Upwardly Mobile: We Test Drive 8 Tablet PCs

The CRN Test Center pits tablet vs. tablet, platform vs. platform. Where should you place your bets. The CRN Test Center pits tablet vs. tablet, platform vs. platform. Where should you place your bets. The CRN Test Center pits tablet vs. tablet, platform vs. platform. Where should you place your bets. This is the next great tech battle of our time: Tablet vs. tablet, platform vs. platform.

The winners will have broad sway over major IT issues in the coming years, including security, standards and developer loyalty. Some who bet correctly will become billionaires, and some who bet badly—to be polite—may need to update their resumes.

So where do you place your bet?

We’re not bookies, but after evaluating the major tablets and mobility platforms, we can say that mobility vendors fall into three categories: those who win, those who place and those who show.

Sponsored post

We won’t create suspense: Apple’s iPad 2 and iOS are the industry’s flat-out leaders by a wide margin, with no end in sight. We don’t say this because it’s the flashy or popular choice, but because we hold Apple to the same standard to which we hold all tech companies: Does it add important value, and does it eliminate cost and complexity, or add to it?

Here’s a look at iPad 2 and its competitors.

iPad 2
The tablet PC segment has actually been around for more than a decade, but it took Apple’s iPad to get it right in a way that made it accessible, easy to use, and created a value-add ecosystem (through its iTunes App Store) that did what nobody before it could do.

Whether we’re talking about battery life (12 hours of real-world use), form factor, or security, Apple established leadership immediately upon the iPad’s first shipments. When it refreshed the lineup earlier this year with iPad 2, not even a year after the first iPad launched, it delivered a device with front and back cameras that was even thinner, lighter and had even better battery life (about 14 hours of real-world use.)

Our measurement for value-add, elimination of complexity and reduction of cost comes down to several factors.

First of all, does the device enable new and more efficient ways to get work done? Let’s look at a couple of examples. The iPad 2 wasn’t the first tablet to feature both front and rear cameras, but its ease of use, App Store’s quality testing, and engagement with third-party ISVs with a dead-simple software developer kit means it has simply outflanked every other tablet hardware and software provider.

Here’s what we’re talking about:

Download and install Jade, a free app from the App Store, and—bam—your iPad turns into a bar-code scanner. Send the data from that bar code into another app—say FileMaker or Bento—and track inventory, sales or even people. Upload the information to a central server and now you’re collaborating. Conduct a video chat, with Apple’s on-board FaceTime app, and now you can communicate in realtime.

The bottom line: Apple has created a platform that will let a business do for a few hundred dollars now what just two years ago may have cost as much as a few thousand—or tens of thousands—of dollars.

While competing tablets and platforms we’ve looked at—like Samsung’s Android-based Galaxy Tab 10.1—have great hardware and software, too (even better in some regards)—nobody has been able to pull it all together with such a vast, business-safe ecosystem like Apple.

Out of the box it’s dead simple to operate and integrate with, for example, an Exchange solution. It passes our cost-and-complexity test with much room to spare.

Technical Stars: 5
Channel Stars: 4
Price: $599 for 32 GB (list)

NEXT: Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1

Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1

Samsung has created a tablet with what we believe has the best look, feel and construction of any of the major tablets. It’s less than a half-inch thin, but comes in at 1 pound, 4 ounces and with an ’even’ build and center of gravity so that it’s easy to hold with just a few fingers. (for more, watch CRN's video review of the Galaxy Tab 10.1)

With Samsung’s legacy in the electronics space, it was welcome but not surprising that the sound coming from its speakers filled a room nicely without a tinny quality and its display made several hours of work a comfortable experience for the eyes.

Never before have their been so many, new client platforms hitting the market all at once—each with advantages and disadvantages and each living, seemingly, in their own universe. Between Apple’s iOS, the Google-led Android OS, HP’s webOS and BlackBerry’s BlackBerry PlayBook OS, there are literally scores of decisions about which is the best solution in a given scenario.

You need to consider three basic questions:

Is this decision more about the last 20 years, the next 20 years or a little of both?

Are tablets really necessary to get the job done, or get it done better and more competitively?

Will it add, or eliminate, cost and complexity?

Like with the iPad 2, the Galaxy will require you to adapt to life without external devices like a USB drive or SD card. We have never found this to be a deal breaker for day-to -day use alongside a desktop or laptop, but it requires new use patterns that might not fit all. Apple has addressed this issue through its MobileMe cloud storage and its forthcoming iCloud. While the Galaxy doesn’t provide such a push-button solution, we don’t believe it's a deal-breaker here, either.

The Android ecosystem does provide apps and services that we've previously reviewed— like the cloud-based file server service Egnyte—that can address the storage gap.

In building the Galaxy 10.1, Samsung went with the 1GHz dual-core Nvidia Tegra 2 processor; while it gets the job done well enough in terms of performance, we found its battery life to be stellar—up to 18 hours with real-world use.

The important features for many business work: Microsoft Exchange support, Flash support and support for VoIP including Skype. Videoconferencing is supported in both Skype and Google Talk; Bluetooth is fine.

This tablet also integrated quickly with our enterprise, was simple to operate and is price-competitive. It passes our cost-and-complexity test nicely.

Technical Stars: 4
Channel Stars: 5
Price: $484 for 32 GB (street)

NEXT: Fujitsu Stylistic Q550

The Fujitsu Stylistic Q550

As the industry moves at a breakneck speed to iOS, Android and other new mobile operating platforms, Fujitsu has opted for an approach that may be viewed as a lot less bold: its new tablet, the Fujitsu Stylistic Q550, is loaded with Windows 7 Professional. (for more, watch CRN's video review of the Fujitsu Stylistic Q550)

But that’s exactly why it is such a bold choice: In an industry that is telling enterprises that they need to invest untold millions in integrating brand-new operating environments into the workflow, Fujitsu is telling them, ’No, you don’t.’

We like this approach, and, after having the chance to look at the Stylistic Q550, we can recommend this device without hesitation for enterprises that want the ease of a tablet form factor without the cost of porting Windows infrastructure to Android or iOS. This device will provide more than a full-shift of battery life (we measured it with about 9 and a half hours in moderate use, with more than a full day of standby power.)

The tablet is built with a 10.1-inch, touch display; 2 GB of RAM and an Intel Atom processor. Its antiglare screen is noticeable, compared with slick displays on other tablets, and is decidedly unflashy but will work better in outdoor or higher-light scenarios. The Stylistic Q550 supports Bluetooth, has a SIM card slot for those who wish to incorporate with a 3G network service, an SD card slot and provides a USB 2.0 port. It is built with a VGA front camera and 1.3-pixel rear camera. Our review showed it to be of noticeably less quality than other tablet cameras, including the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, the BlackBerry PlayBook and the iPad 2. However, for most work scenarios including videoconferencing or video chat, it’s fine.

It comes with 30 GB or 62 GB of on-board storage via its integrated SSD drive.

When we ran videos on this device, the quality was OK—but not great—compared to prosumer or consumer devices.

We can’t find anything bad to say about the Fujitsu Stylistic Q550 that wouldn’t be nit-picky. (It’s bulkier than the Samsung or Apple tablets, and it runs Windows 7 are the two biggest knocks you could take at it.) Just the opposite: This tablet will give an enterprise the benefits of a tablet without the risk or cost of a new platform.

And, frankly, it completely eliminates the question of whether or not there are enough apps available to give the device more value. Out of the box, this device will work completely seamlessly with anything else in a Windows-based organization.

In an enterprise world that is still overwhelmingly dominated by Microsoft platforms, the fact that Fujitsu has delivered a tablet that runs Windows 7 means that it can roll out across an enterprise without the complexity of integrating a new platform. While the Stylistic Q550 is pricier than its tablet competitors, measured against the mobile-use limitations of a desktop or laptop it is still fair. It passes our cost-and-complexity test.

In a PC world that is competing ever more with mobile device world, Fujitsu tries the difficult task of trying to straddle both. It succeeds.

Technical Stars: 4
Channel Stars: 4
Price: $729 for 30 GB (list)

NEXT: BlackBerry Playbook

The BlackBerry PlayBook

Research In Motion has its share of challenges both in the technology market and in the stock market, and is also in the middle of arguably the biggest transition in the company’s history.

The BlackBerry PlayBook is at the center of all of its challenges, for both good reasons and not so good, and in many ways it could hold the key to whatever success RIM will see in the coming months and years. (for more, watch CRN's video review of the BlackBerry PlayBook)

But once you strip away all of the headlines and all of the noise and look at RIM’s 7-inch tablet for what it is, we believe it’s a product that you simply can’t ignore. There is too much that is too good about the BlackBerry PlayBook.

Here’s a list of what we like about it, and why:

• Its 7-inch form factor is perfect to accompany a PC. It weighs in at 14 ounces and change, making it lighter and more compact than the other tablets we reviewed. While it may sometimes be difficult to carry around both a tablet and a laptop, it’s often going to be a necessity for many;

• Its touch-screen QWERTY keyboard is comfortable for either thumb-based typing or for those of us who learned typing on the old IBM Selectric platform. We think that means that in a diverse workplace, the BlackBerry PlayBook stands the best chance of being accepted by everyone right away;

• Both audio and video capabilities are as good or better than any other tablet at which we’ve looked;

• While the BlackBerry PlayBook OS still has far too little app support to allow it to compete with other tablets in this category, the OS itself—based on the QNX, Linux-based operating system—is absolutely outstanding. We have found it to be stable, reliable and fast. We haven’t seen an instance of it crashing, or of any apps downloaded from the BlackBerry World app market crashing either. This thing works.

Recently, RIM issued a press release announcing the BlackBerry PlayBook received FIPS 140-2 certification, making it ’the first tablet certified for deployment within U.S. federal government agencies.’ That’s not a small matter, and it’s likely that the excellence of the QNX-based BlackBerry PlayBook OS was a big factor.

We have seen instances of a bug in the device that, once the battery is completely depleted, it won’t take a recharge. It does appear, though, that is a not a widespread glitch.

As this was being written, RIM was readying an Android Player for the BlackBerry PlayBook—a virtual Android environment that will give the PlayBook access to the entire universe of Android applications. It is possible that when Android Player does hit the market, it could launch the PlayBook into the top spot in the iPad 2 alternatives category.

While RIM has taken its share of hits in the marketplace, don’t forget that this is the company that turned mobile e-mail and messaging into an addiction the world over. We believe that based on its security, sleek design and robust OS, it passes our cost-and-complexity test.

For now, though, the BlackBerry PlayBook has been among the most pleasant surprises we’ve had since reviewing the current generation of tablets, and we think it deserves increasingly serious consideration for the enterprise solution.

Technical Stars: 4
Channel Stars: 4
Price: $599 for 32 GB (list)

NEXT: HP TouchPad

HP TouchPad

[Editor’s Note: HP at press time disclosed plans to kill of its TouchPad tablet PC.]

The HP TouchPad began shipping to market to mediocre reviews, and it looked like it faced early trouble when HP began offering aggressive price cuts just a few weeks later. HPsoon shipped a major software update that the company said fixed a raft of early problems.

The bad news for HP is that first impressions are often lasting impressions. More bad news: this software update didn’t fix nearly enough of the TouchPad’s issues to allow it to yet compete with Apple or Samsung in the tablet space.

First things first: HP has delivered a tablet with two important functions that competitors lack: native printer support (for most HP printers), and native VPN support. These are not minor features for many enterprises, and on this basis alone the HP TouchPad deserves significant consideration for many enterprises; they also play into strengths developed over years by its Imaging and Printing Group and its HP ProCurve properties. In fact, TouchPad is such a natural fit with its printing lineup that it would not be surprising if HP began offering enterprise bundles with TouchPads and printers in the future. Value-added resellers, in particular, should keep this in mind.

But the tablet itself is bulkier than its competitors, even with a display that’s four hundredths of an inch smaller than the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1. It’s not that it’s a few ounces heavier than others, either: the TouchPad has been constructed without as even of a distribution of weight as the Galaxy Tab 10.1 or iPad 2, meaning it feels more awkward to hold or carry around. In addition, the TouchPad’s black case smudges way too easily and deeply and that, frankly, creates a terrible eye sore of fingerprints and ugly streaks. That might be OK for working inside a warehouse or data center, but it would be just ghastly for sales calls or professional presentation.

Beyond the hardware is the software: Palm’s webOS. While the OS itself is sleek, elegant and, for many, more intuitive than other mobile OSes, webOS is the technology equivalent of all dressed up and nowhere to go. There are few decent apps available on the platform. HP inexcusably waited until right after the TouchPad’s launch before opening its SDK up to developers broadly. Holding back general release of the WebOS 3.0 SDK for as long as it did was a major strategic blunder and shows a fundamental lack of understanding of the critical role apps play in determining a mobile device’s success.

Forget the bulky design, forget the smudges, forget the fact that the on-board camera only works with one available app and it doesn’t shoot stand-alone photos or video. HP’s demonstration, by holding its SDK so close to the vest for so long, shows that it just doesn’t get the market as well as it needs to in order to compete at this stage.

It was a tough call to decide whether this meets a cost-and-complexity standard, but frankly it does. There are still enough enterprises and small businesses that rely on printing capability and VPN security that moving to the HP TouchPad means safety, security, reliability and seamlessness in those areas—meaning cost and complexity are held at bay there.

Technical Stars: 3
Channel Stars: 5
Price: $549 for 32 GB (list)

NEXT: Toshiba Thrive

Toshiba Thrive

When we first looked at the Toshiba Thrive, just before the official launch of the product, we didn’t know what to make of it. It’s Toshiba’s first major computing device off the Windows platform that we can remember (it runs Android). It’s also built with a processor from neither Intel nor AMD, as it runs with the Nvidia Tegra 2.

We love the Toshiba Thrive and can recommend it for enterprises seeking to integrate Android-based devices. (for more, watch CRN's video review of the Toshiba Thrive)

Here’s where Toshiba scores big with the Thrive:

Its support of HDMI, USB 2.0 and SD cards means that, unlike other tablets that are locked down, the Thrive will allow third-party media that’s encrypted, additional storage as needed, and enterprise-level display output where needed.

While not as thin, slick or evenly built as either an iPad 2 or Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, the Toshiba Thrive is built with a ridged, rubbery rear casing that actually feels comfortable to the touch and provides an easier grip than other tablets.

You can figure about 11 hours of battery life during moderate use, and about 90 minutes time to recharge to full. That’s fine.

Where Toshiba scores big points, though, is in its support of both the Android App Market and a quality-checked, Toshiba-approved ’App Place’ for Android apps. This is a big deal. Initially billed as a place for apps that are optimized for Toshiba tablet hardware, App Place has become a clearinghouse for QA’d Android Apps.

We’ve had concerns with the security and quality of numerous Android apps through both the Android App Market and the Web in general, but Toshiba has filtered out an app store’s worth of better apps and apps that can be acquired on a subscription model. When it comes to tablets, apps and mobility, Toshiba gets it.

It passes our cost and complexity test rather easily.

Technical Stars: 4
Channel Stars: 4
Price: $579 for 32 GB (list)

NEXT: Viewsonic ViewPad 10

Viewsonic ViewPad 10

You may not remember this, but ViewSonic was at the leading edge of tablet trailblazing more than a decade ago—when the first generation of Windows XP-based slates hit the market with promise that was never quite realized.

Known as a maker of desktop displays more than anything else, ViewSonic was among the first big vendors to invest in R&D in the tablet form factor and use patterns, and, though initial efforts didn’t quite take the market by storm the company learned from those early efforts.

With its current generation of tablets, notably the ViewPad 10, ViewSonic differentiates itself in a meaningful way and a way in which we think will work for many corners of the channel if given a chance. The ViewPad 10 is a dual-boot tablet, and allows for startup into either Windows 7 or Android 2.2. Think about it: an enterprise could roll out these tablets that integrate well with Windows-legacy applications and security, and step a foot into the Android world as well.

We tested this tablet out earlier this year and really liked it. (for more, watch CRN's video review of ViewSonic's ViewPad 10 and ViewPad 7)

A few comparisons between Windows 7 and Android on the same tablet:

• Windows on this device looks crisper and has the familiar navigational framework so you don’t need to initially search all over for basic functions and files;

• Android 2.2 on this device has an easier-to-use touch-screen keyboard than Windows, and one would have to owe that to the fact that Android was written with touch-screen keyboards in mind;

• In the ViewPad 10, signing in to our lab’s WiFi was much easier in Windows than Android 2.2.

• Skype worked flawlessly in Windows 7, but on Android provided us with a message that we didn’t have enough processing power to make voice calls. (That’s the first time that ever happened to us using an Atom-based system.)

Still, accessing our Windows applications and files, and downloading and installing Android apps from the app store, all worked fine. This is huge, and a major differentiator that ViewSonic has delivered. The fact that one device will allow for access to apps and files on both platforms could serve as a major bridge to mobility for many.

The complexity of having two operating environments may be complex, but in the overall enterprise environment it means easing a migration from Windows to Android in a manner that, frankly, ViewSonic’s competitors can’t match. It’s a winner in eliminating cost and complexity in the enterprise.

As with its Android-based ViewPad 7, ViewSonic provides the ViewPad 10 with support for an SD card and two USB ports for access to additional storage.

Technical Stars: 3
Channel Stars: 4
Price: $589 for 32 GB (street)

NEXT: Acer Iconia Tab A500

Acer Iconia Tab A500

Acer was a pioneer in smaller form-factor computing, delivering one of the first, off-the-charts popular netbooks to an IT industry that was suddenly overwhelmed by the phenomena four years ago. So when the tablet avalanche began, we wouldn’t have expected anything less from Acer than full-bore engagement.

The Acer Iconia Tab A500 shipped originally with Android 2.3, but accommodated an upgrade to the Honeycomb version of Android, version 3.0. The company said it was designed as a content-consumption device, although we found its on-board camera to be fine for both casual photography or even bar-code scanning.

Like other tablets, the Tab A500 is not built evenly with a comfortable center of gravity; it’s thinner at the edges and thicker in the middle and this provides an uneven feel in some regards. For many that’s not an issue but, after examining the iPad 2 and the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, we noticed it and believe that most evaluators will as well.

The Tab A500 was built to support 2G, 3G and Wi-Fi connectivity, has an Nvidia Tegra 2 dual-core processor at 1GHz and has a 5-megapixel camera that we really liked. For a communication device, either through what’s available now—Skype or Google Talk, for example—it’s a fine device.

The Tab A500 is priced to be competitive, and passes our cost-and-complexity test.

Technical Stars: 3
Channel Stars: 4
Price: $494 for 32 GB (street)

NEXT: The Bottom Line

The Bottom Line

Each one of these tablets is fine for business, although each manufacturer has differing levels of engagement with the solution provider channel.

This year, the CRN Test Center has noticed both serious challenges for the enterprise (with security on the Android platform, for example) as well as major opportunities for VARs (in the area of app and software development for the new mobile platforms.)

While the iPad 2 stands in a class by itself, both because of the enormous quality of the device as well as the massive ecosystem and universe of available apps, and its straightforward, simple and affordable SDK, there are strong competitors for enterprise and SMB solutions as well.

The Galaxy Tab 10.1, the BlackBerry PlayBook, Toshiba Thrive and ViewSonic ViewPad 10 all provide differentiation, out-of-the-box high quality and major opportunities as the world moves into a mobile computing model.

The HP TouchPad, with its native printing and VPN support, which are outstanding, and the Acer Iconia Tab A500, with its nice performance, may have some refinements that need to be made but are also strong offerings for VARs who have close relationships with those vendors.

We were very disappointed that neither Motorola, with its Xoom, nor Lenovo, with its forthcoming tablet product lines, were unable to participate in this feature despite requests. We also sought participation from Cisco, with its Cius tablet. However, a number of concerns by Cisco about conditions under which its product would be tested made it impossible under our timeline.

None of these tablets, including the iPad 2, will kill the PC. Rather, we believe strongly that while PC sales may slow for the near term, the processing power, on-board storage of PCs and historically strong price-performance will continue to set it apart from other client devices.

While this generation of tablets, though, is driving changes to use patterns, other challenges to the relatively new form factor will continue to emerge. However, we’ve found that some, like ultra-light notebooks built on Google’s Chrome OS, just are not yet as competitive.

The new mobility will continue to put pressure on VARs to adapt security models, inventory models, vendor relationships and best practices. For example, for enterprises that can’t escape HIPAA or PCI compliance, for example, changes to traditional means of auditing by solution providers will likely need to be made. Will tablets require remote-data erasing capability? Will they require encryption? And if so, what additional competencies will a VAR need to develop to support those solutions? Will vendors pick up part of the cost?

This new computing model will provide opportunities to drive value in software development—including the cloud—that can leverage the benefits of tablets. Winners and losers will emerge, and many of those will win or lose based on which platforms and vendors they choose to support and partner.