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Tablet Computers 101

A tablet computer, or a tablet, is a mobile computer, larger than a mobile phone or personal digital assistant, integrated into a flat touch screen and primarily operated by touching the screen rather than using a physical keyboard. It often uses an onscreen virtual keyboard, a passive stylus pen, or a digital pen. The term may also apply to a variety of form factors that differ in position of the screen with respect to a keyboard. The standard form is called slate, which does not have an integrated keyboard but may be connected to one with a wireless link or a USB port. Convertible notebook computers have an integrated keyboard that can be hidden by a swivel joint or slide joint, exposing only the screen for touch operation. Hybrids have a detachable keyboard so that the touch screen can be used as a stand-alone tablet. Booklets include two touch screens, and can be used as a notebook by displaying a virtual keyboard in one of them.

Early examples of the information tablet concept originated in the 19th and 20th centuries mainly as prototypes and concept ideas; prominently, Alan Kay's Dynabook of 1968. The first commercial portable electronic devices based on the concept appeared at the end of the 20th century. During the 2000s Microsoft attempted a relatively unsuccessful product line with Microsoft Tablet PC, which carved a niche market at hospitals and outdoor businesses. In 2010, Apple released the iPad, which used touch screen technology similar to that used in their iPhone and became the first mobile computer tablet to achieve worldwide commercial success.

Besides having most PC computer capabilities, popular, typical tablet computers purchased in the last year include wireless Internet browsing functions, potential cell phone functions, GPS navigation, and video camera functions, weigh around two or three pounds (1-1.5 kilograms) and typically have a battery life of three to ten hours. In many ways the functions and purposes of laptops and tablets and smartphones are drawing closer.

Background

History

The tablet computer and the associated special operating software is an example of pen computing technology, and thus the development of tablets has deep historical roots.

Electrical devices with data input and output on a flat information display have existed as early as 1888 with the telautograph. Throughout the 20th century many devices with these characteristics have been ideated and created whether as blueprints, prototypes or commercial products, with the Dynabook concept in 1968 being a spiritual precursor of tablets and laptops. In addition to many academic and research systems, there were several companies with commercial products in the 1980s.

During the 2000s Microsoft attempted to define with the Microsoft Tablet PC the tablet personal computer product concept as a mobile computer for field work in business, though their devices failed to achieve widespread usage mainly due to price and usability problems that made them unsuitable outside of their limited intended purpose.

In April 2010 Apple Inc. released the iPad, a tablet computer with an emphasis on media consumption. The shift in purpose, together with increased usability, battery life, simplicity, lower weight and cost, and overall quality with respect to previous tablets, was perceived as defining a new class of consumer device and shaped the commercial market for tablets in the following year.

As a result, two distinctly different types of tablet computing devices exist as of 2012, the Tablet PC and the Post-PC tablet, whose operating systems are of different origin.

Traditional tablet PCs

A tablet personal computer (tablet PC) is a portable personal computer equipped with a touchscreen as a primary input device, and running a modified desktop OS designed to be operated and owned by an individual. The term was made popular as a concept presented by Microsoft in 2000 and 2001 but tablet PCs now refer to any tablet-sized personal computer regardless of the (desktop) operating system.

Tablet personal computers are mainly based on the x86 IBM-PC architecture and are fully functional personal computers employing a slightly modified personal computer OS (such as Windows or Ubuntu Linux) supporting their touch-screen, instead of a traditional display, mouse and keyboard. A typical tablet personal computer needs to be stylus driven, because operating the typical desktop based OS requires a high precision to select GUI widgets, such as a close window button.

"Post-PC" tablets

Early products using a mobile operating system to power an internet tablet includes Nokia 770 product line using Maemo Linux operating system. Mobile operating systems have a different kind of interface than the traditional desktop OS, and represent a new type of computing device. These "post-PC" mobile OS tablet computer devices are normally finger driven and most frequently use capacitive touch screens with multi-touch unlike earlier stylus-driven resistive touchscreen devices.

The most successful tablet computer is the Apple iPad using the iOS operating system. Its debut in 2010 popularized tablets into mainstream . Samsung's Galaxy Tab and others followed, continuing the now common trends towards multi-touch and other natural user interface features, as well as flash memory solid-state storage drives and "instant on" warm-boot times; in addition, standard external USB and Bluetooth keyboards can often be used. Most frequently the operating system running on a tablet computer (one not based on the traditional Windows/x86 PC architecture) is a Unix-like OS, such as Darwin, Linux or QNX. Some have 3G mobile telephony capabilities.

In forgoing the x86 precondition (a requisite of Windows compatibility), most tablet computers released since mid-2010 use a version of an ARM architecture processor for longer battery life versus battery weight, heretofore used in portable equipment such as MP3 players and cell phones. Especially with the introduction of the ARM Cortex family, this architecture is now powerful enough for tasks such as internet browsing, light production work and gaming.

A significant trait of tablet computers not based on the traditional PC architecture is that the main source of 3rd party software for these devices tends to be through online distribution, rather than more traditional methods of boxed software or direct sales from software vendors. These sources, known as "app stores", provide centralized catalogues of software from both 1st and 3rd parties, and allow simple "one click" on-device software purchasing, installation, and updates.

Touch user interface

A key and common component among tablet computers is touch input. This allows the user to navigate easily and intuitively and type with a virtual keyboard on the screen. The first tablet to do this was the GRiDPad by GRiD Systems Corporation; the tablet featured both a stylus,a pen-like tool to aid with precision in a touchscreen device as well as an on screen keyboard.

The event processing of the operating system must respond to touches rather than clicks of a keyboard or mouse, which allows integrated hand-eye operation, a natural part of the somatosensory system. Although the device implementation differs from more traditional PCs or laptops, tablets are disrupting the current vendor sales by weakening traditional laptop PC sales in favor of the current tablet computers. This is even more true of the "finger driven multi-touch" interface of the more recent tablet computers, which often emulate the way actual objects behave.

Handwriting recognition

Because tablet personal computers normally use a stylus, they quite often implement handwriting recognition, while other tablet computers with finger driven screens do not. Finger driven screens however are potentially better suited for inputting "variable width stroke based" characters, like Chinese/Japanese/Korean writing, due to their built in capability of "pressure sensing". However at the moment not much of this potential is already used, and as a result even on tablet computers Chinese users often use a (virtual) keyboard for input.

Touchscreen hardware

Touchscreens are usually one of two forms;

Other touch technology used in tablets include:

Some professional-grade Tablet PCs use pressure sensitive films that additionally allow pressure sensitivity such as those on graphics tablets.

Concurrently capacitive touch-screens, which use finger tip detection can often detect the size of the touched area, and can make some conclusions to the pressure force used, for a similar result.

Other features

Tablet Body

Tablet computers come in a range of sizes, currently ranging from tablet PCs to PDAs. Tablet personal computers tend to be as large as laptops and often are the largest usable size for mobile tablet computing while the new generation of tablet computers can be (much) smaller and use a RISC (ARM or MIPS) CPU, and in size can border on PDAs.

Slate

Slate computers, which resemble writing slates, are tablet computers without a dedicated keyboard. For text input, users rely on handwriting recognition via an active digitizer, touching an on-screen keyboard using fingertips or a stylus, or using an external keyboard that can usually be attached via a wireless or USB connection.

Slate computers typically incorporate small (8.4 - 14.1 inches/21 - 36 centimetres) LCD screens and have been popular in vertical markets such as health care, education, hospitality, aviation (pilot documentation and maps), and field work. Applications for field work often require a tablet computer that has rugged specifications that ensure long life by resisting heat, humidity, and drop/vibration damage. This added focus on mobility and/or ruggedness often leads to elimination of moving parts that could hinder these qualities.

Booklet

Booklet computers are dual-touchscreen tablet computers that fold like a book. Typical booklet computers are equipped with multi-touch screens and pen writing recognition capabilities. They are designed to be used as digital day planners, Internet surfing devices, project planners, music players, and displays for video, live TV, and e-reading.

Convertible

Convertible notebooks have a base body with an attached keyboard. They more closely resemble modern laptops, and are usually heavier and larger than slates.

Typically, the base of a convertible attaches to the display at a single joint called a swivel hinge or rotating hinge. The joint allows the screen to rotate through 180° and fold down on top of the keyboard to provide a flat writing surface. This design, although the most common, creates a physical point of weakness on the notebook.

Some manufacturers have attempted to overcome these weak points. The Panasonic Toughbook 19, for example, is advertised as a more durable convertible notebook. Panasonic has announced the Toughpad, a water- and shockproof Android tablet. One model by Acer (the TravelMate C210) has a sliding design in which the screen slides up from the slate-like position and locks into place to provide the laptop mode.

Sliding screens were presented at CES 2011. The first product to use it is the Samsung Sliding PC7 Series, a tablet with Intel Atom hardware and a unique sliding screen that allows the product to be used as a laptop or slate tablet when the screen is locked in place covering the whole keyboard. The concept still has to prove its reliability, but is intended to combine the virtues of tablet PCs with those of notebooks. Also presented was the upcoming Inspiron Duo from Dell, which rotates the screen horizontally when opened. Convertibles like that with hardware specs of a netbook are called netvertibles.

Hybrid

Hybrids, a term coined by users of the HP/Compaq TC1000 and TC1100 series, share the features of the slate and convertible by using a detachable keyboard that operates in a similar fashion to a convertible when attached. Hybrids are not to be confused with slate models with detachable keyboards; detachable keyboards for pure slate models do not rotate to allow the tablet to rest on it like a convertible.

System architecture

Two major computer architectures compete in the tablet market, x86 and ARM architecture. x86, including x86-64, is popular on tablet PCs due to its use on laptops which can share common software and hardware and which can run a version of Windows. There are also non-PC based x86 tablets like the JooJoo. ARM gained popularity following the success of the iPad. ARM is more power- and cost- efficient for mobile computing and is gaining popularity for smaller tablets from other manufacturers such as Samsung with the Galaxy Tab which runs on Android.

Operating systems and vendors

Tablets, like regular computers, can run a number of operating systems. These come in two classes, namely traditional desktop-based operating systems and post-PC mobile-based ("phone-like") operating systems.

For the former class popular OS's are Microsoft Windows, and a range of Linux distributions. HP is developing enterprise-level tablets under Windows and consumer-oriented tablets under webOS. In the latter class the popular variants include Apple iOS, and Google Android. Manufacturers are also testing the market for products with Windows CE, Chrome OS, and so forth.

Boot times for iPads are one-half the boot times for current Windows 7 netbooks, which can take over 50 seconds to display the login prompt. The BIOS initialization for a PC, which has remained unchanged since the invention of the PC, can still take 25 seconds. Boot times are increasingly unimportant, however, with most tablet users only booting their devices when they are used for the first time, or after an operating system upgrade.

Traditional Tablet PC operating systems

Microsoft

Following Windows for Pen Computing, Microsoft has been developing support for tablets runnings Windows under the Microsoft Tablet PC name. According to a 2001 Microsoft definition of the term, "Microsoft Tablet PCs" are pen-based, fully functional x86 PCs with handwriting and voice recognition functionality. Tablet PCs use the same hardware as normal laptops but add support for pen input. For specialized support for pen input, Microsoft released Windows XP Tablet PC Edition. Today there is no tablet specific version of Windows but instead support is built in to both Home and Business versions of Windows Vista and Windows 7. Tablets running Windows get the added functionality of using the touchscreen for mouse input, hand writing recognition, and gesture support. Following Tablet PC, Microsoft announced the UMPC initiative in 2006 which brought Windows tablets to a smaller, touch-centric form factor. This was relaunched in 2010 as Slate PC, to promote tablets running Windows 7, ahead of Apple's iPad launch. Slate PCs are expected to benefit from mobile hardware advances derived from the success of the netbooks.

Microsoft has since announced Windows 8 which will have features designed for touch input, while running on both PCs and ARM architecture. Microsoft states multiple builds are needed, with 1 build for x86 processors and with 3 builds for ARM; ARM targets are defined for NVIDIA, Qualcomm, and TI processors.

While many tablet manufacturers are moving to the ARM architecture with lighter operating systems, Microsoft has stood firm to Windows. Though Microsoft has Windows CE for ARM support it has kept its target market for the smartphone industry with Windows Mobile and the new Windows CE 6 based Windows Phone. Some manufacturers, however, still have shown prototypes of Windows CE-based tablets running a custom shell.Windows 8 will come a new line of Microsoft OS called Windows on ARM(WOA) which will be windows designed for ARM.Both Windows 8 and WOA will use Metro UI and is designed for both touch and keyboard\mouse.

Linux

One early implementation of a Linux tablet was the ProGear by FrontPath. The ProGear used a Transmeta chip and a resistive digitizer. The ProGear initially came with a version of Slackware Linux, but could later be bought with Windows 98. Because these computers are general purpose IBM PC compatible machines, they can run many different operating systems. However, the device is no longer for sale and FrontPath has ceased operations. It is important to note that many touch screen sub-notebook computers can run any of several Linux distributions with little customization.

X.org now supports screen rotation and tablet input through Wacom drivers, and handwriting recognition software from both the Qt-based Qtopia and GTK+-based Internet Tablet OS provide promising free and open source systems for future development. KDE's Plasma Active is graphical environments for tablet.

Open source note taking software in Linux includes applications such as Xournal (which supports PDF file annotation), Gournal (a Gnome based note taking application), and the Java-based Jarnal (which supports handwriting recognition as a built-in function). Before the advent of the aforementioned software, many users had to rely on on-screen keyboards and alternative text input methods like Dasher. There is a stand alone handwriting recognition program available, CellWriter, which requires users to write letters separately in a grid.

A number of Linux based OS projects are dedicated to tablet PCs, but many desktop distributions now have tablet-friendly interfaces allowing the full set of desktop features on the smaller devices. Since all these are open source, they are freely available and can be run or ported to devices that conform to the tablet PC design. Maemo (rebranded MeeGo in 2010), a Debian Linux based graphical user environment, was developed for the Nokia Internet Tablet devices (770, N800, N810 & N900). It is currently in generation 5, and has a vast array of applications available in both official and user supported repositories. Ubuntu since version 11.04 has used the tablet-friendly Unity UI, and many other distributions (such as Fedora) use the also tablet-friendly Gnome shell (which can also be installed in Ubuntu if preferred). Previously the Ubuntu Netbook Remix edition was one of the only linux distibutions offering a tablet interface with all the applications and features of a desktop distribution, but this has been phased out with the expansion of Unity to the desktop. A large number of distributions now have touchscreen support of some kind, even if their interfaces are not well suited to touch operation.

Canonical has hinted that Ubuntu will be available on tablets, as well as phones and smart televisions, by 2014.

TabletKiosk currently offers a hybrid digitizer / touch device running openSUSE Linux. It is the first device with this feature to support Linux.

Intel and Nokia

The Nokia N800

Nokia entered the tablet space with the Nokia 770 running Maemo, a Debian-based Linux distribution custom-made for their Internet tablet line. The product line continued with the N900 which is the first to add phone capabilities. The user interface and application framework layer, named Hildon, was an early instance of a software platform for generic computing in a tablet device intended for internet consumption. But Nokia didn't commit to it as their only platform for their future mobile devices and the project competed against other in-house platforms. The strategic advantage of a modern platform was not exploited, being displaced by the Series 60.

Intel, following the launch of the UMPC, started the Mobile Internet Device initiative, which took the same hardware and combined it with a Linux operating system custom-built for portable tablets. Intel co-developed the lightweight Moblin operating system following the successful launch of the Atom CPU series on netbooks. Intel is also setting tablet goals for Atom, going forward from 2010.

MeeGo

MeeGo is a Linux-based operating system developed by Intel and Nokia that supports Netbooks, Smartphones and Tablet PCs. In 2010, Nokia and Intel combined the Maemo and Moblin projects to form MeeGo. The first tablet using MeeGo is the Neofonie WeTab launched September 2010 in Germany. The WeTab uses an extended version of the MeeGo operating system called WeTab OS. WeTab OS adds runtimes for Android and Adobe AIR and provides a proprietary user interface optimized for the WeTab device. On 27 September 2011 it was announced by the Linux Foundation that MeeGo will be replaced in 2012 by Tizen, an open source mobile operating system.

Post-PC operating systems

Tablets not following the personal computer (PC) tradition use operating systems in the style of those developed for PDAs and smartphones.

iPad

The iPad runs a version of iOS which was first created for the iPhone and iPod Touch. Although built on the same underlying Unix implementation as MacOS, the operating system differs radically at the graphical user interface level. iOS is designed for finger based use and has none of the tiny features which required a stylus on earlier tablets. Apple introduced responsive multi touch gestures, like moving two fingers apart to zoom in. iOS is built for the ARM architecture, which uses less power, and so gives better battery life than the Intel devices used by Windows tablets. Previous to the iPad's launch, there were long standing rumors of an Apple tablet, though they were often about a product running Mac OS X and being in line with Apple's Macintosh computers. This became partially true when a 3rd party offered customized Macbooks with pen input, known as the Modbook.

Previous to Apple's commercialization of the iPad, Axiotron introduced at Macworld in 2007 an aftermarket, heavily modified Apple MacBook called Modbook, a Mac OS X-based tablet personal computer. The Modbook uses Apple's Inkwell for handwriting and gesture recognition, and uses digitization hardware from Wacom. To get Mac OS X to talk to the digitizer on the integrated tablet, the Modbook is supplied with a third-party driver called TabletMagic; Wacom does not provide driver support for this device.

Blackberry

The BlackBerry PlayBook is a tablet computer announced in September 2010 which runs the BlackBerry Tablet OS. The OS is based on the QNX system that Research in Motion acquired in early 2010. Delivery to developers and enterprise customers is expected in October 2010. The BlackBerry PlayBook was officially released to US and Canadian consumers on April 19, 2011.

Android

Google's Linux-based Android operating system has been targeted by tablet manufacturers following its success on smartphones due to its open nature and support for low-cost ARM systems much like Apple's iOS. In 2010, there have been numerous announcements of such tablets. However, much of Android's tablet initiative comes from manufacturers as Google primarily focuses its development on smartphones and restricts the App Market from non-phone devices. Toshiba's AC100 laptop also runs on Android.

There is talk of tablet support from Google coming to its web-centric Chrome OS.

Some vendors such as Motorola and Lenovo are delaying deployment of their tablet computers until after 2011, after Android is reworked to include more tablet features. Android 3.0 (Honeycomb) is optimized specifically for devices with larger screen sizes, mainly tablets, and has access to the Google Play service. Android is the software stack for mobile devices that includes operating system, middleware and key applications.

HP

Hewlett Packard announced the TouchPad, running webOS 3.0 on a 1.2Ghz Snapdragon CPU, would be released in June 2011. On August 18, 2011, HP announced the discontinuation of the TouchPad, due to sluggish sales. HP has announced that they will release webOS as open-source.

One Laptop per Child organization

The One Laptop per Child (OLPC) organization is developing a new version of the OLPC, strongly resembling a tablet computer, called the OLPC XO-3, running its "Sugar" operating system, based on Linux. The new XO-3 will be based on ARM technology from Marvell.

India

OLPC plans to introduce a tablet computer to India for $100. Nicholas Negroponte, Chairman of OLPC, has invited the Indian researchers to MIT to begin sharing the OLPC design resources for their tablet computers. OLPC has been awarded a grant for an interim step to their next generation tablet, OLPC XO-3.

Aakash (Ubislate 7) - India

The low hardware requirements and easy operation of tablet computers has made it subject to various design studies for use in developing countries, furthermore it will reduce the digital gap between the have and the have nots. New tablets have been developed at low cost. One such tablet is the Aakash, manufactured in India. It was initially developed for a better education for the students at the universities. This tablet would cost around 35$, and the government subsidy, which would make up to not more than Rs.1500(INR). It is expected to be available soon for the general public as the cheapest tablet working on Android with full functionality; however the bill of materials currently comes to $37.98 and will be available soon at retail shops at $50, inclusive of all taxes. For the initial, the government will give them for free to 100,000 students, as a form of corporate welfare. A newer version of this tablet, the Aakash 2 - Ubislate 7+ comes with calling facilities, both 3G or 2G. It also has dual camera, with an Android 2.3 processor. Thus, it can be used as a phone to make and receive voice and video calls. Bookings have already started for the improved version which is expected to release in April/May 2012

Developing software for tablet computers

The new class of devices heralded by the iPad has spurred the tendency of a walled garden approach, wherein the vendor reserves rights as to what can be installed. The software development kits for these platforms are restricted and the vendor must approve the final application for distribution to users. These restrictions allow the hardware vendor to control the kind of software that can be used and the content that can be seen in the devices; this can be used to reduce the impact of malware on the platform and to provide material of approved content rating, and also to exclude software and content from competing vendors. The walled garden approach to application development has proven to be a competitive advantage for the iPad over HP's TouchPad, triggering HP's withdrawal from the industry, due in large part to sluggish TouchPad sales after only 49 days on the market.

Barnes and Noble adopted the walled garden strategy with its Nook Color and Nook Tablet e-book reader tablets, which FastCompany writer Austin Carr refers to as "an odd idea of progress", since B&N lacks the competitive advantages of number of apps and price enjoyed by Apple and Amazon.com. B&N's strategy became especially notable following pronouncements by B&N executives criticizing Amazon.com's walled garden approach, which they contrasted with B&N's emphasis on user choice. Specifically, in a mid-December interview, B&N CEO William Lynch called Amazon's Kindle Fire a "deficient" media tablet designed as a "vending machine for Amazon's services", and a device aimed to "lock consumers into [Amazon's] ecosystem". In contrast, B&N's Nook Tablet gave users choice and a much more "open" experience which, according to Lynch, may be one of the Nook Tablet's most significant selling points. In the same interview, B&N's director of developer relations Claudia Romanini reiterated, "It's about giving [consumer] choice and range. What we mean in terms of choice, is that we don't lock a customer into a service and say, 'This is the way you're going to get your media.'". Indeed, Nook Tablets shipped until December 2011 were lauded by reviewers and users for permitting users to download and sideload third-party apps, but, one week before Christmas, B&N began pushing an automatic, over-the-air firmware update 1.4.1 to Nook Tablets that removed users' ability to gain root access to the device and the ability to sideload apps from sources other than the official Barnes and Noble app store (without modding).

Proponents of open source software deem that these restrictions on software installation and lack of administrator rights make this category one that, in their view, cannot be properly named "personal computers". Some newer tablet computers using mobile operating systems don't use the walled garden concept, and are like personal computers in this regard.

Smartphone-Tablet

Since 2011, screen sizes over 5" became available in the marketplace. That size is too large for a smartphone and too small for a tablet, creating a hybrid category different from the previous common classifications. This hybrid is being called a phablet by Forbes and Engadget. Phablet is a portmanteau of the words phone and tablet. Two such phablets are the LG Optimus Vu and the Samsung Galaxy Note. Samsung claims they had shipped a million units of the Galaxy Note within two months of introducing it.

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