When we think of tablet computers we immediately think of the Apple iPad. After all, it pretty much re-invented the market and with over 25 million of the first version sold, and analysts expecting the same kind of sales figures from the Apple iPad 2, it's an impossible device to ignore.
It's a great looking device that appeals to those already using an Apple iPhone, while at the same time has the flexibility and functionality of a laptop. However, the idea of tablet computing is nothing new, as the Microsoft Tablet PC has been around for over 10 years offering a similar user experience.
If you're a small business and have already integrated an Apple iPhone into your workplace, the iPad offers you the same level of flexibility with a bigger screen. That said, you may find that it won't readily replace your laptop. The big difference is that this latest generation of tablet computers has closer ties to your mobile phone than your desktop PC or laptop, so can be used far easier when out and about. It's no wonder mobile phone operators like Motorola, LG and even BlackBerry, have released their own tablet computers, competing not only against the iPad but also more traditional computer vendors, such as Acer, Asus and Samsung.
As we've already pointed out, the basic tablet computer combines the best features of your current laptop with the flexibility of a smartphone. That doesn't mean you should be looking to replace either, it's just that you may well find some tasks work better on a tablet, allowing you to leave the larger laptop in the office for more everyday tasks.
Tablets are built around the same basic technology as your laptop, so you'll still find a processor, memory and hard drive in place, with some models offering more or less depending on the price point. However, the big difference is that everything is centred around the touchscreen display. Currently, the most popular options are between 7-10 inches in size, but it is expected that screens as large as 12 inches may well be offered in the coming months.
As tablets lack a keyboard, you type emails and messages directly onto the screen using a 'virtual' keyboard. It's the same principle as on your smartphone with the benefit, however, that the larger display space means the keys are full-size so far easier to get to grips with.
Just like your laptop you'll find an array of ports and features on offer. A camera on the back means you can take still images and even record video, while if you're interested in video conferencing then look for a model with a front-facing camera too.
The big difference between a laptop and a tablet computer is in the operating system and this will make the biggest difference when it comes to the options available to your business. USB ports come as standard, so you can add peripherals, such as memory keys, portable hard drives and even an external keyboard if you so wish, while the additional of HDMI on some models means you can hook your tablet up to your HD TV or data projector to give large scale presentations, or simply to relax.
There may be plenty of tablet choices on the market but undoubtedly Apple is the number one tablet choice right now and the Apple iPad runs on the Apple iOS. This is the same operating system found on the iPhone and iPod Touch, so if you already use these devices you'll be familiar with its look and feel. Designed for use with multimedia, you'll find an amazing array of apps, games and media available. However, with its consumer focus you may well find that it lacks a breadth of business software support. For example, it doesn't support Adobe Flash, so you won't be able to use this in presentations or view them on web links.
Google Android is proving popular in the smartphone space and is possibly the largest threat to the Apple iPad. Android offers a cheap and accessible alternative to manufacturers and is used in devices from computer manufacturers such as Asus, Acer, Dell, as well as mobile operators, like Motorola and LG.
As with iOS, the platform can also be found powering Android smartphones but has the added benefit of plugging directly into the ever-growing array of Google apps and services. So, you'll find access to Gmail, Maps and Google Docs all fully integrated into the device. That said, you'll need to make sure it's compatible with your office software as this can still be an issue.
Microsoft Tablet PC
The big difference between Microsoft's Tablet PC operating system and the likes of iOS and Android is that it's built on the Windows platform, so looks and acts more like a computer platform than a smartphone operating system.
Tablet PC is an integral part of Windows 7, which means that even if you're not currently using a touchscreen laptop or PC you'll be able to familiarise yourself with the tools on offer. More importantly for your business, it means that Microsoft has gone to great lengths to make sure it's compatible with all your office software. So, while Tablet PC may not feel as cutting-edge as the iPad, it may well make a better business buying decision.
When it comes to choosing the right tablet for your business, it pays to do a little research. Apple set the standard by offering a cheaper Wi-Fi version, as well as a more high-end Wi-Fi plus integrated 3G model. The basic, and most cost-effective variant comes with Wi-Fi, so works best in an office environment. However, for the true mobile experience you need to opt to have 3G built-in, so you can gather email and stay in touch when out and about. This option is ideal if you spend most of the day moving between meetings, or need to be contacted when out of the office.
When it comes to buying tablet computers for your business there are two options, you can choose to buy them through your standard computer hardware reseller. Alternatively, you can opt to buy it through your smartphone provider.
Mobile operators, such as Vodafone, O2 and Orange, see tablet computers as an extension of their smartphone portfolios, so tend to only offer devices with 3G already built-in. So, when it comes to negotiating for a 3G tablet, you need to look for similar deals to your smartphone contract, such as attractive data allowance rates, as well as a flexible upgrade path. After all, the tablet market is changed quickly, so being stuck with last year's model isn't an appealing idea.
Choosing the right hardware
Apple may be the most popular tablet but it's not the only choice out there. Here we take a look at the latest iPad as well as three alternatives we think are worth considering.
Apple iPad 2
The Apple iPad 2 comes in a wide choice of options to suit your budget, from Wi-Fi only to Wi-Fi plus 3G, and is the most popular tablet on the planet. Running the same OS as you'll find on the iPhone, you can run multimedia as well as stay in touch with the large, easy to use touchscreen.
Price: £579 (inc. VAT)
Operating System: Apple iOS 4.3
Processor: 1GHz Apple A5 dual-core
Hard Drive: 32GB
Screen: 9/7-inch (1024 x 768 pixels)
Built-in 3G: Yes
Find out more: Apple http://www.apple.com/uk/ipad/
Asus Eee Pad Transformer TF101
If you're running a small business from home and have limited space then you may not want to use more than one machine, which is where the Transformer comes into play. The 10-inch screen can be used in tablet mode or with the addition of the supplied keyboard as your laptop, making it two user-friendly devices in one.
Price: £429 (inc. VAT)
Operating System: Google Android 3.0
Processor: 2GHz Nvidia Tegra 2 dual-core
Hard Drive: 16GB
Screen: 10.1-inch (1280 x 800 pixels)
Built-in 3G: Not currently
Find out more: Asus UK http://uk.asus.com/Eee/Eee_Pad/Eee_Pad_Transformer_TF101/
HTC recently became the best-selling smartphone manufacturer in the world and it's hoping for similar success in the tablet market. This low-cost, small format tablet is easy to slip into your bag, while the Google Android operating system means you can tap directly into Google Maps, Google Docs and even email accounts with just one tap.
Price: £430 (inc. VAT)
Operating System: Google Android 2.3
Processor: 1.5GHz single-core Snapdragon
Hard Drive: 32GB
Screen: 7-inch (1024 x 600 pixels)
Built-in 3G: Yes
Find out more: HTC http://www.htc.com/www/product/flyer/overviewa.html
If email and being in touch with clients is central to your business, then you'll be aware of BlackBerry smartphones. This tablet uses the company's own operating system that mirrors the functions of your smartphone. It's not versatile enough to replace your laptop but for messaging and staying in touch, it's a great alternative.
Price: £399 (inc. VAT)
Operating System: BlackBerry Tablet OS (QNX)
Processor: 1GHz Cortex A9 dual-core
Screen: 7-inch (1024 x 600 pixels)
Built-in 3G: Yes
Find out more: BlackBerry http://us.blackberry.com/playbook-tablet/