Tablet computers aren't new. In fact, they've been around for about 20 years, but nobody much was buying them until April 2010, when Apple shook up the consumer electronics marketplace with the iPad. Perhaps because it bore a strong resemblance to Apple's already wildly popular iPhone – it even runs the same operating system – the iPad caught fire immediately with the public and turned tablet computers into a major product category. And why shouldn't they be? Tablet computers are the ultimate in electronic simplicity. Highly portable, with few built-in controls except for a flat touch-screen interface, tablet computers are attractive, easy to use and just plain cool.
Competition wasn't long in coming. Google had already released an open-source operating system for smart phones called Android and it was easy to scale it up for tablet computers the way Apple had scaled up its iOS operating system for the iPad. The Android 3.0 operating system, codenamed "Honeycomb," was the first version intended for tablet use and in February 2011 Motorola released the first Android tablet: the Xoom.
Like the iPad, Android tablets have a touch-screen interface, which allows the user to activate icons with the tap of a finger or move objects around and scroll screens with a swiping gesture of their hands. Both Apple and the various Android manufacturers offer an online marketplace where programs – known as apps in mobile computing parlance – can be purchased and downloaded directly to the device. In fact, Android tablets are enough like iPads that at a casual glance a user unfamiliar with the two types of tablet might mistake one for the other.
So which is the better tablet? That's a tough question. It's not so much like comparing apples (or Apples) with oranges as it's like comparing one or two apples with a whole basketful of oranges. Only Apple makes the iPad and there are only two versions: the iPad and the iPad 2. On the other hand, any company that's able to manufacture hardware that will support Google's operating system can make an Android tablet and inevitably some companies are going to do a better job of it than others. Some companies even disguise their Android tablets as something else. (The Barnes & Noble Nook e-book reader is an android tablet with a limited range of features and a small subset of available Android apps.) But it's possible to compare the iPad against some representative Android tablets.
When the Xoom hit the marketplace, Motorola knew that it would have to beat the iPad's specs, so it shipped with a dual core processor, potentially allowing software to run twice as fast as on the iPad, and two built-in cameras, a 5-megapixel camera facing forward and a 2-megapixel camera facing backward toward the user to allow video chatting. This was exciting for the many people who had been annoyed that Apple hadn't gotten around to including a camera in its first iPad. The Xoom's screen, at 10.1 inches, was slightly larger than the iPad's, and its 1280x800 display offered marginally higher graphics resolution. The Xoom comes with 32 gigabytes of memory, but its memory can be expanded using MicroSD (Secure Digital) cards.
But Apple still had the advantage for most users. Why? Because programmers had been developing apps for the iPad for nearly a year before the Xoom appeared and the Apple App Store was bursting with thousands of programs while the Android app store was nearly empty. And Apple quickly struck a new blow in the hardware wars when it replaced the original iPad with the iPad 2. We'll look at the iPad 2 and take a closer look at iPad apps vs. Android apps on the next page.
Android Tablets vs. iPad 2
The iPad 2 was released in March 2011, only a month after the Xoom appeared, and its upgraded hardware neatly eliminated the main advantages that Motorola's device had over Apple's. Like the Xoom, the iPad 2 has front- and rear-facing video cameras that support Apple's FaceTime video chat software. It also has a dual core processor and comes in a slimmer, lighter case than the first iPad, a feature that Apple likes to emphasize in its advertising.
But other Android tablets are hitting the stores every few weeks, each trying to outmaneuver the iPad 2 in some fashion. Some compete on price, with models like the Asus Eee Pad Transformer (which with an optional keyboard can convert to a notebook computer) undercutting the iPad 2 by about $200; some compete on size, with the Samsung Galaxy Tab both slimmer and lighter (and a little cheaper) than the iPad 2; and some just try to look cooler, though Apple has always been a hard company to beat when it comes to stylish-looking devices. One area where Androids are still unequivocally beating the iPad 2 is video resolution, with most running at 1,280 x 800 pixels compared to the 1,024 x768 pixels on both iPads. Androids also tend to be more user upgradeable than iPads, with Apple mostly restricting the features to the ones that come in the standard model. And unlike some Androids, Apple doesn't support USB connectors. An area where Androids seem to be losing is battery life: Most reviewers agree that the iPad 2 runs longer without recharging.
In the all-important area of apps, the iPad 2 is still ahead – way ahead. There are now over 100,000 apps available through the Apple App Store. (This number gets even larger when you take into account the roughly 500,000 apps for the iPhone, most of which will also run on the iPad 2, though they won't necessarily take advantage of its larger screen size.) It's harder to determine the number of Android apps because Google doesn't make that figure public, but a July 2011 New York Times blog estimated the number at a surprisingly paltry 232. Of course, that doesn't count Android phone apps that also run on Android tablets and there are additional Android tablet apps that are specific to a single brand of tablet, such as the Samsung Galaxy Tab or the Motorola Xoom. But even taking all of that into account, Apple is still winning the app war. Nonetheless some apps, such as the popular games Angry Birds and Plants vs. Zombies, are available for both iPad and Android.
There is, however, a significant difference between the way that Apple handles apps and Android tablets handle apps. Apple only allows apps to be sold through its online App Store and must approve every app before it can go on sale. Android devices use a more open model, where anyone can release an Android app and nobody has to get a stamp of approval for it first. Granted, this difference is more significant to programmers than to users, but it provides an incentive for programmers to move to Android development and may lead to the availability of significantly more Android apps in the future.
In the end, whether you buy an iPad 2 or an Android may come down to which you consider more important: the hardware, the software or the price. If hardware specs matter, you'll need to compare the specs for the iPad2 with the specs for each Android tablet on the market, a daunting task. (See these CNET reviews for the rundown on some specific models.) If software matters, you'll probably want to go with the iPad 2, which is far more likely than an Android tablet to have exactly the apps that you need. And if price matters – well, bear in mind that unless you go with a modified Android tablet like the Barnes & Noble Nook (which savvy users can reportedly modify to behave more like a full-fledged Android tablet), you're unlikely to undercut Apple's prices by more than about $200. But if that $200 makes the difference, then a low-cost Android tablet like the Asus Eee Pad Transformer may be what you're looking for.
For more information about the iPad and other tech-related topics, follow the links on the next page.
- How the iPad Works
- What's the difference between the iPad and the iPad 2?
- How Android Tablets Work
- About the HowStuffWorks iPad App
- Apple Store. "iPad2." (Aug. 31, 2011) http://store.apple.com/us/browse/home/shop_ipad/family/ipad?afid=p219|GOUS&cid=AOS-US-KWG
- Bell, Donald. "Best Android Tablets." CNET. (Aug. 31, 2011) http://reviews.cnet.com/best-tablets/best-5-android-tablets
- Gruman, Galen. "Tablet deathmatch: Galaxy Tab 10.1 vs. iPad 2." Infoworld. (Aug. 31, 2011) http://www.infoworld.com/d/mobile-technology/tablet-deathmatch-galaxy-tab-101-vs-ipad-2-136
- Lindle, Pat. "Ipad Vs. Android: Which Tablet is Better?" Technically Easy. (Aug. 31, 2011) http://technicallyeasy.net/2011/06/ipad-vs-android-which-tablet-is-better/
- Pogue, David. "Just How Many Android Tablet Apps Are There?" The New York Times. (Aug. 31, 2011) http://pogue.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/07/01/mystery-how-many-android-tablet-apps/
- Raphael, J.R. "iPad 2 vs. Android: And the winner is...." Computerworld. (Aug. 31, 2011) http://blogs.computerworld.com/17913/ipad_2_vs_android
- Reisinger, Don. "Apple iPad 2 vs. Tablet Competitors: 10 Reasons Price Cuts Won't Help." eWeek. (Aug. 31, 2011) http://www.eweek.com/c/a/Mobile-and-Wireless/Apple-iPad-2-vs-Tablet-Competitors-10-Reasons-Price-Cuts-Wont-Help-700776