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Sorting through the tablets

After a couple of false starts – and some serious misinformation on price – Motorola’s Xoom tablet is due to hit the stores later this week. It’s not the first competitor to Apple’s iPad, but the new Android Honeycomb operating system and some rave previews have set high expectations for the newcomer.

And the Xoom isn’t the only tablet we will be seeing in 2011. More than a dozen different manufacturers unveiled prototypes at the January Consumer Electronics Show, including RIM (maker of BlackBerry smartphones), Sony, HP, and Lenovo.

But can anyone threaten the dominance of the iPad, particularly as Apple is also expected to announce a much-improved iPad 2, perhaps as early as next month? Below, we sort through the rumor and the hype, take a look at the tablets that are already out there, and highlight some of the more exciting offerings that are just around the corner.

Apple iPad

The device that started the tablet frenzy just 10 short months ago. Since that time, Apple has sold over 15 million iPads, establishing advantages in brand recognition and customer satisfaction that are going to be very hard for the competition to match.

Despite its almost universal acclaim, the iPad has some serious drawbacks – no support for Flash, no camera, no way to add non-Apple peripherals – and has developed a reputation as a gaming and entertainment device rather than a serious work tool. However, it’s simple but elegant design, its long battery life, and access to over 40,000 apps have earned it a loyal following, and not just from iPhone owners.

Look for the upcoming iPad 2 to add cameras for video conferencing and address some of the other shortcomings. Also, look for the new iPad to be cheaper than the existing version, further undercutting some of its would-be rivals.

Price: $499 - $699 (Wi-Fi only); $629 - $829 (Wi-Fi + 3G)

Samsung Galaxy Tab

Flying slightly under the radar since its launch in November, the Samsung Galaxy Tab has quietly built a reputation for ease-of-use and reliability

Featuring a smaller screen (7-inches vs. 10-inches for the iPad), the Galaxy Tab is literally stuffed with features. There are multiple home screens, allowing endless customization; front and rear-facing cameras for videoconferencing; super-fast web browsing; and instant access to Maps, Gmail and all the other integrated Google programs. The Galaxy Tab also supports Flash, making millions of web-based videos instantly accessible and easy to watch.

The Galaxy Tab also has access to the 150,000 apps in the Android Market, although many of them were developed for Android phones and still have to be reworked for the larger screen size.

The Galaxy Tab is available from any of the four major U.S carriers. Each of them will offer the device with a contract or allow you to go month-to-month without a contract. For stand-alone devices, data fees are approximately $15 - $25 per month depending on usage.

Price: From $249.99 with two-year contract; from $499.99 without contract

Motorola Xoom

Among tablets, only the iPad received more pre-launch hype than Motorola’s Xoom, which finally makes it appearance later this week. Winner of the best gadget award at the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show, the Xoom is the first tablet to run Honeycomb, Google’s brand new Android tablet operating system.

Described by Motorola as the first tablet with PC-like performance, the Xoom features large 10.1-inch screen and a super-fast dual-core processor. There are front and rear-facing cameras, a full-functioning HD camcorder, Flash support for optimal browsing, and both Wi-Fi and 3G networking options.

Unfortunately, all this comes with a price. There was tangible disappointment earlier this month when it became clear that the Xoom wouldn’t undercut the iPad on price but would actually cost more. The stand-alone price will be $799.99, reduced to $599.99 if you sign a two-year data contract with Verizon. Wireless 3G plans will begin at $20 per month for a 1GB of data.

Interestingly, at this price, the Xoom may end up competing more with the laptops and netbooks rather than with the iPad. Expect to see some heavy discounting if first quarter sales fail to live up to expectations.

Price: $599.99 with two-year contract; $799.99 without a contract

Dell Streak 7

Dell was the first computer manufacturer to respond to the iPad when it released the Streak back in August of last year. However, perhaps because of its 5-inch screen – too small for a tablet, too big for a smartphone – it struggled to establish an identity.

Dell has now come back with the Streak 7, featuring a larger 7-inch screen, and billed by T-Mobile as “our first 4G tablet.” The sleek-looking Streak runs the Android 2.2 operating system, giving it access to all of Google’s mobile programs and apps but not the latest features of Honeycomb. It also accommodates swappable memory cards, allowing the creation of almost limitless individual multi-media libraries.

The Streak is also a full-functioning 4G phone, with built-in Bluetooth. There is a rear-facing 5-megapixel camera for photos and 720p video, and a front-facing 1.3 megapixel camera for self-portraits and video chat. It comes pre-installed with Qik video chat software and video calls can be handled over T-Mobile’s regular network.

Two noted shortcomings of the Streak 7 are screen quality and battery life. The screen resolution is significantly poorer than say, the Galaxy Tab, and everything from multimedia watching to web browsing suffers as a consequence.

Price: $199.99 with a $50 mail-in rebate and a two-year contract; $449.99 without a contract

BlackBerry Playbook

Expectations are also running high for the PlayBook, a new tablet from BlackBerry manufacturer RIM, which was also previewed at January’s CES event.

BlackBerry has long dominated the business smartphone market but has come under increasing pressure from both the iPhone and Android phones. The PlayBook is seen as a serious attempt to carve-out a similar business niche in the tablet market, one that is still up for grabs despite the early success of the iPad.

The PlayBook will feature a 7-inch wide LCD screen, front and rear-facing cameras, video conferencing capability, built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, and USB and HDMI ports for interfacing with other business and multimedia devices.

Although important details, such as choice of carriers and price, are still not available, it’s expected that the new BlackBerry Tablet operating system will include enhanced security features and compatibility with corporate servers to help renew and strengthen those fraying ties with big business.

Price: TBA

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