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Tablets, take two

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The Africa launch of the new Samsung Galaxy tablet range and the South African unveiling of the RIM PlayBook, weeks after the arrival of the Apple iPad 2, finally brings the tablet wars out in the open. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK discovers a serious iPad rival.

The tablet computer invasion this column has been heralding for most of the year has finally broken through the defensive lines that protect South African consumers from the threat of owning the world’s most up-to-date technology.

It is the moment that computer and laptop vendors have dreaded. In the space of a few weeks, three of the major contendors will have joined battle on the shop shelves.

First came the heir apparent to the computing throne, the Apple iPad 2. So much praise has been heaped on it, it’s a miracle it hasn’t become the focal point of a new religion. Oh, wait‚Ķ

The truth is, it’s a delightful device. It boasts unparalleled design and performance. But sooner or later, it will cease to be heresy to point out that it is designed to trap users in a world of Apple’s making. Generally, you still need to link it to another device to get the most out of it, and that device still needs to be running Apple’s iTunes.

Where the iPad wins hands-down is on price. The basic model hit the SA shelves at R4400, with the top of the range going for about R7500.

The next entrant, in the past few days, was the PlayBook from Research In Motion, makers of the BlackBerry. Smaller than the iPad, it is also a beautiful device, and one that many will love to own. But it is even more dependent on other devices: to use its online and e-mail functionality, you’re expected to “tether”” or link it to a BlackBerry phone.

Having an entrance qualification like that for owning a completely different device is like weighing soldiers down with bricks to ensure they keep their feet on the ground. If you’re a believer, you will be happy to suffer.

Meanwhile, a new champion emerged last week. At a launch event in Nairobi on Wednesday, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 was unveiled. Almost anything the iPad has on offer, the Galaxy promises to equal or better.

The screen size, as the name suggest, is 10.1″”, crossing the gulf that existed between the iPad and the first Galaxy, a puny 7″” contendor. The 10.1’s weight, 595g, and thickness, at 8.6mm, is almost absurd. It takes firm aim at the “”lighter, thinner”” credentials of the iPad.

And then there is its strategic edge: it incorporates Flash, essential for viewing certain video formats, animations and web sites, whereas Apple expressly blocks it from the iPad: it includes a microSD slot, which allows files like photos, documents and presentations to be copied directly onto the device without a need for adaptors or synchronisation: and it operates as an independent unit, making it the first tablet I’ve seen that could potentially replace a laptop completely.

Samsung have also released a Galaxy 8.9, event thinner and lighter, but that is targeted more directly at the PlayBook. It suggests a war of two formats: one in the laptop replacement arena, and one in the ultra-small, pretending-to-double-as-a-phone market. At both ends, though, the screen is not optimal for some, either too small or too large, depending on the need. However, Samsung also announced its intentions to roll out the device in a range of sizes that would address such unmet needs.

My greatest fear for the Galaxy 10.1 had been that that it wouldn’t live up to my expectations for being a laptop replacement. But after having it in my hands for a few minutes, I feel confident enough to make this statement: there is a new contendor in the tablet war.

* 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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