It's official: We've entered the tablet age, and 2013 looks to be a great year for slates. Tablets appeared in all forms at the International CES and were just about everywhere you looked--and the noteworthy and innovative models featured Windows 8, not Android, inside.
Tablets were also the focus of discussion for component makers: Every major chip announcement involved jockeying for position in the tablet market, and even storage suppliers waxed poetic about tablets driving the demand for flash storage.
In some ways, the show was defined as much by the absence of new flagship tablets as it was by what was on tap from companies like Archos, Asus, Coby, Efun, Fuhu, Panasonic, Polaroid, Razer, Vivitar, and Vizio. We heard lots about new mobile chips, but the products using those were not ready for the spotlight. This disconnect is why the most intriguing tablet announcements involved existing processors, such as Nvidia's Tegra 3 or Qualcomm's Snapdragon S4, and focused on completely new designs (Asus' Transformer All-in-One, Panasonic's 20-inch prototype tablet).
Rise of Windows 8 tablets
One of the big surprises was just how many of the compelling new tablets incorporated Windows 8. None of the new models used Windows RT on an ARM-based device; instead, these were all x86-based tablets, using either Intel Atom or Core CPUs, or AMD's Z60, in the case of Vizio's Windows 8 tablet. Microsoft's own Surface Pro was unsheathed for media, and that model's release later this month should help boost interest in Windows tablets.
However, this next wave of Windows tablets generally did little to make Windows tablet designs thinner and lighter. Vizio's thin MT11X may have come closest, but the company didn't share details regarding weight and dimensions.
Specialty tablets come of age
At CES 2013, we saw tons of tablets aimed at specific audiences. And in talking to manufacturers, including product managers from Archos and Panasonic, it was clear that targeted tablets are a growing subcategory.
Panasonic, for instance, forged ahead, expanding its Toughpad lineup of ruggedized tablets for business; with pricing starting at $1299, these look primed for all-weather, all-terrain secure computing.
Gaming-centric tablets are picking up momentum, too. Razer showed its Windows 8 gaming slate, with discrete graphics inside, while Archos showed its GamePad, a petite Android tablet with built-in game controllers. Absent from the show, but theoretically still in the works, is the WikiPad.
Tablets for kids also saw a bump. Fuhu showed off its forthcoming Nabi XD and Nabi Jr., two Android tablets with customized interfaces, physical designs, and apps aimed at the younger set. Polaroid had a kids' tablet on display, with big, rubberized buttons and a sturdier-than-usual case. And Vivitar showed off a very Nexus 7-like 7-inch tablet produced in partnership with the XO One Laptop Per Child initiative. The XO OLPC tablet--a dramatic improvement over what OLPC had as a "tablet" last year--aims to provide targeted educational experiences through a guided software experience in English and Spanish.
Tablets 2013: What to look for
After scouring the show floor, from the tier-one manufacturers on down to the Asian companies that build tablets sold under other companies' brand names, the trends for the year ahead quickly became obvious.
For starters, Android Jelly Bean will become pervasive among Android tablets. Virtually every tablet shown here at CES had Android 4.1.1 Jelly Bean as the preferred operating system load. This version of Jelly Bean, interestingly enough, does not reflect the current interface changes found in 4.2 Jelly Bean: The navigation buttons remain flush left at the bottom, with the notifications bar and clock flush right.
As for what's inside the tablets, single-core ARM-based models are still here at CES, on offer from the Asian manufacturers in the back rows of the show. These models typically have low-resolution screens and no Google Play store, and they give tablets a bad name.
But those generic models probably won't find their way to store shelves stateside: Buyers have gotten wise to the sacrifices involved. The numerous manufacturers I've spoken with that are coming to the U.S. market are increasingly aware of needing to step up their games to compete. As such, some tablets coming to market soon will reflect thinner, lighter, and higher-resolution designs.
Most notably, I'm hearing that Google certification is a de facto requirement for manufacturers to sell in the United States now: Tablets without Google's Play store and services like maps and Gmail integrated are simply not competitive, and therefore not something stores want to offer. All of Coby's tablets will be Google certified (the 7-inch models shown at CES already were, while others had certification "pending"), and all of the tablets from Archos and Efun were, too.
It's a similar story with regard to the bump in core specs: Dual-core and even quad-core processors will be standard fare, with internal memory upped to 1GB from 512MB at the low end. Watch for more 1280 by 800 pixel resolution 7-inch displays; even Polaroid plans a $99 model with this resolution. Nonetheless, display costs appear to remain high enough that 10-inch models are still largely locked in at 1280 by 800 pixels, too. Archos and Vizio dared to buck that trend, at least: Archos had a gorgeous 2048 by 1536 9.7-inch IPS display in its 97 Platinum tablet, which matches the resolution of the Apple iPad, while Vizio showed a 10.1-inch tablet with 2560 by 1600 resolution, which is the same as the Nexus 10.
And while specs are getting bumps across-the-board, vendors are skimping on internal storage: You'll still see 8GB at the low-end, and 16GB for the step-up or mainstream tablets.
Sadly, we didn't see talk of wireless charging being ready-for-prime time on tablets. And discussion of NFC was minimal, although Fuhu is including NFC on its Nabi XD. We do expect to find more tablets with MHL support, though; this HDMI media interface to TVs is slowly getting more traction, though gaining ground faster internationally than in the U.S. markets.
Mobile chip wars ahead
CES 2013 was the launching ground for several platforms that will power the tablets that weren't introduced here, but will emerge in the coming months. Mobile and tablets in particular are in for a war on specs ahead, with manufacturers battling it out for market share and bragging rights for offering the lowest-power processor with the highest battery life.
Nvidia launched its Tegra 4 system-on-chip platform at the show, but didn't announce any products that use the chip beyond its own Project Shield handheld gaming system. The Tegra 4 is still quad-core, except now with an ARM Cortex-A15 processor inside, 72 NVIDIA GeForce GPU cores, and better webpage loading. It also uses up to 45 percent less power compared to the Tegra 3. However, specifics including battery life numbers and clock speeds will have to wait until Nvidia has product to show.
Word on the street is that Mobile World Congress, this February in Barcelona, will see news about Tegra 4 tablets. Only one Tegra 4 tablet appeared at CES--the high-resolution 10.1-inch one from Vizio--and it was still in prototype form, without its final design in place, let alone pricing or a release date.
Separately, Qualcomm announced its successor to the Snapdragon S4 series, the Snapdragon 600 and 800, which is due in products later in the year. And on the x86 chip side, Intel announced its Clover Trail Plus series, while AMD talked up its successor to the Z60 "Hondo," introduced last fall.
Intel went so far as to demonstrate in private briefings how competitive its battery consumption is. The demo looked convincing, but it remains one data point in a highly variable universe.
As more tablets surface in the year ahead, expect the chip wars to heat up.