But should consumers and enthusiasts buy into all this wild hype? More to the point, do slates really offer anything functional and useful that a small/light, more-affordable netbook would not already be able to provide? Based on some of my extensive, first-hand experience, I have to say the netbook continues to be the better option.
At first glance, slates seem to resemble giant smartphones, or netbooks without keyboards if you will. But while keeping the smartphone touch functionality is a huge plus, slate users miss out on a lot more than just an attached keyboard.
When the original iPad launched, many Apple fan boys were disappointed the device ran iOS instead of OS X, some even calling it merely a giant iPod Touch. In fact it didn't take long for people demanding to see a USB port, SD card slot, webcam and Flash capability on their slate, items that all come standard on netbooks.
The limited feature set of a smartphone OS versus Windows 7 will also limit your capability, especially when you need software that already works on x86. Business applications in particular may demand security or networking capability that a smartphone OS cannot deliver, while rewriting existing software to run on a smartphone OS could be totally impossible. Power users know a triple-booting netbook running Windows/Linux/OS X can be a handy tool indeed!
I have nothing against creativity, and it's great to see folks buying accessories and add-ons to make their slates work better. But just how much junk are you going to bring with you to do even basic things?
The whole idea behind slates is to make a small, lightweight device that's easy to carry. Netbooks fill that need totally. But when you cram that 10" slate in your gear bag along with your additional keyboard, card reader, VGA adapter, mobile hotspot, stand/cover or whatever else you must absolutely need to have with you, along with your existing smartphone, that whole mobility argument gets thrown out the window!
In comparison, a good netbook/smartphone combo does all of the above, and more, without the need for any gear bag! There's simply no way I would juggle a slate, keyboard, SD card adapter and whatever else a slate needs to perform when I need to get up and go. When the emphasis is mobility, two devices beats four!
That same argument goes over to productivity in a very big way. Even accessorizing a slate to the extreme still won't give you the ability to work that a netbook provides. When you pick up a netbook, working with the same version of Office as you're used to at work/home, accessing web content on a standard browser with full plug-in functionality (Java/Flash) and running the same multi-threaded x86 software that you have on a desktop/notebook is standard fare. You can do a much higher level of work and get what you need done fast.
In contrast, apps for slates are far more simple and restrictive, often device specific, and require payment to do what in most cases doesn't cost you anything when using a netbook. More often than not, you're at the mercy of an obscure app developer for providing features, stability and bug fixes. And in the worst case, the app you're so desperately waiting for may never even arrive on a particular slate platform.
And I won't even get into the multitasking advantage Windows 7 provides, especially on a 2C/4T processor such as the Atom N570. Need the HD capability of a 1366x768 screen, access 750GB of data on the go, transcode/encode video, or burn a disc with a portable burner? Irritated by your slate's on-screen keyboard taking up half the display? Don't be surprised if after all the novelty wears off that fancy tablet ends up in a corner collecting dust.
My HP 210 Mini came in at a comfortable $404 providing solid bang for the buck. Critics may argue that $300 netbooks lack features and power, but configuring a fully-loaded netbook that kicks butt no longer costs over $500. In fact, since their introduction in 2008, netbooks have slowly come down in price while offering much improved hardware.
In comparison, Apple's iPad 2 and HP's TouchPad both come in at $500, and that's just the base 16GB version. Spring for a 32GB/64GB model, add a keyboard accessory or screen cover to your purchase (items all unnecessary for a netbook), and you'll be spending anywhere from $650 to $800 - the price of two netbooks! Slates totally ignore the rules of performance-per-dollar, period.
After a relatively short 14 months, the original iPad was superseded by the iPad 2. Many Android slates are also being made obsolete by models offering a newer OS version. Given their exclusive marriage to an underlying smartphone OS, slates pretty much mimic the product life and development schedule of smaller handsets. Sure, some people are content buying a new smartphone every time they get a new haircut. But I don't think the average consumer will be grabbing a new slate every 6-9 months just for a feature set upgrade, especially when you take into account that $500 entry price.
Software has in fact become the major Achilles Heel of slates, since keeping an up-to-date OS is vital to ensuring a long product life. Yet doing this is not as simple as walking into a store and buying a copy of Windows.
Netbooks in contrast may last as long as the hardware remains operational, often from 3 to 5 years, since Windows is an already mature software platform, and totally independent from the netbook hardware.
One of the biggest attractions netbooks offer is their use of the same Windows software folks find on other PC's. You can plug in a mouse, connect a printer, attach your thumb drive, install software and be up and running without facing a large learning curve or making compromises in comfort/functionality. More importantly, this ease-of-use will be common across every netbook sold, making switching between netbooks effortless. Notebook users in particular should find netbooks very user-friendly.
The same cannot be said for slates, as there will be notable differences between an iPad versus a TouchPad or Playbook, in both hardware and software. Simple tasks like printing will be a major headache, and other than syncing via USB or wireless file transfers, slates may offer no other connectivity with your existing PC gear.
Slates rely exclusively on apps to provide content and functionality, being very limited in feature set and tied to a specific task, such as blogging or web chat. These apps are also hardware and device dependent, making the ability to do something on one slate totally separate from another. The best example of this is video streaming services, as licenses to distribute content on one slate may not extend to another device. Finally, a big factor to consider that many consumers forget is the cost of all those app purchases will definitely add up over time.
Compare to the far more sophisticated and diverse x86 software offerings already installed on over 400 million desktop and notebook PC's, you will find netbooks far more capable. Tasks that may not even be doable on one slate, or require an app purchase on another, may be something that you can already do with a netbook, without paying anything extra. For those who already own/use an existing suite of productivity software, installing the same software on a netbook will be child's play, and won't force you to work with a watered-down version for the sake of mobility.
One of the biggest concerns with slates today is the issue of OS fragmentation, as the tight integration with mobile hardware makes upgrades very device specific. Manufacturer support is necessary for the latest OS enhancements to work on your particular slate. Unfortunately, as some Android slate owners have encountered, lack of manufacturer support has left the newest Google OS flavors out of reach, rendering those slates stuck on older software, and potentially obsolete.
The situation is not much better with slates such as the iPad or TouchPad. Even when the manufacturer provides the underlying OS, newer features may only work with newer hardware leaving older models out of the update cycle. This means that even more recent, perfectly-working devices can turn into old technology if a future OS update kicks your slate off the supported device list.
This has the end result of creating a market full with a rag-tag assortment of slate hardware, comprising of models that may not have identical software/features - some new, some old, some up-to-date, some not. Certainly not a good prospect for folks looking to keep their slate long-term.
Getting a new version of Windows on your netbook, on the other hand, is pretty much a sure bet with x86. And with the system requirements for next year's Windows 8 matching those for Windows 7, even netbooks dating back to 2008 can be guaranteed fully up-to-date and future-proof.
One of the great things when it comes to netbooks is the ease of which they can be upgraded with newer/better components. Hard drives, SSD, memory, and in some cases even the wireless radios are all user-replaceable items thanks to the use of industry-standard SATA, SODIMM and miniPCI connectivity that is shared with other netbooks and notebooks. Enjoy shopping around among the vast selection of parts, and compare each for best price.
Bust open an iPad 2, in comparison, and in addition to voiding your product warranty, you'll be greeted with proprietary hardware and all-soldered components. Forget hitting up Newegg for any slate parts, the only way you'll be upgrading your slate is by dropping another $500 for a brand-new one.
Pushing things around on a touch screen with a finger seems effortless and almost lazy to an extent, but does it really revolutionize computing? More importantly, does it help or hinder the user's comfort?
We all know that slates need to be held in one hand, that immediately dismisses use lying flat on a desk, hunchbacks excluded. OK, you get a stand for it. Does it tilt the display at any angle like a netbook does? No. If you happen to be too tall, your desk too high, sit too close to type, or see glare from a light/window behind you, that fixed angle of tilt may irritate you at best, or be completely unusable at worst.
Need to position a cursor with you finger? Good luck with that. Unless you have dedicated cursor keys on your slate keyboard, editing full-page text will be a nightmare, especially if you have large fingertips that make nailing the space between characters impossible. Pair up a trackball with your netbook, however, and you can achieve far more precision and enjoy single-pixel accuracy. Truth be told, a wireless trackball beats a touchscreen slate in ergonomics! You can get your work done on time, or choose to stab at a screen all day in frustration - you decide which is better.
Also, pushing things around on a 10" screen is just as tedious as moving a mouse around on a 8"x10" mouse pad. Your hand, wrist, arm and shoulder all must exert effort, and with your other hand forced to hold/support your 1.5lb slate, it's almost guaranteed that you will be feeling some fatigue/tiredness after an hour or two. Comfortable, all-day use is just out of the question.
That's the big problem with injuries such as RSI, carpel tunnel and arthritis - the symptoms are never immediately forthcoming, with the physical pain only apparent months or years later after the injury. For those spending 5-8 hours a day with their slates today, be sure to have a good health insurance policy - I guarantee you will be needing it later!
Netbooks and slates were born from the evolution of two very different technologies - smartphones and notebooks. With netbooks sharing their ancestry with the larger, more powerful notebook, it's easy to assimilate the performance advantage. Notebooks/netbooks look similar, often share the same ports/jacks, run the same OS/software, and share the same hardware. That last part perhaps the most significant, as following desktops, notebooks are generally second in line to adopt the latest advancements in CPU/GPU silicon.
Smartphones exploded onto the scene thanks to advances in hardware miniaturization. This development continues and has in a large part led to the emergence of slates. But it is also the primary factor holding slates back, relegating features and performance akin to their smaller derivatives. True, smartphones continue to improve, but they will never compete with the notebook, which is why the netbook will always have an upper hand.
Will the lines of netbooks and slates cross at some point in the future? It's highly possible. I for one would welcome the PC-like functionality of a Windows 8 slate, as it would address many of the shortcomings slates today exhibit. Indeed a compact/light 7" Windows 8 slate would make for an ideal companion device to both a larger 10" netbook as well as a smaller smartphone.
2009 saw the biggest growth year in netbooks with around 34 million unit sales worldwide. An amazing achievement when you consider that the original 7" Asus Eee PC wasn't even on the market 18 months earlier. And in 2010, despite unprecedented competition from Apple, netbook sales remained strong at over 35 million units, outselling the iPad by a factor of 5 to 1.
Will the numbers change in 2011? Given that netbooks have saturated the market now for two consecutive years, a drop in sales would not be unlikely. Add the army of virgin slate hardware being sold this year and you can expect slate sales to multiply. I don't expect sales of slates to trump netbooks though, as more than one lukewarm response to an unimpressive device will resonate with consumers.
13. Entertainment value
How many times have we heard the experts tell us that slates make the perfect content consumption device? I might actually believe that if I ever get to see a slate that can use Skype for web-chat, stream Netflix/Hulu video, offer up an audiophile-friendly music player, give me the full twitter/facebook experience, and run an assortment of games - things that a netbook can all do out-of-the-box without paying extra.
Like to have your movies to go? With hard drives on netbooks available in 750GB capacities even ripping HD content is possible, and with a Broadcom Crystal HD video accelerator and 1366x768 display, you can enjoy fluid 720p content with all the delicious eye candy. Carry a spare netbook battery with you, and the fun can stretch well beyond 10 hours, without the need to hunt for an AC outlet.
With a netbook you can easily stream Pandora radio while working on an Office document, access any type of Flash game or video online, and keep your entire music/photo library with you. Compare with the limited-capacity flash memory storage on slates, you may be left with no other option than to use a subscription-based cloud service to host your media collection - enjoy paying that monthly storage fee along with the overage charges when you exceed your monthly data cap!
Netbooks handily beat slates at content consumption, and totally destroy them when it comes to content creation. When you can have fun while you work, and do it at a lower price than a slate, you realize netbooks bring far more value, both in performance and entertainment, than slates ever will be able to offer.
I could have easily written this piece 15 months ago, the day the first iPad launched. But I didn't. I chose not to not because these clues weren't already apparent to me then, but because I wanted to let the course of time convince me that what I knew was right.
Four slates and four netbooks later, I have yet to be proven wrong.
Many happy slate owners out there will of course disagree with my reasoning, which is OK - you never know how good something is until you try it. But it only takes one negative experience to ruin a purchase. With such an unproven device/concept as slates are, even a small glitch can be damaging because it can potentially ruin future consumer acceptance, leading to failure of the segment. Anyone who has been frustrated with their first-gen slate or wished for that missing "feature x" will think twice next time they see the hype. In this feverish rush to copy the iPad, it seems even reputable manufacturers are losing focus and priority.
I have tried hard to find that killer application where slates beat netbooks and it just doesn't exist. How many more times are consumers going to be asked to shell out hard-earned cash on some half-baked device that has yet to prove itself? And how many more millions in R&D will manufacturers pour into what may end up being just one company's technology fad?
It's time for the tail (Apple) to stop wagging the dog (consumers and competitors).