Android, iPad, Other Tablet Choices Broaden but Confuse Market

News Analysis: When it comes to Android tablets, there are lots of choices, no two of which are the same.

The problem of which tablet to choose has grown significantly beyond the once default choice-the Apple iPad. Now there are a number of Android tablets on the market, and there are more tablet choices coming. Viewsonic is starting to offer a tablet that works with either Android or Microsoft Windows 7.Research In Motion has announced (but not shipped) its BlackBerry PlayBook tablet. And, of course the wireless carriers are hoping you'll pick one of their tablets.

But even with the carriers, the complexity grows. You can get a Samsung Galaxy Tab from all four of the major U.S. carriers at a wide range of prices for what's essentially the same device. Verizon Wireless and AT&T are selling the iPad, although Verizon ships it with a WiFi hot spot and AT&T with 3G support. Archos, meanwhile, sells an Android tablet without 3G, but it has Bluetooth that should let you tether it to your smartphone so that you can get 3G.

There are also a bunch of Android tablets that I've never heard of, which would make me pause before I plunked down money for one of them. And then there are the e-readers, which aren't exactly tablets, even though the two primary products, the Kindle and the Nook, run versions of the Android OS.

So the question is, if I were to buy a tablet, which one would I choose? How would I choose?

This is an important question because an Android tablet has appeared on the Christmas list of one of my children. This particular family member works for one of those three-letter government agencies that keeps him on the road a lot, so he wants something that will let him watch movies and read books. He doesn't want 3G necessarily, but he'd like to be able to tether it to his BlackBerry when he can't find WiFi.

If this quandary sounds familiar, it's because I went through a similar process when I was looking for an e-reader prior to a trip overseas. My thinking at the time was that it would be nice to have several books to read without having to actually carry those several books. As is the case in such decisions, I chose the product I did for reasons that had nothing to do with my primary purpose.

For a look at what tablets are dominating the 2010 holiday shopping season, please click here.

And I'll admit (despite the flak I'm sure to catch) that I bought an iPad. But the reason is one that will not come to mind for most people. The reason in this case is because I can get the complete set of Jeppesen aviation and airport charts only for the iPad. They're not available for any of the various Android platforms. And if you've ever carried a set of Jeppesen charts around in a briefcase, you'd understand immediately. Those things are heavy.

But my requirements are a little more esoteric than those of some people. My son, for example, isn't a pilot. He manages navigation just fine using his BlackBerry. So we're back to the beginning of the question. What to choose?

He wants to watch movies, so the Amazon and Barnes & Noble readers are out. That leaves the Android tablets or an iPad. The iPad costs too much and, besides, he wants an HDMI port. So we're now considering an Android tablet. The Archos 70 has the required port, but it seems to have limited memory, and from what I'm told (assuming I'm being told correctly) it won't support Android beyond Version 2.2. But Android 2.3 is the one optimized for tablets.

All of the Galaxy Tabs will reportedly support the new version of Android when it's available for that platform. But those tablets are expensive-at least as expensive as the iPad-and they all have a 3G radio that requires some sort of data service. That means more cost.

So if cost is a major factor, then the best choice seems to be the Archos and then hope that it will find a way to support Android 2.3. But, of course, that tablet is perpetually out of stock at Amazon, so maybe I can't buy that either.

Now that I've pondered the Android tablet choices by looking at them as potential gifts, I've found that I'm running across the same set of issues that I'd run across when choosing a tablet for business. It's always critical to balance cost against functionality, and features against requirements. If you need that HDMI port, then there's no point considering tablets without it. If you need to be able to upgrade to Android 2.3, then it's a waste of time to consider tablets that can't be upgraded.

In a way, the tablet market is kind of like the very earliest days of PCs, when it was common to find a wide variety of mutually incompatible devices, each of which did one or two things well, but none of which did everything well. We've moved to the point where PCs are fairly standardized, and that makes life easier when it comes to integration. Perhaps with tablets, Android and otherwise, the best course of action is to wait until the market settles down a little unless you absolutely, positively have to have a tablet right now.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...