It’s been a bit more than a year since Apple Inc.’s iPad went on sale, and almost every computer and smartphone maker launched crash programs to match it. The fruits of those efforts are now reaching the market, with each manufacturer searching for some feature to help it stand out from the crowd.
The latest entries are the G-Slate, from LG Electronics Inc. and T-Mobile USA, and the Iconia Tab A500, from Acer Inc. Both run “Honeycomb,” the tablet-optimized version of Google Inc.’s Android operating system, and are powered by Nvidia Corp.’s dual-core Tegra 2 processor. One competes on features, one on price. While both have attractions, neither will keep Steve Jobs awake at night.
The G-Slate is the more interesting, combining two of the buzziest options in consumer electronics at the moment: 3-D and 4G. Unfortunately, neither is all it’s cracked up to be.
Physically, the G-Slate -- known outside the U.S. as the Optimus Pad -- is a “tweener.” Its vivid 8.9-inch screen is larger than Research In Motion Ltd.’s BlackBerry PlayBook and Samsung Electronics Co.’s Galaxy Tab, and smaller than the iPad 2 and the Xoom from Motorola Mobility Holdings Inc.
At the same time, it’s heavier than the iPad, requiring two hands to comfortably hold, and its dimensions make it much better for consuming movies and other video than for books, magazines and web pages.
The single model available has 32 gigabytes of storage. While there’s no slot for a card to increase its capacity, that should be more than enough for most people. You can expect about eight hours of use between charges.
The G-Slate may be the first tablet that ships with its own 3-D glasses, but don’t fantasize about immersing yourself in “Inception” on your next long plane ride. The glasses are the old-fashioned red-blue kind, and you’ll mostly use them to watch videos you’ve shot with the rear-facing 3-D cameras. You can, however, also shoot in other modes that you can view by hooking the G-Slate up to a 3-D television with the included adapter cable. (There’s also a front-facing 2-D camera for video chatting.)
For me, at least, the 3-D novelty wore off in about 30 seconds. The anaglyph mode tends to wash out colors and gives some folks a headache, and the other camcorder modes don’t do you much good if you don’t have a 3-D TV.
4G Goes AWOL
The usefulness of the 4G feature is also limited, mostly because the network it runs on is limited. T-Mobile’s 4G network is actually its existing 3G network, tweaked in some areas to provide faster service. Speeds can vary wildly depending where you are.
Standing at the base of San Francisco’s Transamerica Pyramid, for example, I averaged 3.9 megabits per second. A few blocks away, I registered only .36 megabits. And don’t expect the G-Slate to help you find those pockets of speed. The “4G” indicator on its home screen lights up even when you aren’t in one of those fast zones.
Some of the G-Slate’s shortcomings might be forgiven at the right price, but at $750 without a service plan, it’s actually $20 more than the larger, lighter, thinner, longer-battery-lived iPad 2. (Getting the price down to $530 requires a two-year contract.) Even with the ability to share its Internet connection with other devices thrown in at no extra cost, the G-Slate is no bargain.
At least Acer’s new Iconia Tab gives you a discount for its compromises: At $450 for 16 gigabytes of storage, it’s $50 cheaper than the comparable iPad. While the Iconia is currently available at Best Buy Co. stores only with a Wi-Fi connection, Acer has said it is readying versions to run on Verizon Wireless’s new, ultra-fast LTE network, as well as AT&T Inc.’s 4G data service.
Unlike the Apple and G-Slate, it can be expanded with the addition of a microSD memory card. There are both front and rear-facing cameras -- no 3-D here -- and a battery capable of going eight hours between charges.
The Iconia’s screen measures about 10 inches diagonally, the same as the iPad 2, but it’s configured more like the G-Slate, better for movies than for surfing or reading. The principal drawback is its weight: At 1.69 pounds, it’s more than 25 percent heavier than the iPad 2, and heftier even than the original iPad. This is a tablet that can comfortably be held one way only: horizontally, with a firm grasp on both sides.
The Iconia, like the G-Slate, also suffers from a problem beyond its control: the paucity of applications written for Google’s operating system. The Android Market currently features fewer than 100 apps specifically tailored for tablets; by contrast, Apple claims more than 65,000 iPad-specific programs.
The gap will undoubtedly narrow as more Android tablets hit the market, but in the meantime it’s the brave buyer who’s willing to shell out several hundred dollars now and wait for the Android ecosystem to catch up.
(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)