MWC: iPad vs TouchPad vs PlayBook vs Xoom
Judging by the number of tablets at this year’s Mobile World Congress show in Barcelona, anybody would think that somebody had some success with a tablet device at last.
The phrase ‘iPad killer’ along with its predecessor ‘iPhone killer’ and older relative ‘iPod killer’ is now taken to be a sure sign that said device will do no such thing.
Indeed, we don’t really expect any of the devices on display at MWC to pose a serious threat to Apple’s dominance of the tablet market. But it’s clear that there’s a wider market than the one Apple is currently carving out for itself, and cheaper and more widely available tablet devices will surely find a firmly profitable second place.
Apple remains, however, the elephant in the room and its absence is all the more conspicuous thanks to the weight and variety of devices aping its successful tablet. Just as last year all the talk was about what Apple would release, this year all the talk is about what devices (if any) can duplicate Apple’s success.
Macworld managed to get its hands on all the major tablets, and one thing is clear: Apple’s got some competition. While some are clearly more adept than others; and some are obviously more ready to roll than others; there’s a lot of fresh ideas coming to challenge Apple.
And fresh ideas mean progress and that’s good for everybody. Here’s what we thought of all the devices on test.
Motorola Xoom (Android 3.0)
HP and BlackBerry may have more interesting devices, but the one that’s probably going to give Apple the run for its money in terms of marketshare is Google with Android 3.0 (aka Honeycomb). There are two devices here running Honeycomb, the Motorola Xoom and a Samsung 10.1. We managed to get more hands-on time with the Motorola so are looking at that in depth here.
Even though Google, like Apple, isn’t actually at the Mobile World Congress. You can feel Google Android everywhere. It’s powering half the devices and half the stalls here have Android logos or statues or other marketing material.
Developer support will be strong for Android 3.0, which is probably it’s biggest selling point. Confusion is probably it’s biggest hurdle to clear if it’s going to take on the pure simplicity of the iPad. There are multiple versions of Android on all different devices, version 2.2 (Froyo) for most mobile phones, a new version 2.4 seems to provide compability between phones and tablet; and the tablet itself is running Android 3.0. And then the operating system itself simply isn’t as, well… simple, as the iPad.
The BlackBerry PlayBook has clearly defined itself as different from the iPad in many ways. First of all there’s the small 7inch form factor, only otherwise seen on the Galaxy Tab.
The good news is that this doesn’t seem to be a compromise (the Tab was clearly running an OS designed for a smaller screen and scaling up to 7in seemed to be its limit). Instead BlackBerry has designed everything to work effectively in this smaller size.
The bad news (or at least odd news) is that it only works in horizontal mode. There is no accelerometer and no vertical holding position. Everything is designed to be held horizontally, which strikes us as odd because we spend most of our time using the iPad vertically.
In terms of interface design, however, the single view mode does mean everything has a consistency and the design is good. There are some nice touches to the BlackBerry PlayBook. Amongst them are the lack of a home button. Instead you roll a single finger up from the bottom to the top to bring up the main menu. This brings up all the open applications in a horizontal dock of displays and a set of icons underneath to launch new applications. Scroll up again and the icons scroll up to fill the screen.
Apps are organised by categories: All, Internet, Media, and Games. And you can flick left or right to choose a category. You don’t seem to be able to re-arrange the icons or move them into folders but the flip side of this is that it’s easy to find things.
Another marquee features is live multitasking, which means that application still roll (video still plays, games still move, and so on) when you move to the home page. Impressive stuff, but we wonder if this will impact negatively on battery life.
It will feature BlackBerry’s persistent push messaging service, a surpassingly popular favourite with the younger demographic, and email encryption favoured by business leaders (although this only works with a BlackBerry phone so it’ll be of more use to current RIM customers). It is possible to access regular email accounts such as Gmail and Hotmail directly from the PlayBook though.
The all important Apps are something of a grey area on the BlackBerry Playbook. BlackBerry has ditched its current SDK model and adopted Adobe Air, which means apps can be ported to the PlayBook efficiently and quickly, although we’ve yet to be impressed by the quality of Air apps on the desktop and wonder how good they’ll be on a tablet. Making it easy for developers only really works if the market is also there for them.
RIM is going some way towards this by striking deals with carriers whereby apps can be purchased via your phone contract, and you can even gift cash to other PlayBook owners (which combined with pay and go will be a good system for managing children’s accounts).
But whether RIM can convinced developers to add Air development to iOS and Android remains to be seen.
On the whole we found navigating the PlayBook to be smooth and a surprisingly pleasant experience. We were particularly impressed by the way RIM has dispensed of the home button in an elegant fashion. The screen is also strikingly high quality.
Less convincing is the screen size and horizontal orientation lock.
It is a surprisingly complete effort though, it looked ready to roll to us and RIM were happy to let the MWC crowd loose on their models. Shipping to the UK in the second half of the year. Definitely one to watch.
Claiming a hands-on test with the HP TouchPad is actually stretching things a little bit. Out in public HP was adamant that nobody was allowed to touch the TouchPad, instead only watch demonstrations.
Behind closed doors, however, we managed to get a brief amount of hands-on time along with some good discussion as to the status of HP TouchPad.
First the good news. It’s obvious that this is by far the most interesting of all the tablets on display, at least judging by the crowds of people gathered round taking photos from all angles.
Unlike the BlackBerry PlayBook, the HP TouchPad has a full-on 9.7inch display and is in the same aspect ratio as the iPad. In terms of visual design and interface it’s probably the most ‘iPad-like’ of all the devices on display here, although some of the icons have clearly taken on a HP-sheen to them.
As with BlackBerry there is something – in our mind at least – of a question mark regarding app development. The SDK has been announced, but is not yet available (although Kansal told us it would be available this month). Applications can be developed using web technologies such as HTML 5, or using C++ and a plug-in conversion kit. All of this seems pretty straight-forward and should encourage software development if HP can capture enough marketshare.
And, on the upside, HP clearly has a good relationship with a lot of software developers and publishers, and apps such as Kindle and Time Out were on display.
Like the iPad there is a fixed-in battery, although there is no information yet regarding battery life. Connectivity is limited to one micro-USB socket, with no MicroSD card or video output option.
On the whole the HP TouchPad is probably the most interesting of all the devices, whether that translates into the most commercial success is debatable.
Should Apple be worried?
Not really. For all the interesting ideas we’ve seen, most of them are minor variations on the iPad in some shape or form and we ask ourselves “what would we buy?” The answer remains the iPad.
And remember this is all compared to the iPad version 1, which was out last year. Apple has yet to announce the features for the iPad 2.
Having said that the Android tablets offer an alternative for third-party manufacturers to provide new features; the HP TouchPad may actually drive WebOS into the mind of the public, and the BlackBerry PlayBook has some bold decisions and genuinely unique features (like persistent messaging) that may duplicate its mobile phone success in a tablet space.