Simple, portable, user-friendly, and affordable. Say hello to the device of the future: a PC and smartphones rolled into one… the tablet.

The world of computing is at a crossroads. The primary computer for most users today is no longer a PC; it’s a phone. While your main machine sits on a desk either at the office or at home, smartphones go everywhere with us and integrate into every part of our daily lives. But despite getting increasingly smarter, phones are too small to replace PCs completely. We need a device that bridges the gap between computers and mobile phones. That device has arrived. Welcome to the age of the tablet.

Unlike earlier, arguably premature efforts to transform tablet computing into a mass-market reality, today’s models are here to stay. The new wave of slate devices is rolling in fast and furious, offering a wave of diverse options.

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Tablets buying advice: A break from the past

The concept of the tablet PC itself isn’t new, but its definition has radically changed. What we used to call a tablet was just a laptop with a touchscreen that swivelled around and folded back, yielding a bulky machine that was uncomfortable to carry and awkward to use as a laptop. That unsatisfactory hybrid was simply where the state of technology took us in previous efforts to create ‘tablet’ or ‘slate’ computers.

Things shifted thanks to advances in smartphone technology and the influence of Apple’s design team. When the Apple iPad hit the market last year, critics quickly dubbed it a giant Apple iPhone without the phone. That description speaks to the technology that makes possible its appealing dimensions, but it does not do it justice. In fact, the iPad altered everything we thought we knew about tablets, and other hardware manufacturers and Google with its Google Android system, are following up on Apple’s success quickly with a range of similar, but different (and in some cases, cheaper) devices.

Today’s tablet is exactly what the name implies: a thin slab, dominated by its screen. These slender systems generally max out at 750g, and few of them take up more space in your bag than a regular book would.

More importantly: the software for tablets has changed. Instead of struggling to run a full-fledged version of Windows, which requires a significant amount of processing power and isn’t optimised for use with a touchscreen, most new tablet models released nowadays run a relatively lightweight, touchscreen-focused mobile operating system such as Apple iOS or Google Android.

In 2011, we are set to see an astounding array of new tablets, including offerings from every major computer and phone maker, in many different sizes.

Tablets buying advice: A clean slate

As yet, few rules constrain this burgeoning category, so you should expect to encounter a multitude of assorted designs, ranging from tiny slates that are barely distinguishable from phones to devices that rival netbooks in size and power. The most popular tablet so far is the Apple iPad, now in its second incarnation (showing just what a lead Apple had in this market).

The iPad 2 measures 241mm by 185mm and is a mere 8.8mm thick. It sports a 9.7in screen. Because the Apple iPad 2 is about the size of a typical spiral-bound paper notebook, it looks and feels familiar to most users on an unconscious level.

But a number of new devices, including the Samsung Galaxy Tab and the upcoming BlackBerry PlayBook have challenged the notion that a large 10in tablet is ideal for mobile use. The 7in screens that these machines provide make them more portable than the iPad, and major wireless carriers are lining up to offer them with 3G service plans subsidising the up-front price of the device with the monthly payment.

As well as size you need to consider the operating system you will be running. The iPad 2 runs the latest version of iOS, Apple’s operating system used by the iPad, iPhone and iPod touch devices. Many other systems (including those made by Samsung and Motorola) run different versions of the Android operating system, devices that are 7in typically run the Android 2.2 (also known as Froyo) whereas the newer 10in devices run the more advanced Android 3.0 (known as Honeycomb). Exceptions to this rule are the HP TouchPad, which runs HP’s WebOS operating system and Research In Motion’s BlackBerry PlayBook which runs the company’s proprietary BlackBerry Tablet OS.

Before Apple released the iPad, most tablet PCs ran touch-enabled versions of Microsoft’s windows operating system. Devices like the Asus Eee PC Touch and the Dell Inspiron Duo combine a touchscreen experience with Windows 7; they look more like regular laptops, however, and the experience is more akin to a traditional PC than one of the tablets running a dedicated operating system.

At the same time, the market now has eBook readers such as the Amazon Kindle, which you might be tempted to think of as ‘tablet-lites’. These are very different devices to tablets, and feature screens that only update when you press a button; they are designed purely to display text and static images.

It’s too early to tell whether users and the industry will ultimately favour a particular size and format for tablets, and a lot of it depends on your own personal preferences. While 10in screens offer a nicer experience, especially when using on-screen keyboards, 7in screens fit more comfortably in bags and large pockets. And all of the operating systems have their own individual quirks.

Tablets buying advice: Great expectations

For all the chaos and confusion that the first round of slates is sure to create, the new devices promise some pretty fantastic opportunities as well. Coupling the mobility and connectivity of a smartphone with elements of a laptop – in particular, larger screens, more-powerful processors, and room for more and better cameras, ports and accessories – tablets invite mobile users to discover lots of new things to do with them.

Just as the iPhone and other smartphones caused an explosion of rich, location-aware social media interaction that few industry prophets predicted, the arrival of a category of even more-powerful, more-versatile machines will undoubtedly spur another furious cycle of innovation in Web-connected activity. After all, most of these new tablets come equipped with a camera for snapshot photography and video, as well as a front-facing camera for video conferencing on a heretofore unimagined scale.

Aside from better cameras, the larger format of the tablet makes room for improved GPS components with more-powerful antennas, which should support new capabilities for location-based services such as Facebook Places, Foursquare, and Layar. In time, the coupling of massive, socially driven photo and video services will let users visit a destination, pull out a tablet to capture their own photos and videos, and then share that content dynamically.

Mobile gaming, meanwhile, will receive a shot in the arm from tablets. Both Apple’s App Store and Google’s Android Market already teem with high-definition 3D games such as EA’s Madden 11 and Firemint’s Real Racing. Multiplayer casual games like Air Hockey and Scrabble are drawing people together over tablets, and it’s only a matter of time before massively multiplayer online titles such as World of Warcraft find a home on slates as well. The room for advancement in mobile-app development is practically inconceivable at this early stage.

The new wave of tablets will finally bring the dream of always-connected devices to fruition. Many of these tablets offer both Wi-Fi and 3G connectivity, and are available on subsidised data contracts from mobile networks. At the present no mobile company is offering a combined data plan with your mobile phone and tablet, instead requiring you to purchase a separate SIM card for each device (effectively doubling the amount you pay for wireless data). However, you can use many phones now to create wireless hotspots and share the data connection from your mobile phone directly to the tablet.

Tablets buying advice: A few more hurdles

Before we can celebrate our arrival at a magnificent tablet-driven future, however, the industry must surmount several serious technical obstacles. The most significant hurdles come in the form of the operating-system platforms themselves, along with the big software companies that make them.

The stakes couldn’t be higher for the software giants. There’s ample reason to doubt that more than a few major platforms can thrive in the tablet marketplace over the long haul, a point that Apple, Google and Microsoft are keenly aware of as they spar over patent rights and internet standards in hopes of achieving tablet supremacy. The availability of apps on the contending platforms will be a key factor in this fight.

Even as the platform makers fight among themselves, each presents a unique set of features. Apple’s opaque and restrictive policies with regard to app approval remain a disincentive for many iOS developers, who may spend months developing an app only for Apple to refuse distribution on its store. And its refusal to allow adult and objectionable content on its app store smacks of nannying to many a paying customer. However, Apple keeps a close eye on all software, so as-of-yet viruses and malware are non-existent on the iPad, which makes it a tempting proposition for many a consumer weary of endlessly updating anti-virus programs and security updates.

Google has a more free-for-all approach, although it does check apps for malicious content. You can, however, install any program even if Google hasn’t checked it, through a process called ‘side-loading’, though you will have to enable this feature in the Settings first. The fragmentation of Android devices with different hardware makes it difficult for app creators to support the growing variety of screen sizes and hardware specs that Android comprehends.

For its part, Windows 7 isn’t optimised for touch control as Android and iOS are, and that deficiency will make it harder for users to select appropriate software to use on their Windows 7 tablets.

And developers now find that there are two new operating systems: HP’s WebOS and BlackBerry’s Tablet OS to contend with. Whatever the features these devices sport, they may find it hard to convince developers to move their focus away from Apple and Google, and we’d wager both their app stores will remain lighter than Apple’s and Google’s for some time. In the meantime, developers will have to work overtime to port their apps across multiple hardware and software platforms – an undertaking that is fraught with unpleasant challenges – as they try to reach as many users as possible.

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