Two tablets to take on iPad
At last they are coming, the products that will give Apple's iPad a run for its money. I've had a glance at a couple of tablets in the last few days, that might just challenge Apple's dominance in a market that the company kickstarted last year.
The first is the Motorola Xoom, leading the charge for Google's Android operating system. We've already seen quite a few Android tablets, notably the Samsung Galaxy Tab, but they've barely managed a dent in the iPad's almost total dominance of the market. That might be because they were running a system designed primarily for smaller screens, but now Android Honeycomb, tailored for tablets, is here and the Xoom is the first to show it off in the UK.
My first issue was with turning it on. I eventually found the power button on the back of the tablet next to the camera, not a great place for it, especially as you have to keep returning to it when the Xoom goes to sleep. It's a small detail, but just the kind of thing that Apple seems to get right.
Mind you, once I'd turned it on the Xoom proved an impressive device, fast, and with an intuitive user interface. The high resolution 10" screen made videos and photos look great. The five megapixel rear-facing camera produced better pictures than its equivalent on the iPad 2 - and while I still can't quite see the point of taking photos on a tablet, it's a great place to view and edit them. There's a front-facing camera for video calls too - I tried out Google Talk with a colleague, which worked well, but as yet there's no Skype app.
For your surfing needs, the Xoom features Google's Chrome browser which has two advantages over the iPad's Safari - it has tabbed browsing allowing easy switching between different sites, and it supports Flash, so you can watch all those web videos that aren't visible on Apple's tablet.
But there are two main weaknesses in the Xoom - the apps and the look and feel of the device. Right now there just aren't enough Android applications that are up to the standard of the best on the iPad - like the social magazine Flipboard, or Apple's own iMovie editing app and Garage Band music application. And by contrast with the IPad 2 the Xoom feels heavy and a little cumbersome. In other words it's great compared with the first iPad, but Apple has already moved on.
The second device I got to examine was the Blackberry Playbook, which goes on sale in the USA next week and in the UK by the end of June. When I say examine, I mainly sat back while the co-CEO of RIM, the Canadian firm behind the Blackberry, put the tablet through its paces.
Mike Lazaridis, who founded RIM back in 1984, proved a deft and enthusiastic demonstrator. He plugged the Playbook into a large television screen via an HDMI cable to show off some hi-def video content, which looked great. Even more impressive, he was then able to surf the web and use various apps on his small screen, while the video kept on playing on the television.
The Playbook looked slick and capable, though I still have some doubts about whether a 7" device will find a large gap in the market between smartphones and larger tablets like the Xoom and the iPad. Mr Lazaridis is confident that its sheer portability is a key attraction, but if that's the case I'm not entirely sure why there is quite so much stress on the ability to plug it into a television.
The Playbook will also need to work hard to convince developers to build the apps it needs to compete with Apple and Android. But from what I saw it is an impressive piece of hardware which should attract plenty of customers amongst the existing Blackberrry crowd - the business types, that is, not the BBM teenagers for whom Blackberry is now a cool brand. RIM says it's looking to attract both its enterprise users, with the promise of a link to their existing Blackberrys and the device's trademark security, and the average consumer. I'm not entirely sure the Playbook can bridge that gap.
Whilst we were chatting about his new toy, in which RIM has invested so much of its future, Mike Lazaridis was bubbly and enthusiastic. Then I asked a question about RIM's problems in India and the Middle East where it has been in battles with governments concerned that the Blackberry is just too secure for their police to monitor.
Suddenly, the atmosphere in the room chilled, Mr Lazaridis told me my question was unfair, and his PR executive informed us that the interview was over. We were there, apparently, to discuss the new product and nothing else.
RIM is not alone amongst technology firms in wanting to exert tight control over its message but it seems surprising that the company would not address an issue of great interest to its customers across India and the Middle East.