CES: Will these new tablets even touch the iPad?

by Brad Spirrison

A year ago at the Computer Electronics Show, it was still unclear how (or even if) consumers would take to tablet computers. Apple’s (AAPL) success in selling more than 14 million iPads since that product’s April 2010 debut shows that people clearly embrace touchscreen portable computing.

This year, companies like Motorola (MMI), Research In Motion (RIMM), Google (GOOG) and Microsoft (MSFT) debuted what they hope will be meaningful iPad alternatives (there will be no “iPad Killer”). So which tablets showcased at CES 2011 are worth tapping into when they hit the market?

Motorola Xoom

While there are dozens of tablet computers already available powered by Google’s Android operating system, Motorola’s first entry into the tab market is clearly the best. From a design and aesthetic point of view, the Xoom heavily resembles the iPad. It offers a larger viewing screen (10.1-inches compared to 9.7) along with superior display resolution (1280x800 compared to 1024x768).

Although media and attendees at CES were deprived from actually holding the device, a demonstration of Android apps like Google Maps 5.0 (with its 3D imagery) and Google Books (which provides visual access to the three million titles in Google’s ever-expanding library) illustrates how the Xoom in some ways is superior the the iPad. Front and rear facing cameras are a nice touch as well.

The Xoom, which will be released in the coming months at a “competitive price point,” is also the first tablet to show off Android’s new Honeycomb software developed specifically for the larger form factor. Data plans for the Xoom are offered by Verizon (VZ), and consumers will be able to upgrade to that carrier’s 4G LTE network sometime in the second quarter of this year.

Consumers turned off by Apple and its closed standards of operating will embrace the Xoom and the new wave of Android tablets as compelling alternatives.

BlackBerry Playbook

Research In Motion needs a hit tablet to help make up for market share losses BlackBerry smartphones are ceding to iPhones and tablet devices. The new 7-inch BlackBerry PlayBook, which was announced in September and will be available to consumers at a still-to-be determined price early this year, looks to be a winner.

The PlayBook is nearly as easy to carry around as a smartphone (it can literally fit in a pocket of a pair of dress pants.) Aesthetically, the BlackBerry PlayBook should appeal to consumers turned off by recent BlackBerry phones that were long on substance and short on sizzle. The 4G device carried by Sprint (S) is capable of streaming movies and running spreadsheets simultaneously, and should satisfy both target markets.

While BlackBerry devices don’t emphasize apps nearly as much as iPhone and Android devices, the PlayBook offers nice access to the growing BlackBerry App World store. The new BlackBerry Tablet operating system is also designed to run web pages more easily on the device.

Windows 7 Tablets

Microsoft has a lot of work to do in the tablet space. The Windows 7 tablets on display at the company’s CES booth varied in form, but showcased an internal operating system that looks remarkably like Microsoft’s PC software.

While millions of consumers and businesses are comfortable interfacing with Microsoft products via a keyboard and mouse, on a tablet, it almost looks like the Windows experience was copied and pasted to accommodate touchscreen computing.

Particularly when surrounded by other more forward-thinking Android and BlackBerry alternatives (and with Apple’s dominance in tablets shadowing the whole conference), you’d think Microsoft would step up its game in this already mature category and offer something new.

ViNCi

Going after the extreme youth market is ViNCi, an Android-based tablet computer coming out later this year targeted to babies and toddlers.

Beyond the external grip for easy handling and safety (and to keep the baby from literally biting the device!) the ViNCi will come with pre-installed applications that promote early childhood development.

ViNCi will filter out inappropriate Android apps by only making it available to buy new applications from its website that can then be synced to the device. The company said the ViNCi tablet should retail for less than $500.

Of course, when Apple inevitably debuts its next iPad as early as February, expect innovations in the tablet arena that nobody at CES could have imagined (as was the case last year).

Competition from the tablets listed above, as well as others like Samsung’s (005930.KS) new 4G Galaxy S, will only provide new choices and benefits to consumers in the months and years ahead.