By now, of course, tablet computers were supposed to be old stuff. As long ago as 1968, Stanley Kubrick showed the astronauts of "2001: A Space Odyssey," watching TV on tablets almost identical to what you can buy in 2011.
Kubrick was off by a few years, but not by many. Sales of conventional computers have flattened out as people find touch-screen tablets lighter, easier to use, and in many cases more powerful.
For now, the market is dominated by Apple's iPad 2, with its multi-touch screen, super-slim body, and aura of coolness. But it's not the only one out there. We'll start with it, but we won't stay with it.
|The iPad 2|
When Steve Jobs showed off the original iPad in 2010, the reaction was mixed. People didn't quite get it, Jobs complained. They weren't sure whether it was a computer, or a TV screen, or a communications device.
Peter Sagal, the host of NPR's "Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me," quipped, "It's an iPhone for old people!"
The jokes have stopped. Tablets are taking over the technology world, and as of September, the market research firm IDC reported that Apple commanded 68 percent of the tablet market.
Reviewers agree that Apple met Jobs' famously exacting specifications when it put together the iPad 2. There's only one physical button on the front surface. You tap and swipe and stretch what you see on the screen for almost everything else. And people report their experience doing things on an iPad is more intimate and satisfying than the same thing would be on a laptop.
There are, of course, a few downsides. The biggest, probably, is price. Fully loaded, with 64 GB of memory and the ability to download content both by Wi-Fi and cellular 3G networks, the iPad 2 can set you back $829 on Apple's website (more basic models start at $499). If you don't feel like spending that much change, Amazon is counting on you to go to the next page and read about the....
|Amazon Kindle Fire|
Amazon's Kindle Fire is the tablet for the rest of us. It's less capable than the iPad, with a smaller touch screen (7 inches) and 8 GB of memory -- but for $199, that may be just fine with you.
"This is about content consumption; this isn't an iPad competitor," said Michael Gartenberg of Gartner Research when the Fire was announced this fall. If anything, he said, the Fire is best for watching or listening to the 100,000 movies, 17 million songs, and countless books and magazines Amazon.com offers for download.
"We don't think of the Kindle Fire as a tablet. We think of it as a service," said Amazon's CEO, Jeff Bezos, when he first showed it off.
If $199 is steep for you in tough economic times, Amazon offers its Kindle e-reader for as little as $79 -- though you do have to put up with ads on your screen unless you're willing to spend $110.
"These are premium products at non-premium prices," said Bezos.
|Barnes & Noble Nook Tablet|
The Nook Tablet, with a seven-inch screen and a list price of $249, is somewhere in between its prime competitors at Apple and Amazon. It has twice the computing power of the Kindle Fire (a dual-core 1.2GHz processor with 1GB of RAM, and 16GB of storage) but you'll spend about half of what you might for an iPad.
Remember that Barnes & Noble is not a technology firm at heart; it used to be a bookstore chain. You remember books, don't you? The screens were flimsy -- they were made of paper, for crying out loud -- but the batteries never ran down.
Barnes & Noble says you won't have to worry about batteries. It claims you can read an e-book on the Nook Tablet for 11½ hours, or spend nine hours watching movies, before you have to recharge.
|Samsung Galaxy Tab|
It's a cool, sleek tablet. Its controls are elegantly simple. It's a premium product -- $599.99 list price for a fully loaded version (32 GB of memory and a 10.1-inch screen). The Samsung Galaxy Tab is awfully close in function to an iPad.
Did we say close? It's close enough, in fact, that Apple and Samsung have been in court in at least nine countries, accusing each other of patent infringement. In a perhaps whimsical brief in August, a Samsung attorney argued that the company couldn't be copying the iPad, because both were really copying Stanley Kubrick (see the first page of this story).
"They've come up with an attractive device that has a lot going for it," wrote Ed Baig of USA Today (a content partner of ours), "and for people who want to see some competition and vigor in the tablet space, Samsung has added that with this device."
At the risk of dulling the holiday spirit, we're ending this list with a product that has actually been discontinued -- a caution that even in a red-hot business, something can turn stone cold.
HP introduced its TouchPad in July to mixed reviews, then killed it only six weeks later. It was thinking, at the time, of getting out of the computer hardware business entirely.
But then a strange thing happened. HP announced a fire sale on its remaining inventory, selling the TouchPad for as little as $99 -- and at that price, an also-ran became a steal. People tripped over one another online, trying to track them down.
By the end of October, HP said it was finally out of TouchPads. But if you're industrious -- and lucky -- you may still be able to find one. It's not one of its heavily-marketed competitors, but it works.
(ABC News' Andrea Smith and Tina Trinh contributed reporting for this story.)
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