THE GIZMO: While a certain Mr. Jobs opines that tablet computers work right in only one size, other makers see a competitive market developing in small, medium and larger (i.e., Apple iPad) sizes. We certainly see the logic in a trio of new models we've been testing from BlackBerry, T-Mobile/LG and Acer.
SCREEN GEMS: While clearly a work in progress (with software upgrades appearing every few days), the 7-inch-screen BlackBerry PlayBook from Research In Motion already has a whole lot going for it. It's proven to be my favorite among the three new tablet computers I've been testing.
Priced at $500 in Wi-Fi-connected, 16 GB-capacity form, this trim, sturdy package weighs a tad under a pound and slips neatly into a coat pocket. Like this newspaper's motto of old, that makes the PlayBook "Easy to hold, fun to read!"
The 1024x600 pixel backlit color touch screen is even sharper (in per-inch pixel count) and brighter than the much-vaunted iPad's or either of today's competitors. And the PlayBook deploys an advanced, four-way finger-sliding control technology that's supersnappy when you get the hang of it.
One complaint with the PlayBook's screen - it's almost too sensitive. A lockout key would be helpful to prevent inadvertent finger-flecked pauses while watching a streaming video show. Works fine for touch-typing, though.
No surprise, RIM is seriously pushing business connections for its first tablet. A special "PlayBook Bridge" application allows a (Bluetooth-linked) PlayBook to share and show email, contacts and schedules residing on a BlackBerry phone. But one mobile carrier, AT&T, has yet to enable the feature on its BlackBerry models.
BRING ON THE OTHERS: Today's other new slates also have their charms, both starting with the upgraded Google Android 3.0 operating system that's scaled to a tablet, reasonably easy to manipulate and supported by a huge number of "apps."
(RIM is just getting its PlayBook store up and running, though many third-party applications are in development and a summer upgrade will enable PlayBooks to run Android 2.2 apps.)
The squatter, wide-screen, 8.9-inch T-Mobile G-Slate by LG delivers a sharp (1280 x 768 pixel) picture optimized for movie watching. And when held in the vertical ("portrait") orientation necessary for shopping at the online Nook bookstore, the G-Slate can theoretically be gripped in one hand, though at 1 pound, 6 ounces, it's a hunk to hold onto.
Clearly, the biggest thing going for the G-Slate tablet computer is its robust, high-speed, wireless 4G connectivity through the T-Mobile network. That will cost you, though. A 32 GB-capacity G-Slate tablet goes for $530 if you commit to a two-year T-Mobile service contract with a minimum monthly data plan of $30. With pay-as-you-go service, the hardware price soars to $750.
Of course, a G-Slate also runs for free on a Wi-Fi network, as do the PlayBook and Acer Iconia Tab A500, our third entry today.
The Iconia Tab is larger and weightier, hitting the scales at one pound, 10.75 ounces. Its 10.1-inch screen (1280x800 pixel count) is sized like (though not quite as dazzling as) an iPad 2 display. But Acer would argue that the Iconia's many extra features, including micro-SD and USB slots and ability to run all the world's Flash videos (also available in the PlayBook and G-Slate, though not in the iPad), make it a best buy at $450 in a 16 GB configuration.
LOADED AND LOCKED: All three tablets in our survey run on a robust, one GHz dual-core processor - in PlayBook's case with a full gigabyte of Random Access Memory (double the RAM found in an iPad 2). That allows for several sites or operations to be open on the screen simultaneously using PlayBook's QNX real time operating system.
The downside of this multitasking is that when the PlayBook does hit its processing limit, everything freezes up. A tablet reboot takes more than a minute, double the length of competitors' restart times. (Work on that, will ya, guys?)
Occasional freeze-ups also were noted on our two Android 3.0 tablets, both due for an upgrade to a 3.1 OS next month.
SMILE FOR THE CAMERA: All three new tablets pack cameras on both the rear and front (screen) for shooting video as well as still pictures and for "webcam" video conferencing.
The PlayBook and Iconia Tab each have a 5-megapixel camera on the backside. The G-Slate actually has two 5 MP lenses side by side for shooting 3-D stereoscopic movies. (Note: The iPad 2's cheap rear camera doesn't even achieve one megapixel resolution - quite the Apple family disgrace.)
Unlike the G-Slate and Iconia Tab, the PlayBook has no camera flash, yet in decent light took the sharpest pictures and 1080p high-def videos, which can be output to an HDTV via the tablet's mini-HDMI port, also found on the other two models.
Holding up a smaller PlayBook to shoot pictures just feels better and seems less goofy. And its screen-side 3 MP camera beats competitors' 2 MP variants. But the only video conferencing a PlayBook user can do, at the moment, is with other owners of the same device.
SIGHT AND SOUND: To test their robustness, I put all three tablets to the task of streaming episodes of "Live from Daryl's House," a wonderful music and conversation (with cooking!) webcast hosted by Daryl Hall of Hall & Oates fame.
The PlayBook and the Iconia Tab delivered very smooth playback through my newly installed FiOS Wi-Fi connection. The G-Slate suffered periodic frame dropouts when going the 4G delivery route.
Musical performances definitely sounded best on the BlackBerry PlayBook, both through the tablet's front-firing speakers and on headphones.
Now if RIM can just beef up the PB app store with some of my iPad faves - Netflix, Rhapsody, TuneIn Radio and the Pulse news aggregator - this could be the start of a beautiful friendship.
ABOUT THAT RECALL: RIM has recalled approximately 1,000 BlackBerry PlayBooks shipped to Staples stores that don't load software correctly during setup. Only PlayBooks with 16 gigabytes of memory were affected, RIM said, and the majority of them had not been sold to customers.