What They'll Look Like
The first generation of tablets has been pretty thoroughly vetted. We have a handful of WP7 devices, a small avalanche of Android slates and the whispered promises of a webOS tablet in Q1 2011. MeeGo tablets could also end up making a splash in the world market.
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While those are all wildly different operating systems, the tablets they follow will be largely similar and based mainly on the iPad. Apple holds 95.5% of the tablet market right now. They've set the standard: 9-10 inches with a 1 GHz (ish) processor and the ability to handle 720p HD.
Most of the "first generation" Android tablets are likely to pack Tegra II processors, and between 1 and 2 GB of RAM will likely be the standard for non-Apple devices. A small selection of tablets (from Samsung, ViewSonic and Archos to start) also cluster around the lower 7" tablet display size.
So that's the First Wave of Tablets. It'll continue roughly until Apple's next iPad actually launches. So what can we expect from the Second Wave of slate-style computers?
Qualcomm says that "over ten" companies have dual-core Snapdragon tablets in development. Those are likely to show up at CES 2011. January is also expected to bring a rush of new LTE tablets, mostly on Verizon. I'd be surprised if we didn't see at least one 4G WiMAX tablet launch on Sprint's network too.
Most first-gen tablets will clock in around 1 GHz, with a fair amount of dual-core Tegra II devices (like the Adam) expected. Most second-gen tablets will probably pack dual-core Tegra or Snapdragon processors. We may see some Tegra 3 devices hit near the end of 2011/ early 2012, but that's too far ahead for any meaningful speculation.
Samsung expects to see 7" AMOLED tablets hit in 2011. We'll almost certainly see a sequel to the Galaxy Tab with an AMOLED display, and other manufacturers will be free to order them as well. At the rate things are developing, we may even see a 10" AMOLED tablet hit in 2H 2011.
Color E-Ink is expected to arrive before the end of 2010. This will open up the field for a whole new sort of low-cost tablet in 2011. A $200-300 color E-Ink tablet could bridge the gap between e-readers and tablets. Imagine a low-cost color e-reader that can browse the Internet and maybe even display video (faster response times ARE expected), while still delivering iPad-range battery life.
I'm curious to see what color E-Ink means for the future of the Pixel Qi display. This could mean the next-gen Adam will be able to switch between color E-Paper and a traditional LCD display. Exciting.
In terms of hardware, I think the next six months of competing with Apple will show manufacturers that high-end tablets need a comparable battery to the iPad. 1080p will be the new standard for tablet media display, and a few 3D tablets are will trickle out later in 2011. Some may even be glasses-free.
While the high-end of the market will see longer battery life, better screens and cooler media options, I think we'll see low-end tablets start to merge with e-readers. Once you add in a browser, color and media playing, what really separates your e-reader from a slow tablet PC? 7" seems like the display-size sweet spot for this type of device.
This possible 10" Samsung tablet gives us a good idea of what to expect from high-end Android slates in mid-2011. It will have Android 3.0 and could use a 1.5 GHz triple-core Marvell Armada processor, with 1080p HD 3D video. Ten hours of battery life are expected.