Operating Systems, Platforms & Processors
The iPad's iOS operating system (left) and Google's Android operating system are visually similar and offer many of the same features.
In the overview of this Buying Guide, we briefly covered the key product types in the tablet marketplace. In this section, we'll weigh some of the pros and cons of the operating system software running on these devices.
Formerly known as iPhone OS, Apple's iOS is the operating system that runs on the iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch. As such, it is one of the most popular mobile operating systems on the market.
Pros: Huge App Store selection; ideal for media playback; large selection of games; many tablet-optimized Apps; multitouch support; parental security options; seamless integration with other Apple products, such as Apple TV and AirPort Extreme; over-the-air system and app updates.
Cons: Users must buy their software from Apple; existing Mac and Windows software isn't supported; lacks Adobe Flash compatibility; limited hardware support.
Historically, tablets running Microsoft's Windows operating system made up the major share of the market. These include several subcategories, such as slates, convertible laptops, UMPCs, and MIDs. Windows-based tablets still thrive, especially in niche professional applications that demand the capabilities and broad software compatibility of Windows.
Pros: Familiar interface; broadest software and hardware compatibility; Adobe Flash support; multitasking; natively supports wide range of screen sizes.
Cons: Windows desktop interface doesn't always translate well to the touch screen without intermediating software or stylus input; typically longer boot times compared with Android or iOS; cumbersome software installation; more prone to computer viruses.
Smartphones running Google's Android OS are some of the biggest competitors to Apple's iPhone. The same is true in the world of tablets. Android takes an approach similar to Apple's iOS, offering a streamlined interface based around lightweight, third-party apps.
In 2010, CNET reviewed several tablets running versions of Android up to 2.2 (aka Froyo), which essentially duplicated the Android smartphone experience onto a larger screen. Since that time, Google announced its tablet-optimized version of Android 3.0, named Honeycomb, due out in the first quarter of 2011 on Motorola's Xoom tablet.
Pros: A large variety of apps; quick boot time; broader hardware support; one-touch access to Google Web search.
Cons: Many Android features and developer specs (pre-Honeycomb) are more fitting for smartphones than tablets; legacy apps designed for phone screens don't scale well; accessory compatibility changes from manufacturer to manufacturer; not all existing Android tablet hardware will support Android 3.0.
There are a few tablet operating systems on the horizon that don't fall neatly into any of the previous categories. But whether it's a custom Linux-based slate like the OpenTablet, the QNX operating system on RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook, or HP's tablet based on Palm's WebOS, they all have one thing in common: they're new in town. Compared with a Windows-based tablet or the relatively long history behind Apple's iOS, any new kid on the block will inherently have some kinks to work out.