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Let the tablet wars begin

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The tablet wars are here, with a dozen options on the South African shelves. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK kicks off Gadget’s extensive coverage of the field with an overview of the available devices.

After months of battlefield manoeuvres, the tablet wars have been joined in earnest. More than a dozen opposing armies have lined up their forces, and the shooting war has begun.

Nothing signalled the ferocity of the war better than preliminary court injunctions granted to Apple against Samsung this week, barring the latter from selling its Galaxy Tab 10.1 in Australia and Germany. Apple accuses Samsung not of copying its technology, but its look, feel and intuitive interface. Both the Samsung device and Apple’s iPad have screens of around 10 inches in diagonal width ‚ the iPad is 9.7‚ – regarded by many as the ideal tablet size.

It is no coincidence that Apple went after Samsung before any other tablet brand: the Galaxy Tab offers the strongest challenge to the Apple iPad’s domination of the tablet market. Most contenders have rolled out smaller tablet devices with 7‚ screen. However, their prices were initially not much lower than the 10‚ devices.

Now prices are plunging and features are improving, and they are becoming viable entertainment and even working devices. Right now, the choice is between three operating systems: Apple’s iOS that runs exclusively on the iPad, BlackBerry’s QNX, exclusive to the PlayBook, and Google’s Android ‚ running on most other tablets. HP also runs something called webOS on their TouchPad, but have done a great job of hiding it away from consumers.

This week saw the introduction in South Africa of the first sub-R1000 tablet, the 7‚ Colpad. Manufactured in China, it’s been customised locally by a company called Luckymobile, and made available online at R999. Taking advantage of the fact that Android’s App Market has the largest selection of free apps of any of the contendors, the distributors pre-installed those they believe will have the greatest appeal.

The initial Colpad stock sold out within hours of the first report appearing in Gadget last Wednesday. New stock is expected to arrive this week.

The Colpad underlines the fact that there is now a pecking order of tablets, depending on your budget. The following brands are readily available in South Africa:

The 7‚ footsoldiers:

Colpad 7‚ , aimed squarely at students, with its R999 pricetag, and an extra R300 for a bundle that includes a clip-on keyboard. It’s too slow for interactive gaming, but that’s to be expected at a price less than a third of the next cheapest tablet.

Huawei Slim 7, the best-priced 7‚ tablet on the market before the Colpad came along, at about R3500. Low quality screen and performance will count against it, but very comfortable in the hand.

Dell Streak 7, from around R3700. It’s hard to find anyone using it.

Samsung P1000 Galaxy Tab, officially around R6000, and a frontrunner in design and performance, but needs a price attack.

BlackBerry PlayBook, from about R6000, one of the best-designed 7‚ devices, solid, with beautiful screen resolution, but has to be linked to a BlackBerry phone for e-mail and messaging. The corporates will love it.

HTC Flyer, from R7000 up, the most expensive 7‚ , but also probably the best all-rounder in quality and flexibility.

The 10‚ warhorses:

Apple iPad 1: It may be the first generation, but at R3200, it still compares well with all the non-Apple devices. Best value for money in tablets.

Apple iPad 2: From R4400 to R7600, depending on specifications, it sets the standard by which all other tablets will be compared.

Acer Iconia A500: from R6000 up, it doesn’t boast the cool design for which Acer is known, nor the lightweight character of tablets in general. But some like it solid.

Motorola Xoom: from R7000 up, due to be launched in South Africa this Wednesday. It may be worth waiting for the rumoured Xoom 2, which is expected to set a new standard for Android devices, but watch this space.

Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, from R8000, comes closest to rivalling the iPad in build, design and usability, but may be blown out of the water by better pricing and legal action. With a price drop, though, it could give the iPad a bloody nose on the battlefield.

Shop around online, and you will find many of the devices, aside from the iPads, available for up to R1000 less than the official prices. If you are a slavish follower of brands, there are also wannabe warriors from HP, Lenovo, LG and Asus on the way.

For this war, it’s worth waiting.

* Gadget will provide updated information on new tablets as they become available in this market. We will also shortly begin reviewing apps across each of the major tablet platforms.

* Arthur Goldstuck heads up the World Wide Worx market research organisation and is editor-in-chief of Gadget. You can follow him on Twitter on @art2gee

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