Tablets are everywhere. In 2011 they have taken the personal computing world by storm. These thin, power packed devices are portable and allow users to be online, access email, video chat, and play games while on the go, or while relaxing from the comforts of a cozy living room chair (or the iPad chair). These versatile tablets don’t always get used on its own, recently Neilson reported that tablets make great TV companions with 40% of owners stating they consistently use their device while watching television.

Overall tablets can create value or entertainment for almost anyone – especially students, business professionals, technologists, or even Grandma! This post is a summary of major events in 2011 related to tablets and some of my own opinions and experiences.

State of the Nation

The tablet craze started when Apple launched the first iPad back in April 2010. Analysts either thought the product would be a runaway success or an epic failure. I will admit that I was skeptical at first, but that all changed once I had an iPad to call my own (full disclosure – I love it).

Since the iPad launched competitors have feverishly played catch up to try to match or beat the iPads features, functionality, user experience, and content availability. Throughout the last year and half we have had winners, some delays, and a couple of losers.  Overall the iPad still reigns supreme with an estimated 68% of the total tablet market share. Maybe that will change with the recent introduction of the Kindle Fire…but more on that later.

Another important factoid is that tablets are cannibalizing the PC industry. Forbes is reporting that European PC shipments sunk 11.4% in 2011, mainly due to lower demand for netbooks – a product that tablet functionality almost directly replaces.

It’s Not Just for Fun Anymore

Tablets are great gaming devices, so it is not surprising that ComScore says that 2/3 of tablet users play games on them at least once a month with 1/4 of users stating they play games once a day. I definitely sit somewhere in the middle of those stats, as I routinely use mine for gaming, reading, watching videos, and staying connected to friends and family.

Besides gaming and multimedia content consumption, tablets are also conquering the workplace. A prime example is that airlines have replaced heavy and expensive pilot flight manuals with iPads. Not only does it save the pilot from lugging around pounds of paper, but it also allows them to quickly search. Schools are replacing an entire year’s worth of textbooks, Doctors are using a plethora of medical apps to create efficiencies and improve patient care. Welcome to the 21st century.

How to Decide which Tablet to Buy

With a plethora of tablet options deciding which one is right for you can be a daunting task. Of course fanboys are likely to stick with their designated brand regardless of the features, functionality, or more importantly limitations. This resource from Tablet PC Comparison provides a high level overview of a large majority of available tablets. And below I provide my opinion on the subject.

Operating System / Content

The tablet OS is one of the most important factors to consider in your tablet buying decision. Until recently tablet discussions typically involved the great debate between Android’s open-ended operating system, with a variety of different products versus Apple’s closed and content-rich iPad.

The iPad comes with iTunes, which provides users with an almost unlimited amount of apps and multimedia content for their device. Although the Android App market is getting bigger, especially in the tablet app department, there isn’t a single repository where users can rent movies, or download TV shows (legally).

Of course that all changed with the Kindle Fire, which runs a modified version of Android. It is rumoured that Amazon subsidizes the sale of each Kindle Fire device at a loss as they are banking on customers’ continually buying content from them for the life of the tablet. Stream revenue is much better than a one time purchase!

Now we are seeing conversations shift to a debate between the Kindle Fire and the iPad. Will the Fire truly be the first iPad killer? Time will soon tell. Sure, we could also see another drastic change in 2012 with the recent announcement of HP open sourcing the WebOS platform, but that’s a whole other story.

Hardware

Although all tablets are unique in their own way, many of the industry leaders have very similar hardware specifications. Most devices currently come with a dual core processor, up to 1GB of RAM, and on average 16GB of total storage. Other features to note are camera specifications, BluetoothWiFi, 3G (cellular), and GPS functionalities. For example, the Kindle Fire is cheaper than many competitors, but it only includes 8GB of storage, and doesn’t have GPS, camera, Bluetooth, or a microphone. To most consumers hardware specifications are not always a big deal (see iPad buyers), but for others the hardware specs may be the primary factor in their decision.

Screen Size

This is one of the biggest factors that drive a tablet purchase decision, and it really is personal preference. The RIM Playbook and Amazon Kindle Fire both utilize a 7 inch screen, the Apple iPad has a 9.7 inch screen, and the Samsung Galaxy Tab is 10.1. I love the size of my iPad, but I totally see the value in a 7 inch screen when it comes to portability.

Price

Including price in this list is an absolute must, since most tablet buyers appear to be very price elastic. This observation is based on consumer reaction to outstanding sales of the $199 Kindle Fire, the Hp TouchPad fire sale back in the summer, and more recently the RIM Playbook price drop.

What’s Next?

It’s a given that new tablets will continually become thinner, lighter, and more powerful. Besides that I think the two key areas that will decide the fate of the tablet landscape will be content and price.

Content will be a key deciding factor moving forward. Amazon is placing big bets on their Kindle Fire, and I am excited to see how it all pans out over the next six months. In terms of price, the Kindle Fire seems to be setting the bar for entry level tablets. Consumers are currently gobbling the device up in record numbers, and Apple is rumoured to be working on a smaller, cheaper ‘iPad Mini’ that would compete directly with smaller, cheaper competitor products. I’m excited for 2012 which will most definitely bring a few surprises in tablet land.

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