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Computex: March of the Phablets; Intel wakes up & trouble for Android

by Doug Drinkwater

June 8 2013

From gigantic smartphones and hi-res tablets to new mobile operating systems, this week’s Computex trade exhibition showed just what mobile buyers can expect to see on store shelves in the months ahead.

With the tech fair drawing to a close today (Saturday), TabTimes looks at what the show meant for future devices and the trends you’ll see as we approach 2014.

Hi-res displays are the new normal

It doesn’t seem that long ago that 1280 x 800 resolution displays were all the rage in the tablet industry.

How times have changed. Thanks in part to the iPad’s Retina Display and the less-acclaimed Nexus 10, hi-res screens are now just part and parcel of a premium tablet, an expected product feature.

Research firm Witsview recently claimed that vendors have shifted their focus away from hi-res tablet screens in 2013, but I'd say that Computex put them back on the front burner.

Asus and Toshiba were just two vendors announcing tablets with HD IPS (for wide-ranging 178 degree viewing angles) 2560 x 1600 resolution displays, while Microsoft revealed during the event that Windows 8.1 devices with Qualcomm chips will support up to 2560 x 2048.

Given all this, and further display innovation supposedly coming on the iPad mini 2, Nexus 11, Samsung and others, it’s suffice to say that 1280 x 800 no longer cuts it.

Does anyone want to buy a premium Android tablet?

Like it or not, Android is at the budget-end of the tablet market and the days of those “premium” Android slates are over.

Consumers tend to keep their wallet in their pocket when it comes to spending $400 for an Android tablet for a couple of reasons. First, most knowledgeable buyers know that there is a good chance that their new tablet will be out of date and running an older version of Android before too long. Second, why would they spend that much when you could pick up a Kindle Fire, Nexus 7 or now Asus’ Memo Pad 7 for significantly cheaper?

The expected arrival of the $329 Iconia W3 – the first 8-inch Windows 8 tablet, a similar model from Lenovo and a cheaper iPad mini hardly helps Android’s cause.

Either way, someone clearly failed to get the memo to Toshiba, which this week announced three new models, which range from the "budget" $299 Excite Pure to the $600 Excite Write. Little wonder then that Toshiba remains a niche player in the tablet space.

Mozilla to breathe new life into tablets

The nascent Windows 8 aside, the tablet market has been a duopoly between Android and iOS since its reincarnation in 2010.

That’s not actually been a bad thing for choice. After all, Android is an open ecosystem and has been customized by various vendors, who have done everything from develop their own UI skin to release their own apps and widgets.

And it's good to see new players on the scene, trying to offer new choices when it comes to mobile operating systems.

A few months ago Ubuntu announced its first version for tablets. Now Firefox is the new kid on the block, apparently working with Foxconn on five devices, including a tablet.

It’s yet to be seen which OEM vendors will back the Firefox OS – which will probably be geared towards emerging markets – but it’s still good to see that the tablet market is open to new players, choice and fresh innovation.

(Mozilla showed off prototype phones and a tablet running the Firefox OS at Computex. Image: CNET)

Beefy phablets could soon compete with tablets

Where does the phablet stop when it comes to screen size? Asus announced the 6-inch FonePad Note at the show (a 3G device with a 1920 x 1080 resolution display, Intel Atom Z2560 chip and dual-facing cameras) and earlier this year announced a similar device with a 7-inch screen. At Computex, Acer unveiled the 5.7-inch Liquid S1, which has two SIM cards opening it up for enterprise data.

What with previous models having come from Samsung and others, as well as talk of future models coming from Google’s Motorola and BlackBerry, one has to question the role of the phablet.

For instance, would a 6-inch phablet make consumers swerve away from considering a 7-inch tablet? We’ll have to wait and see.

Multi-OS tablets are a hard sell

You’ve got to hand it to Asus for tablet innovation. The company is clearly open to trying new ideas and concepts (also see the launch of the Transformer AIO earlier this year), and that extended to the Transformer Book Trio at Computex.

As the name infers, the Trio is a three-in-one device which can be used as a desktop, laptop or 11.6-inch tablet. Hybrid tablets are not overly unique but here’s the killer feature – it can run both Android 4.1 Jelly Bean and Windows 8.

Asus says that users will be able to synchronize data between platforms to enjoy a “smooth transition” between each mode.

Sadly, multi-OS tablets have nearly always been a hard sell and confined to a niches. Of the better-known vendors, ViewSonic tried the same with the ViewPad 10, which has since been discontinued.

The problem with complex hybrid tablets is customer confusion. Most buyers have an idea what they will use their tablet for, but that's hard to see when you have a compromise device that blurs the lines in terms of form factor and platform.

Intel remains a key player

New CEO Brian Krzanich admits that Intel has been pretty slow to react to the rise of the tablet, but it may well be that Computex was a turning point for the firm.

Samsung announced that its new 10.1-inch Galaxy Tab 3 would be powered by an Intel chip – an unusual move considering past designs have run Samsung’s own ARM-based designs – while Intel took the wraps off the new Haswell, Bay Trail and Merrifield processors.

The latter is aimed at enabling super-powerful smartphones, but the new Core (codenamed “Haswell”) and Atom (“Bay Trail”) chips will likely power newer -- and possibly cheaper-- hybrid slates.

Intel said at Computex that it is working on 30 tablets and said that Bay Trail Atom hybrid tablets could sell for as cheap as $399 this upcoming holiday season.

But these models could soon be headed for even lower price points. Recently departed CEO Paul Otellini suggested recently that convertible $200 tablets would be possible in future, and another exec followed suit at Computex.

“We believe we can push it well below the $199 price point,” Hermann Eul, VP and general manager of Intel’s Mobile and Communications Group told IDG News.

Doug Drinkwater is the International Editor of TabTimes and is based in London, England
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