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Tablets: Bruised and confused at CES 2012

CNET Senior Editor Donald Bell rounds up the tablet highlights of the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show.

Row upon row of tablets at CES 2012.

LAS VEGAS--In spite of manufacturers' best efforts, the tablet hits of the past year could have been counted on the hand of a careless woodshop teacher.

Among those hits are a $199 tablet designed as a loss leader, and an orphaned HP tablet that was abandoned in the liquidation bin.

Needless to say, if there had been a thin selection of tablets at this year's CES, I would have understood. But that wasn't the case.

The show floor of CES 2012 was littered with tablets--perhaps even more than the previous year. Granted, the majority of these tablets were off-brands and OEMs that will never find their way into U.S. hands, but there were big-name announcements as well.

The Tegra 3 packed Asus Memo 370T
Asus's Memo 370T tablet is one of the first tablets to pack Nvidia's Tegra 3 processor.

As I see it, the tablets announced at CES came in three flavors: budget, premium, and mutant (not as bad as it sounds). Furthermore, I suspect that these themes will set the tone for tablet product strategies for the rest of the year.

My favorite tablet surprise of CES falls into the budget category. Asus unveiled the Memo 370T, a 7-inch tablet with an unremarkable design, but packed to the gills with jaw-dropping specs. In this case, the highlight spec is Nvidia's quad-core Tegra 3 processor, paired up with 1GB of RAM.

The price? Just $250. We're praying that it's not vaporware, because we gave it a CNET Best of CES award for the tablet category.

The Toshiba Excite X10. Eric Franklin/CNET

Another Best of CES award nominee was the Toshiba Excite X10--the thinnest, lightest 10-inch tablet money can buy. With a base price of $529, this is my touchstone for the premium tablet category. The specs are impressive, the design is gorgeous, but if the past year is any indication, the market for Android tablets priced above the iPad is minimal. What selling momentum it does have will likely be derailed by Apple's expected iPad 3 announcement this spring. It's the same curse that felled the Motorola Xoom last year, even with Honeycomb exclusivity and Verizon's marketing powerhouse behind it.

Still, it's a beautiful tablet, and an important demonstration of Toshiba's engineering talent. Last year's Toshiba Thrive tablet, for all its practicality, was a bit of a beast in terms of design. Bragging rights for the thinnest, lightest 10-inch tablet will go a long way to balance out Toshiba's image as a formidable tablet manufacturer. Plus, at least it's not tied to a two-year carrier contract.

The Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.7 (left) and Galaxy Note. Both come with a two-year carrier contract. Donald Bell/CNET

The same cannot be said for the Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.7. This is another take on the premium tablet category. Granted, no price has been announced for this 7.7-inch tablet, but the two-year commitment to Verizon's 4G data plan alone makes this a costly proposition.

What the Galaxy Tab 7.7 does offer, though, is a stunning Super AMOLED screen with a dense 1,280x800-pixel resolution. Should Samsung release a Wi-Fi version for the rest of us, I could see Android fans quickly falling in love with the screen quality. Also, if rumors of the iPad 3 doubling its pixel density turn out to be true, this may be one of the few tablets out there that can compete in the resulting resolution wars.

Photo of the Sony S2
The Sony Tablet S2 returns as the Tablet P. James Martin/CNET

Finally, we have the lovable mutants. Like the X-Men, each of these tablets comes complete with its own super powers. There's the Pantech Element, a tablet that can survive underwater. Sony's Tablet P (formerly known as the Tablet S2) can fold in half and hide in your pocket. And there's also the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga, a Windows 8 laptop that transforms into a tablet.

These are the tablet options that tackle the dilemma of differentiating against the iPad by carving their own path when it comes to design. They may or may not succeed, but at least they did things their own way and represented their brand with a daring product.

Final thoughts
On the show floor of CES 2012 there's still plenty of evidence indicating that the tablet wars are far from over. These product announcements, however, are taking a far more modest tone than last year. No one openly teased the iPad as they did last year. There were no pointed conversations about the necessity of Adobe Flash. No incredulous remarks about the need for microSD memory expansion. For most tablet makers, 2011 was an exercise in humility, and I felt that in every closed-door conversation at CES.

That said, the manufacturers I spoke with this year still seem doggedly committed to their products and the idea of offering consumers more choice. Hopefully, in time, there will be room for more than one tablet at the top.