Switched On: A tale of two tablets

Ross Rubin
R. Rubin|09.22.09

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Switched On: A tale of two tablets
Ross Rubin (@rossrubin) contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

It was the best of ideas. It was the worst of ideas. It was the age of innovation. It was the age of stagnation. It was the epoch of developing a bold new computing platform. It was the epoch of churning out another piece of converged electronics nobody needs.

Rumors have been swirling that PC operating system heavyweights Apple and Microsoft are developing forays into the world of tablet computing. Such devices will face strong competition from netbooks featuring low prices and a large library of applications remains to be seen. Two new entrants to the hardware world, the CrunchPad and Always Innovating's Touch Book, have already begun panning for gold with their Linux-based tablets. However, the waters are now attracting larger rivals designing tablets powered by Microsoft operating systems, albeit different ones.

Entering one of the few new categories at IFA earlier this month, Toshiba announced the JournE Touch, a 7" touch-enabled tablet running Windows CE designed for addressing the usual range of converged device chores, including accessing social networks and content playback, but there are a few tricks up its slender sleeve.

The JournE Touch is first in a what Toshiba promises will be a family of such products. Engadget reports that it will also be also include VoIP and e-reader functionality as well as include a "fridge" app that allows family members to scribble notes on it, functionality seen in the far larger and pricier PC-based HP TouchSmart desktop PCs. Toshiba will also offer a dock with HDMI out so that videos can be played back on a larger display, such as a digital TV. But one key unresolved question for the category is a whole is what will be worth watching on such a device. Attacking the space from another platform is Archos with its 9" 9pctablet, which architecturally is essentially a touchscreen netbook stripped of the lower part of its clamshell.

While Toshiba has shipped tablet PCs for years and is now testing the waters of an embedded platform, the Archos 9 tablet PC crowns a new line that includes several non-PC tablets sold by the company, including a 5" tablet powered by Android and a 7" media tablet based on the company's proprietary UI build on Linux.As a PC, the Archos device should have access to all the functionality of the JournE touch and more. (It will also be able to work with Bluetooth keyboards and mice for pedestrian productivity.)

The trade off is battery life, with the tablet PC lasting less than four hours on a charge. And there are fewer places to stuff an extended battery in a sleek tablet than a large notebook. The tablet draws an interesting line in the sand between embedded processors and the full-fledged PC. It has a large enough screen where consumers will expect far more than a smartphone experience, but also has a usage model that demands all-day battery life.

As discussed in a previous Switched On, though, video will be the key content genre if this device type has any legs in the marketplace, and it's difficult to excel in that today without Hulu playback. Until smartphone-class devices become powerful enough to run Flash acceptably (or Hulu supports other video playback methods), a PC-based architecture will generally have the advantage in this burgeoning category. Wander at will from room to room, just not too far from an outlet.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.
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