It may come as a bit of a surprise but tablet computers have been around for about 20 years, but very few people were buying them. This all changed in April 2010, when Apple stormed the consumer electronics market with their iPad.
Its popularity may well have been because of the iPads resemblance to their already very popular iPhone, it even runs the same operating system. The iPad grabbed the attention of the public and turned tablet computers into the ‘must have’ computer accessory that they are today.
Tablet computers really are the ultimate in electronic simplicity. Very portable, with very few built in controls except for a flat touch screen interface, tablet computers are attractive, easy to use and some would even say they are sexy.
It wasn’t long before the Apple products had some serious competition. Google had already released an open source operating system for smart phones that they had called Android and it was easy to scale it up for tablet computers the way Apple had scaled up its iOS operating system for the iPad. The Android 3.0 operating system they had codenamed ‘Honeycomb,’ was the first version intended for tablet use and in February 2011 Motorola released the first Android tablet called the Xoom.
Not unlike the iPad, Android tablets have a touch screen interface, which allows the user to activate icons with the tap of a finger or move objects around and scroll screens with a swiping motion. Both Apple and the various Android manufacturers offer an online marketplace where programs, referred to as apps, can be purchased and downloaded directly to the device. In fact, Android tablets are so similar to iPads that at a casual glance from a user unfamiliar with the two different types of tablet might mistake one for the other.
So which tablet do you choose?
Only Apple makes the iPad and there are only two versions of it available: the iPad and the iPad 2. On the other hand, a company that can manufacture hardware that will support Google’s operating system can make an Android tablet and the chances are that some companies will do a better job of it than others. Some companies even disguise their Android tablets as something else. The Barnes & Noble Nook e-book reader is an android tablet with a limited range of features and a small subset of available Android apps. But it is possible to compare the iPad against some Android tablets.
When the Motorola Xoom hit the shelves, Motorola knew that it would have to beat the iPad’s specification, so it was shipped with a dual core processor, potentially allowing software to run twice as fast as on the iPad. The Xoom also had two on board cameras that consisted of a 5 megapixel camera facing forward and a 2 megapixel camera facing backward toward the user to allow for video chat. This was exciting for the many people who had been annoyed that Apple hadn’t included a camera on its first iPad. The Xoom’s screen, at 10.1 inches, was slightly larger than the iPad’s, and its 1280×800 display offered slightly higher graphics resolution. The Xoom comes with 32 gigabytes of memory, but its memory can be expanded using MicroSD cards.
But Apple still had the advantage for most consumers. This was because computer programmers had been developing apps for the iPad for nearly a year before the Xoom appeared and the Apple App store had thousands of programs while the Android app store was virtually empty. And Apple then struck a new blow in the hardware battle when it replaced the original iPad with the iPad 2.
Android Tablets vs. iPad 2
The iPad 2 was released in March 2011, only a month after the Xoom appeared, and its upgraded, new and improved hardware eliminated the main advantages that Motorola’s device had over Apple’s. Like the Xoom, the iPad 2 has front and rear facing video cameras that support Apple’s FaceTime video chat software. It also has a dual core processor and comes in a slimmer, lighter case than the first iPad, a feature that Apple always emphasizes in their advertising campaigns.
But other Android tablets are reaching the stores every few weeks, each trying to improve on the iPad 2 in some way or another. Some of them compete on price, with models like the Asus Eee Pad Transformer beating the iPad 2’s price ticket by about £125. Some compete on size, with the Samsung Galaxy Tablet being both slimmer and lighter, as well as slightly cheaper than the iPad 2, and some just try to look a bit neater in design, although Apple has always been tricky to beat when it comes to stylish looking devices. One area where Androids are still unequivocally beating the iPad 2 is video resolution, with most running at 1,280 x 800 pixels compared to the 1,024 x768 pixels on both iPad versions. Android tablets are also more user upgradeable than iPads, with Apple mostly restricting the features to the ones that come in the standard model. And unlike some Androids, Apple doesn’t support USB connectors. An area where Android tablets seem to be losing to Apple is battery life; an awful lot of reviews suggest that the iPad 2 runs much longer without recharging.
In the area of apps, the iPad 2 is still way ahead. There are now over 100,000 apps available through the Apple App Store. This number gets even larger when you take into account the roughly 500,000 apps for the iPhone, most of which will also run on the iPad 2, though they won’t necessarily take advantage of its larger screen size. It’s harder to determine the number of Android apps because for whatever reason, Google doesn’t make that figure public, but a recent estimate was that the number was at a pretty poor 232. Of course, that doesn’t count Android phone apps that also run on Android tablets and there are additional Android tablet apps that are specific to a single brand of tablet, such as the Samsung Galaxy Tab or the Motorola Xoom. But even taking all of that into account, Apple is still winning the app war. Having said that, some apps, such as the ever popular game Angry Birds, are available for both iPad and Android.
There is a significant difference between the way that Apple deals with apps and the way that Android tablets deal with them. Apple only allows apps to be sold through its online App Store and must approve every app before it can be offered for sale. Android devices use a more open model, where anyone can release an Android app and nobody has to get approval for it first. This difference is of far more interest to programmers than to users, but it provides an incentive for the programmers to move over to Android development and may lead to the availability of far more Android apps in the near future.
Ultimately, whether you buy an iPad 2 or an Android may come down to what factors you consider more important: the hardware, the software or the price. If you consider hardware specifications to be the deciding factor, you’ll need to compare the specs for the iPad2 with the specs for each Android tablet on the market; this should keep you busy for quite some time. If software matters more to you, you’ll probably want to go with the iPad 2, which is far more likely than an Android tablet to have exactly the apps that you need. And if price matters, bear in mind that unless you go with a modified Android tablet like the Barnes & Noble one, which users can apparently modify to behave more like a full Android tablet, you’re unlikely to undercut Apple’s prices by more than about £125. But if that sort of saving makes that much of a difference to you, then a low cost Android tablet like the Asus Eee Pad Transformer may be just the sort of tablet you have been looking for.