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Best Tablets of CES: Xoom, VIA, Tab and PlayBook Lead the Way

best tablets cesWe're quickly coming up on a year since the iPad was released, and while opinions may have been divided early on, there's simply no questioning now that Apple's take on the tablet PC singlehandedly made that long-failing device category suddenly viable. Apple didn't invent the tablet; it was simply the first to craft one that was compelling enough to finally win over consumers. Along the way, it has sold in the millions and become the undisputed champ, utterly crushing the few uninspired and hamfisted pretenders to the throne.

As you may have heard, this year's CES has been blandly dubbed "The Year of the Tablet" in recognition of the piles of tablets that will be crowding store shelves this year from virtually every big name company you've heard of, and many you haven't. Yet, the early word from pundits has almost resoundingly been one of mocking resignation, with the assumption that the iPad, and its presumed successor this spring, are an unstoppable juggernaut. There is some logic and appeal to that argument -- it's easy to vote for the frontrunner -- but, as Grandpa used to say, we think that's a bunch of absolute horsepucky.

For one, we'd point out that Samsung's Galaxy Tab has already sold over a million units worldwide in just a few months -- despite predictions to the contrary from naysayers all over. But our strongest argument is that fact that we've seen a handful of tablets that at least equal the iPad's appeal, and even one or two that surpass it. Granted, a lot of the iPad's appeal comes from its seamless interaction with a solid and popular app and media ecosystem, and so any aspiring contenders have a lot of catching up to do to convince buyers they won't be left out in the cold. In the case of Android Tablets, that shouldn't be hard with the Android Market, but it will likely be the defining factor in the rest's success or failure.

Below are our top tablet picks for 2011, and the ones we think have a fair chance of gobbling iPad market share in the coming year. Let the betting begin.

1. Motorola Mobility Xoom

motorola xoom
As we discovered with the Atrix, the engineering elves at Motorola have been burning the midnight oil. Their Xoom is by far the most full-featured tablet we've seen, packing a dual-core processor, front- and rear-facing cameras, 720p video recording and 1080p playback (including Flash 10.1) on its crisp 10.1-inch screen. It comes with a 802.11N Wi-FI and a 3G antenna (for Verizon) but, get this, is upgradable to LTE/4G in the future with a simple hardware swap -- an ingenious first. It comes standard with 32GB of storage but also has a microSD slot, as well as micro USB that will support flash drives. It also will come standard with the coveted Android 3.0, or Honeycomb. We can't say enough how solid, stable and gorgeous this machine is, which will hit shelves in the next couple months.
Motorola Xoom

2. BlackBerry PlayBook

While RIM has been taking it to the chin for its lack of offerings in the phone market of late, it seems clear now that's because the PlayBook has taken precedence. It's another muscle-bound, dual-core destroyer, but unlike the Xoom (or iPad) it has a smaller 7-inch but still-HD display. In our fiddlings, it handled multitasking unbelievably well, allowing for two HD videos to continue streaming simultaneously. Like the Xoom it also has HD cameras on both sides, micro USB and HDMI outputs, a full suite of wireless tech (802.11N Wi-fi, Bluetooth 2.1 +EDR) including 4G, and functionally will work a lot like a BlackBerry, pretty much assuring it'll be the pick of choice for business-types. Now, if you please, RIM, bring this polish to your smartphones.
BlackBerry PlayBook

3. Samsung Galaxy Tab LTE

galaxy tab
As we mentioned, the Tab has already sold phenomenally well abroad and the addition of a new 802.11N Wi-Fi model at a lower price will only speed up sales. And for good reason -- this 7-incher is fun, powerful and satisfying to use (Click here for our full review of the current model). Samsung's announcement that an LTE-equipped model will be coming out later this year only sweetens the deal for us.
Galaxy Tab LTE

4. Vizio VIA Tablet

vizio via
Cali-based upstart Vizio has grown up to become one of the country's foremost purveyors of lower-cost but generally innovative and well-built HDTVs in recent years, and as of this CES it's thrown down the gauntlet. In addition to a phone, Vizio plans to release the 8-inch Android VIA tablet this summer. While the announced specs are nice enough, what gets us jazzed is Vizio's reputation for putting together a quality product, along with the tablet's planned integration into Vizio's VIA Plus ecosystem -- which is Google TV coupled with Vizio's custom Internet apps (VIA, get it?). It should work somewhat like DLNA , allowing Vizio products to seamlessly network and share content. You know, sort of like what Apple has done. It's a risky proposition, but the VIA tablet is a good start.
Vizio VIA Tablet

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