash websites and customisability Worst for: Apps and buying media
The BlackBerry PlayBook is the latest entrant to the tablet tussle, and we haven't seen much of it yet. But it's still worth taking a look at what RIM has in store for its smart phone on steroids.
Like the Samsung Galaxy Tab, the PlayBook has a 7-inch screen, although it weighs in at a meatier 450g. Hopefully that extra heft is all battery, because the PlayBook is beefed up with some energy-hungry goodies. For example, a 1GHz dual-core processor is supported by 1GB of RAM, and the Web browser supports both HTML5 -- beloved of Apple -- and the more common Flash.
BlackBerry has created a whole new OS for the PlayBook, so until we can take it for a full review, it's a mystery wrapped in an enigma. One thing we do know is that existing BlackBerry smart phone apps -- not that there are an excess of those -- won't work on the PlayBook. That means that, like people who swallow the Galaxy Tab, PlayBookers will have to be patient before developers can churn out the apps they want.
RIM has a well-deserved reputation for security, and it has promised that the PlayBook will work with the same systems as its phones, which should help the PlayBook make friends among the suited and booted. But RIM emphasised the PlayBook works best when tethered to your own BlackBerry phone, so don't expect to be making calls directly into the PlayBook.
Without a dedicated store for music, video and books, it's not as effortless to get media on a BlackBerry as it is on an iPad, and we expect that will be the same for the PlayBook. On the other hand, BlackBerrys are much easier to sync with your computer, even supporting Bluetooth and Wi-Fi syncing rather than being chained to a USB cable.
The price and release date of the PlayBook are still up in the air, which will also affect how keen we are on the PlayBook. Stay tuned to CNET UK for our full review.
Best for: Business, security and power look to be likely strengths Worst for: Usability and apps are still a mystery