The key to tablet success: don't ape the iPad

HTC and Asus join the race to differentiate

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What's small, exciting and generates more column inches than Pippa Middleton's bum? That's right: tablets.

Where other sectors are feeling the effects as customers tighten their belts, tablets are flying off the shelves - and with good reason, because many of them are brilliant.

We're into the second tablet generation now, and that means things are starting to get really interesting: where many first-generation tablets were pale iPad clones at best and vapourware at worst, tablets have been around long enough for some unusual and potentially very useful ideas to emerge.

The HTC Flyer is a good example of the bright ideas firms are coming up with. HTC knows that fingers are by far the fastest, easiest and most fun way to navigate around a tablet, but it's been quick to notice that fingers aren't ideal for more detailed work.

Its solution is a "magic pen" that adds pressure-sensitive precision for tasks such as photo editing, note taking and scribbling comments on web pages, and it works pretty well.

Crazy designs

HTC isn't the only firm who, ahem, thinks different - but while Apple is content to make minor changes to its iPad designs, Asus has gone completely crazy. And as we discovered this week, crazy is good. The Asus Eee Pad Transformer offers the best of both worlds: the fun and flexibility of a tablet, and a proper keyboard when you need to get on with stuff without hurting your hands. We liked it a lot.

It hasn't all been sunshine and clever ideas, unfortunately. As Nvidia's CEO admitted this week, Android tablets haven't necessarily sold as well as they should have, partly because of inept marketing and partly because of a lack of decent apps.

Elsewhere RIM has had to recall nearly 1,000 faulty BlackBerry Playbooks, although luckily few of the affected devices have reached end users, and the Acer Iconia Tab A100 release date has been pushed back to later this year.

The odd problem aside, it's clear that the tablet market is maturing quickly - so quickly, in fact, that TechRadar columnist Gary Marshall wonders if that leaves any room for Google's Chromebook, which promises tablet-style ease of use in a device that looks like a netbook.

The key issue, it seems, is price: at £400, UK Chromebooks aren't exactly cheap. "The problem for me is that Chromebooks have many of the same compromises as tablets – small screens, titchy storage, lack of horsepower – without the benefits," Gary writes.

"They're up against tablets, which are better, and they're up against netbooks, which are cheaper. Given the choice between a Chromebook and an iPad 2, or a Chromebook and a Honeycomb tablet, would you really choose the Chromebook? Really?"

There's no doubt that the trickle of tablets has become a flood, and that manufacturers have given their best brains the job of building kick-ass tablets.

Things are only going to get more interesting - and that's why we've launched an entire channel dedicated to tablets and tablet-related tomfoolery. Covering every conceivable tablet as well as apps and accessories, if it's tablets you want then Tablets@TechRadar is a must-bookmark.

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