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Technology

Tablet Competitors to the iPad

A slew of new devices is about to hit the market. Can they top Apple's benchmark?

When the Apple iPad arrived last year, it reinvented tablet computing by focusing on fun, not work. It is an ingenious, lightweight slate, with a large, backlighted display, an iPhone-like touch screen, and a wireless connection. For many digital activities -- such as reading an e-book in bed or checking friends' Facebook updates during TV commercials -- the iPad is simply cooler than a netbook and other tablets.

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Now that the market is reinvigorated, challengers are massing. Competing tablets from Acer, Asus, Dell, Motorola, Samsung and other makers are arriving, with more on the way. At press time, Apple wasn't discussing an iPad 2.0, but reports indicate that it may be released as early as April.

So how's the competition shaping up? Should you skip the iPad and wait for a new and possibly better tablet? Or even an iPad 2.0?

The Samsung Galaxy Tab gives a clue to what we can expect. The Galaxy is a smaller slate; it has a 7-inch display, compared with the iPad's 9.7-inch screen. Like most non-Apple tablets, it runs Google's Android software, the brains behind dozens of smart phones.

Apps -- those clever little slices of software that can do everything from organize your music to help you burn calories -- are key to tablets' usefulness. The Galaxy can run tens of thousands of them, although more apps have been written for the iPad than for many Android slates.

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The diminutive Galaxy's dimensions are both a boon and a bane. Slimmer and lighter at 13.6 ounces than the iPad (1.5 pounds), Samsung's slate is easier to hold in one hand, and it slides effortlessly into a backpack or briefcase. But as a video player and gaming device, the Galaxy's smaller screen lacks the iPad's mesmerizing effect.

Dual cameras. One feature of the new tablets that the iPad currently lacks is video capability. The Galaxy Tab has two cameras: a front-facing camera mainly for video chatting, and a higher-resolution cam on the back for photos and videos.

The Galaxy makes an awkward camera. At about 7 inches by 4 inches, it's the bulkiest point-and-shoot you'll ever use. The image quality is decent, though video quality for face-to-face chats varies with the strength of the wireless signal.

The iPad and Galaxy Tab are comparably priced, so deciding which one is right for you requires a bit of homework. The iPad starts at $500 for the Wi-Fi-only model, which is fine if you plan to use it at home or at a wireless hotspot. Cellular 3G service, however, unleashes the tablet's full portability. An iPad with 3G and Wi-Fi ranges from $630 to $830; 3G monthly plans start at $20 at Verizon and $15 at AT&T.

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Five U.S. wireless carriers sell the Galaxy Tab. T-Mobile charges $350 if you sign a two-year contract and buy from its Web site; monthly data plans range from $25 to $40. AT&T sells the tablet for $550 with no long-term plan; its monthly service ranges from $15 to $25. A Wi-Fi-only Galaxy Tab is on the way.

Coming soon are models from Dell and Acer. Dell's Inspiron Duo ($550) is a hybrid device with a screen that flips 180 degrees -- a clever maneuver that turns a laptop into a tablet. And Acer will soon ship one 7-inch and two 10-inch slates. Pricing wasn't available.

If you need a tablet today, get an iPad, which is slicker and easier to use. The Galaxy Tab, though impressive in some ways, lacks the iPad's refinement. Or wait a few months. Many more tablets will be available -- and you'll have a much wider selection.

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