In the world of gadgetry, there is always one type of device that rates as the latest hot toy.
At one time, it was the Walkman. Then came the iPod, followed by the iPhone and other smartphones. More recently, the small portable netbooks were all the rage.
Now, it's the tablet.
The jury is still out on whether tablets will have staying power, especially given the flighty nature of consumers. Recall netbooks were the hottest thing going a few years ago and now hardly anyone wants one.
For now, however, the tablet market is growing by leaps and bounds, with nearly every electronics maker on the planet rushing out their own version of what they hope will be the next iPad killer.
I have always been a skeptic of tablets because, in my view, they are a product in search of a solution.
Smartphones have a clear and useful purpose. Computers have a clear and useful purpose. But a tablet is basically just a big smartphone without the phone (unless you pay extra for that capability).Or, a PC without a keyboard (unless you pay extra for one).
Do you really need one of these things?
To find out for myself, I recently spent some time using Motorola's Xoom tablet, the first built to operate on a new tablet-only Android operating system code-named Honeycomb. I opted for this 32-gigabyte, wi-fi tablet, which was released in January, because I was already familiar with Apple's products and wanted to see how an Android competitor compares.
Here's what I found, starting with the basic question of "Do you really need a tablet?"
Well, not really.
But it depends somewhat on how you plan to use it, since there are some areas where the tablet's bigger screen offers some big advantages. Namely, reading lots of text, as in newspapers, magazines or books, or watching movies, TV shows or other video.
The Xoom has a 10.1-inch screen, slightly larger than the industry-leading Apple iPad. That makes it a far more comfortable form-factor for reading, when compared with the tiny screens on smart phones. The highly readable Xoom screen is bigger than a paperback but a bit smaller than most hardcover books - a familiar format for most consumers. Better yet, there are a variety of apps that basically turn your tablet into a virtual book - complete with realistically animated page turns. The Xoom comes with its own book app, powered by Google, but you can also download Kindle and Nook apps if you want to tap into the respective Amazon or Barnes & Noble bookstores.
Some would argue it would be cheaper to simply buy a Kindle or Nook device, which is true. But a tablet is bigger and more versatile, given the large number of apps available and the larger color screen. Kindles and Nooks are largely book-only devices. For now at least, they don't do much else.
Keeping up with the latest news is easier on a tablet, thanks to some new tablet-centric apps that make good use of the extra screen real estate. USA Today and Pulse are two standout tablet apps for newshounds.
Speaking of extra screen real estate, have you ever tried to watch a movie on a smartphone? It's possible, but the tiny screen doesn't exactly lend itself to the optimum viewing experience. The tablet's bigger screen is a vast improvement - assuming you have some way of getting the movie to the tablet.
Streaming video from various services is similar on both Android and Apple tablets. But if you want to watch a saved version of a movie or TV show, only the iPad provides an easy way to make that happen - via its ubiquitous iTunes software. The only easy option for Android users is a new initiative called UltraViolet, which is an expansion of the digital copy feature found today on many DVDs and Blu-Ray discs. New discs with the UltraViolet feature will allow users to store a copy of the movie in the cloud (a remote server) and stream it at will over the Internet to any digital device.
Beyond the two broad areas of reading and watching video, one could argue a tablet is overkill for most uses. The huge libraries of Apple and Android apps are, for the most part, designed to work best on small smartphone screens. Some have been reworked to take advantage of the tablet's larger screen but you get to a point where you ask: What's the point?
Unlike smartphones, a tablet can display regular Web pages almost as well as any PC. So you don't really need an app, which was invented because the tiny screens on smartphones aren't practical for ordinary web browsing..
Now, back to the Apple v. Android debate. Both offer similar functionality but Apple still leads in this category, at least for now. That's mainly because its famous iPhone/iPad operating system is much more mature - and simply works better than Android. Perhaps more importantly, the library of available applications is vastly larger in the Apple environment. And with tablets and smartphones, usefulness is largely determined by the apps.
Android is relatively new, even on the smartphone front. The tablet OS is even newer, less than a year old, and it shows. Everything seems a bit slower and less fluid in Android, despite the fast dual-core processor in the Xoom. What's worse, major crashes are more common and can be much more difficult for the average consumer to fix.
I had one crash that did not allow me fix it through the normal reboot procedure. It took me several hours of scouring the Internet to hunt down an explanation for the cryptic messages showing up on the screen and the lengthy, arcane instructions for forcing a factory reset and reboot. It involved accessing and navigating hidden menus by using timed button pushes using the only three buttons available - power, volume up and volume down. I expect most consumers would have returned the tablet for a refund.
Maybe that's why Apple still has more than 75 percent of the tablet market. The game may change when Amazon's new Fire tablet, priced at a bargain $199, debuts in November. And the Android platform undoubtedly will improve over time, especially with a big name like Google behind it. But for now, if you want a tablet, the iPad is probably the still the best option out there.
Tony Briggs has been a technology columnist in the Daytona Beach area for more than 20 years