We're finally beginning to see some distinctive 10-inch Android tablets that are more than iPad knockoffs.
Earlier this year, Sony released its wedge-shaped Tablet. Now, two more entries provide features and functionality beyond Apple Inc.'s offerings: Asustek Computer Inc.'s Eee Pad Transformer Prime and the Droid Xyboard 10.1 from Motorola Mobility Holdings Inc. and Verizon Wireless.
Granted, every Android tablet comes at an automatic disadvantage to the iPad: Unlike in wireless phones, where the Google Inc. operating system is attracting a rapidly growing number of applications, the marketplace for tablet apps remains thin. Meanwhile, the iPad has more than 140,000 apps, and they tend to be higher-quality.
A prerequisite for luring developers is getting more Android tablets into users' hands. And that means giving customers more reasons to buy them.
The Transformer Prime offers several. It is as pretty a tablet as you're likely to find anywhere. It weighs about 1.3 pounds and measures less than a third of an inch thick, making it marginally thinner and lighter than the iPad 2. The metallic back has a cool, spun finish marred only by the ill fit of the Apple-style multipin cable used for charging the device. The tablet's angled edges leave even more of the connector's metal exposed than does the iPad's, which has a similar issue.
My time with the Transformer Prime didn't start auspiciously. The unit from Asus appeared to charge normally but refused to boot. Eventually, with the help of a handy paperclip, I was able to reset it.
Under the hood, the Prime is powered by Nvidia Corp.'s Tegra 3 quad-core microprocessor. A chip that powerful is overkill for many tablet tasks, like reading e-books. But if you play games, you'll quickly gain an appreciation, as I did through many sets of Zen Pinball and frantic races in Riptide GP. The play was fast and fluid and graphics on the 10.1-inch screen were little short of stunning.
All that, of course, requires battery power and a lot of it. The Transformer does pretty well on that score. I got more than seven hours on a charge, using it to surf the Web, check e- mail and watch a movie. While that's considerably less than on an iPad, the Transformer also offers an option to downshift the computer into two lower-power modes to extend battery life.
Transforming the Transformer
There's one other way to keep things going: buying and attaching the optional $150 metallic keyboard that gives the Transformer Prime its name, converting it into a netbook-PC replacement. The keyboard has its own six-hour battery, plus an SD expansion-card slot and a USB port. Using the keyboard and intense battery management, Asus claims you can coax up to 18 hours of use between charges.
The Transformer Prime comes in two Wi-Fi-only models, one with 32 gigabytes of storage for $500, the other with 64 gigabytes for $600 -- both $100 cheaper than the comparable iPads. They run "Honeycomb," Google's first-generation tablet operating system. An upgrade to the new version of Android, "Ice Cream Sandwich," is promised. If you're looking for an iPad alternative, you can't do much better.
Unless, that is, your most important criterion for a tablet is how fast it connects to the Internet when you're on the move or don't have a Wi-Fi connection. In that case, the Droid Xyboard 10.1 -- known outside the US as the Xoom 2 -- is the way to go.
The Droid Xyboard runs on Verizon's LTE 4G network, the fastest wireless data network out there, and it is mighty swift: Using Ookla's SpeedTest app, I regularly registered download speeds of 10 to 20 megabits per second in the San Francisco Bay Area.
That's faster than many home broadband connections, and it makes the Xyboard roar when it's engaged in Internet-intensive tasks like surfing the Web, downloading apps or streaming movies and videos. Unlike some LTE phones, battery life isn't terrible.
I got about six hours of continuous use on the high-speed Verizon network. You can expect to do better in normal use, since I was deliberately trying to stress the battery by doing things like streaming videos and not taking advantage of Wi-Fi networks. And at 1.3 pounds, the Xyboard is right in line with the Transformer Prime and iPad 2.
Unfortunately, several other aspects of the Xyboard are less satisfying. Although it also runs the Honeycomb operating system (and will be upgradeable), it feels noticeably more sluggish than the Transformer when it comes to things like scrolling through apps or even waiting for the screen to reorient itself when you turn the unit sideways.
Tacky to touch
Perhaps some of the difference stems from its less powerful dual-core processor -- but I've used plenty of tablets with dual-core processors that felt zippier than this.
Matters aren't helped by a water-repellent coating Motorola has added to the Xyboard's touchscreen. It's supposed to help protect against accidental spills, but I found it a little tacky to the touch.
Then there's the price. The Xyboard starts at $530 for a 16-gigabyte version, up to $730 for 64 gigabytes. At first glance, that seems to be $100 cheaper than the comparable iPad 2 models. But there's a big difference: While Verizon and AT&T Inc. allow users of 3G-equipped iPads to decide month by month whether they want service, Verizon requires Xyboard buyers to sign a two-year contract. Otherwise, the price zooms to an uncompetitive $700 for even the least expensive model.
At those prices, the Droid Xyboard's appeal may be limited to those with a real need for speed. Still, being the fastest tablet -- or in the case of the Transformer Prime, the most powerful -- counts for something.
Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.