3 tablets Apple fears most

The iPad stole the spotlight as the first on the scene, but these up-and-comers could take a piece of Apple's pie.

By InvestorPlace Jan 5, 2011 10:44AM
Credit: (© Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Caption: Apple iPadBy Anthony John Agnello, InvestorPlace.com

There's no denying that the release of Apple's iPad last April was the catalyst that changed tablet PCs from curios to consumer gold. That device is now the standard bearer for consumer and investor expectations, as  iPad sales for 2010 are expected to exceed 14 million, and analysts like Deutsche Bank's Chris Whitmore now expect Apple to sell 28 million iPads through 2011.

But those projections could be sketchy, based on the idea that Apple is the only game in town. As three other tablets show, the iPad may have a tough time retaining dominance as competitors roll out innovative -- and sometimes flashier -- tablets.

Google-Motorola Android

The new tablet from Motorola (MMI) and Google (GOOG) will make its first public appearance next week at the Consumer Electronics Show. The mobile-phone manufacturer and search giant are looking to repeat the success they have had with their joint-effort smart phone, the Droid. The unnamed device is still largely a mystery. Google showed off a prototype of the tablet at the D: Dive Into Mobile event last month, saying that the Motorola-made handheld would feature a "dual-core 3D processor" and video chat capabilities. Other specifications were kept under wraps.

What will give the Google-Motorola tablet a fighting chance against the iPad is the version of the Android operating system on which the tablet will run. Google has distanced itself from existing tablets that run on the Android platform, like Samsung's Galaxy Tab, saying that current versions of Android -- like version 2.2 Froyo and the December-released version 2.3 Gingerbread -- aren't optimized for tablets. The Google-Motorola tablet will run Android version 2.4, called Honeycomb, which was designed with tablet implementation specifically in mind.

Research In Motion's BlackBerry PlayBook

Like the iPad, the PlayBook from Research In Motion (RIMM) supports Bluetooth 2.1 and 802.11a/b/g WiFi. Its 7-inch screen is also smaller than the iPad's 9.7-inch screen and has a lower resolution of 1024 x 600 pixels. The PlayBook, however, has 1GB of RAM, making it (on paper) markedly faster than the iPad, which has 256MB of RAM. It can also output HD video in 1080p and features both front- and rear-facing cameras for video chat, whereas the iPad has no camera.

In raw technical terms, the first BlackBerry tablet PC is significantly beefier than the iPad. The technical specifications alone should give Research In Motion a leg up against Apple's device.

The introduction of the PlayBook should also help RIM combat the growing number of business customers buying iPads. Business clients have traditionally been RIM's bread and butter, but major clients like Bank of America (BAC) began testing iPhones and Android-powered smart phones as their corporate mobile phone of choice last November.

If the PlayBook is indeed more powerful and its tools prove more useful to business clients, the tablet could put RIM back on top and allow it the opportunity to introduce subsequent tablets with a consumer focus, repeating the mainstream success it has enjoyed with the BlackBerry Curve.

Vizio's Via

The dark-horse contender to the iPad is definitely one from Vizio, the low-cost HDTV manufacturer that said just Monday it is going to enter the mobile space for the first time in 2011 with both a smart phone and a tablet PC. The Via tablet has some impressive technical specifications: a 1GHz processor like the iPad, GPS, and Bluetooth and 802.11 WiFi as well as a front-facing camera for video calling, something the current iPad lacks. It has an 8-inch multi-touch touch screen, placing its form factor halfway between Apple's and RIM's tablets.

Vizio's tablet also will feature some unique applications among competitors. The company announced Tuesday that it's partnering with streaming video game business OnLive to bring its service to Vizio devices in 2011.

Technology won't help Vizio challenge the iPad, though. Price has always been where Vizio has excelled, and undercutting major competitors like Sony (SNE) and Sharp in the HDTV market has helped it control more than 20% of the HDTV market in the U.S. It's unlikely that the Via will be the best-selling tablet out there, but provided the price is right, it will stand a good chance of stealing away a large piece of the Apple iPad pie.

As of this writing, Anthony John Agnello did not own a position in any of the stocks named here.

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