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CES slate parade proves not all tablets are created equal

The MotorolXoom is display Consumer Electronics Show Thursday Jan. 6 2011 Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)

The Motorola Xoom is on display at the Consumer Electronics Show Thursday, Jan. 6, 2011, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)

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Updated: April 22, 2011 10:06PM

Last week, I discovered that a good friend of mine owns a Segway. I was pretty surprised by the news. I’ve never seen him riding it. I’ve never even had reason to say “Hi, Terry. That’s a handsome, ultra-long new overcoat you’re wearing. And congratulations on mastering the skill of walking at speeds up to 12 miles per hour without moving your legs in any perceptible manner.”

He told me that it was a secondhand one that he’d acquired on impulse. A local promoter had bought it new for an extremely high-profile city event and afterwards, sold it to my friend just to get rid of it.

(Hang in there. I promise that this has something to do with CES.)

I’ve ridden Segways and have found them to be both Fun and Cool. Buy would I ever actually buy one?

A new Segway i2 costs more than six thousand dollars. At that price? Oh, hell no.

My friend bought his barely-used secondhand Segway for five hundred dollars. At that price? Oh, hell, yes.

This tale has been on my mind this week. As expected, many major companies have unveiled working samples of their new slate computers at the Consumer Electronics Show. All of them look a lot like iPads. Almost all of them are designed to run Android 3.0. And the last line of each product announcement reads “... pricing is yet to be announced.”

The prices of these slates are (God-willing) three-digit numbers, when rounded to the next dollar. It’s just three characters of ASCII text plus a dollar sign. And yet without that one bit of data, these announcements are barely even useful. The first well-engineered $250 tablet will set the world on fire. Any Android tablet that costs more than a comparable Intel i5-based notebook computer is only of value when set on fire for the insurance money.

None of the CES slates even have ship dates and many of them aren’t even available for sampling on the CES floor. By and large, these slates have only been shown off by senior company executives at highly-orchestrated, keep-your-distance-please events. None of these executives exploited the opportunities to walk us through the key features of a company’s 2011 tent pole product. Each one of them smiled and held their slate a little nervously, and seemed eager to get to the end of the demo before The Bad Thing They Were Told Could Happen, happened.

(Anyone who’s ever seen the host of a local morning TV show cuddle a zoo porcupine knows exactly what I mean.)

Well, if we can’t see any of these devices run, we can at least admire them as they get lined up inside the starting gate.

I talked a bit about ASUS’ slate lineup in a previous post. They introduced two 10.1-inch Android models, a 7-inch Android, and a 12.1-inch Windows tablet. I’ll say this about that last one: I’m not bullish about Windows slates but if any company can produce a usable 12-inch Windows tablet and sell it at a reasonable price — even with a for-real Intel processor like the i5 — it’s ASUS. If they can sell them for just $500 or $600, it’ll put even more pressure on all the other slate makers to find an aggressive and attractive price.

Windows is in no way optimized for touch input, but the ability to run any Windows app is a nice plum. And a fullscreen-maximized version of the Kindle app or any other app doesn’t necessarily require a multitouch-savvy OS.

There’s a definite machinegun approach to ASUS’ other slate offerings. They’re trying everything. Their two 10.1-inch models are the Slider (with an integrated slide-out keyboard) and the Transformer (which offers a slim detachable dock with an integrated keyboard and battery extender). My nine months with my iPad have taught me that when I don’t intend to use a keyboard, I don’t want to carry one ... and when I do want one, I want it to be big and comfortable and I want to be able to angle the screen however I want. So I have to be a little skeptical about the Slider.

Otherwise, the hardware is identical: they’re built around the Tegra 2 processor with a GeFORCE graphics unit, front and rear cameras with HD recording, and an HDMI port for 1080 HD video output. 3G will be an available option. They’ll ship with Android 3.0.

Finally, ASUS announced the 7.1-inch MeMO, another tablet that ships with Android 3. It’s one of a few different high-profile 7-inch Android devices, which can offer two things that the iPad can’t: jacket-pocket convenience and a price that’s closer to that of an ebook than a notebook. I’d love to see a company do something fresh with this kind of device, or kit it out to do one thing exceptionally well (there’s definitely a market for a device that promises to be the best mobile email device anybody can buy). But it’s possible that a successful 7-inch slate needs only be an Android 3.0 device, and $250.

So many of these iPad-ish 10-inch tablets are like the women on “Real Housewives.” They’re all aiming to emulate the same ideal of beauty and have undergone so much work from so many hands towards that single goal that they’re mostly indistinguishable from each other. And they’re all made mostly from the same inorganic EOM components. I’m looking through my notes and count five that merit little more notice than “10 inch screen, Android 3 OS, Tegra 2 processor, front and rear cameras, HDMI out.”

I’ve marked two Housewives as standouts, based solely on their networks. LG’s G-Slate will be sold through T-Mobile as the carrier’s flagship 4G device. They’re committed to getting this device on the streets ASAP and hitting speeds of 42 megabits per second from day one.

Verizon is a little less edgy about the Motorola Xoom. It’ll communicate at 3G speeds when it originally ships, and then can be upgraded to 4G later on in the year. Verizon’s certainly my favorite network, at least. I’d never choose a piece of mobile hardware based solely on its data network but with so many slates of (apparently) (for now) equal specs, I have to note that Verizon is my favorite network. Whenever I have devices from multiple carriers and developersin my pockets, Verizon is the last one I expect to not find a usable signal. If I get zero bars, I know I’m either in a Faraday cage or the state of Vermont.

I trust Motorola to make a good piece of hardware. I’m also keen to see if Verizon will press the advantage of being able to provide a consumer with both national mobile service and home broadband. My iPad can connect to my home file servers and even control and mirror my Windows and Mac OS computers from anywhere in the world via the AT&T network. The VNC process is though often fails. If Verizon were to release a slate that could have an implicitly unbreakable connection to my home network – gads, including my entire music and video library – then this slate would quickly become an Item of Intense Interest to me.

(I’m not hopeful. Recently, Verizon released a FiOS app for the iPad that allows subscribers to control their DVR remotely and do other cool stuff. You would think that a FiOS app running on a device that’s connected to the Internet via the subscriber’s FiOS router and sharing a network with a FiOS cable box would have all of the information it needs to answer the question “Whose house am I in, and is he a FiOS subscriber?” This paradox would be on your mind as you followed the directions in the app and searched the house for a recent paper Verizon bill so you could copy down a 1,292-digit account number.)

It should be noted, 4G is a buzzword with no formalized meaning as yet. The governing body that decides the standards is still bickering about it. Amidst this void, mobile carriers have taken to using 4G as a synonym for “mobile broadband that’s faster than 3G.” AT&T has gone so far as to simply re-sticker their existing 3G network as “4G,” citing speed tests that claim to put it into a higher class of bandwidth.

For now, consumers have no idea of what kind of performance they can expect from a 4G device until it’s released for-real, and can be benchmarked.

I’m pulling for one 10-inch Android tablet in particular: the Adam, produced by a new startup named Notion Ink. They’ve come up with a highly practical design that moves in its own direction and solves some problems that other makers seem to have ignored (such as the limited utility of a camera that can only aim straight up and away from the screen). They’ve enhanced Android with “Eden,” their own multipaneled user interface. And the Adam uses a new transflective LCD technology that keeps the screen readable even in bright outdoor light. The Pixel Qi display also saves power, by turning off the backlighting when the room’s ambient light is sufficient.

I’m not the only observer who’s enthusiastic about the Adam. There’s a simple reason for that: Notion Ink has given me something to be enthusiastic about. Via their blog, the company has been refreshingly open about the development process. They aren’t just spitting out press releases and hosting stiff, executive photo ops: they’re showing full walkthroughs of the hardware and software as it’s being developed.

And holy jumping Zarquon on a unicycle: they’ve actually got a price in mind: the 10-inch Adam will be available in multiple configurations starting at $375. There’s enough air between that price and the $499 minimum iPad price to present no pricing obstacles for the thing.

(See, Verizon? T-Mobile? Acer? ASUS? Sprint? It’s not that hard.)

There’s still no release date for the Adam. But Notion Ink has been happily showing off a highly-functional unit to everyone with a working phone camera, judging from all of the online videos from CES.

Not all of the tablet news is Android-related. RIM is sticking with their Playbook concept. It looks handsome.. But it’s still very much a dark horse. And HP has decided to wait a month and show off their highly-anticipated WebOS-based slate at their own press event in San Francisco on February 9.

I see this as a confident move. As I read back everything I’ve just written, I’m surprised by how important, and at the same time tissue-thin, all of these announcements are. With just one exception, they boil down to:

1) “We can’t really show you a working unit. If you visit our online press kit, we’ve posted a Google-supplied video of what they say Android 3.0 will look like when they finally finish it.”

2) “It’ll ship sometime this year. We can’t be more specific.”

3) “We’re not even going to hint at the cost.”

4) “We have no details about the mobile broadband plans that we intend to offer with it.”

Honestly. It’s a small exaggeration to say that I could board a flight to China tomorrow, be in Shenzhen by the next morning, plunk down about 1800 Yuan for a working Tegra 2-based 10.1-inch Android slate, draw my own logo on it with a white Sharpie on the flight home, and then after a quick 15-minute press conference at the airport Ramada I’d be just as credible a force in Android 3.0 tablets as most of the companies who showed off hardware at CES this year.

Did HP know that each and every one of these companies, large and small, would be showing off a colorful show prop as opposed to anything that businesses or consumers could commit their money to? Maybe they did or maybe they didn’t. Either way, HP will have the stage all to itself on February 9.

There’s still an iLephant in the room. Apple will almost certainly show off their next-generation iPad in the next few weeks. The 26th annual Macworld Exposition will be taking place at the end of January, but a few years ago, Apple quit using that stage to take the wraps off of their products.

I suspect that the weakness of this year’s CES slate announcements demonstrate one of the reasons behind Apple’s decision. A trade show is a phony-baloney date on the calendar and an annual source of pointless stress. If a company — particularly a publicly-traded one — is afraid of sending a bad message by not showing something that’s shiny, colorful, and shipping immediately, then they’ll feel forced to show off a few chapters of the work-in-progress.

Apple sticks to its own timetable. When they show off the iPad 2, they’ll be in a position to show off the whole, completed work. The presentation will end with a firm ship date and an invitation to please, by all means, head to the online Apple Store and pre-order it today. Ideally, using whatever money you might have earmarked for an Android 3.0 slate.

Oh, and remember: to date, the iPad 2 is still merely a rumor.

Well, one thing’s for sure: HP’s tablet and the iPad 2 will set themselves apart from the pack immediately. Neither one is destined to become just another one of the Real Houseslates of Silicon Valley.

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