Over the last couple of years, Google's free and open-source Android operating system has let companies from HTC to Samsung build their own versions of Apple's iPhone (in essence). These Android smartphones often have features the latest iPhone lacks, like hardware keyboards or HDMI out, and are often cheaper as well.
Now the same companies that make Android smartphones are building their own Android tablets. And while they can't run the iPad's 65,000 apps, they have their own apps and selling points ... and their own weaknesses.
The first "real" Android tablet, the Xoom debuted just a few weeks before the iPad 2's launch, running Google's "Honeycomb" tablet version of Android and sporting extremely high-end specs. These were more-or-less equaled by the iPad 2 when it came out, but it still has a sharper, widescreen display, plus expandable memory via MicroSD card. It also has a USB port and an HDMI port, for connecting outside peripherals or hooking your Xoom up to your TV.
The downside? Besides the price tag, it's heavy and chunky, and has a curved back that keeps it from sitting flat on a table.
This isn't the earlier, 7-inch Galaxy Tab, which was basically an oversized Android phone with almost no tablet apps. This is Samsung's new designer tablet, that's thinner and lighter than even the iPad 2 but has almost identical specs. Its design is much classier and more minimalist than the Xoom's, and it takes many cues from the iPad -- so many, in fact, that Apple is currently suing Samsung for being a copycat. It's the one tablet that's most like a generic brand iPad.
The Samsung Galaxy Tab is debuting this week at a Best Buy in New York City, but is available for preorder now, and will be available to everyone later this month.
Instead of copying Apple's iPad exactly, HTC is making tablets with Apple levels of classiness, but then giving them features the iPad doesn't have. In this case, an optional pressure-sensitive stylus, plus a special notetaking app that lets you write, take pictures, and record audio, and have them all synced to the online Evernote service. You can even fast-forward to the point in your recordings where you wrote a specific word down, making it great for taking notes during classroom lectures.
HTC's partnering with OnLive for streaming video games, with the optional OnLive controller, and is offering videos through its HTC Watch app. The biggest downsides are its size and its price; you're paying as much as you would for an iPad for a tablet half its size, and you have to buy the pen separately. Its size does make it more convenient for holding in one hand, though.
Here it is: the tablet that's cheaper than the iPad 2. The Transformer's 16 GB model is only $399, and for $499 you get a 32 GB tablet.
Its name comes from its optional keyboard accessory ($149), which "transforms" the Transformer into a laptop. It even comes with a touchpad, so that you don't have to reach up and touch the screen to use it, plus office apps and a MyCloud app that lets you control your home PC or Mac with it.
Jared Spurbeck is an open-source software enthusiast, who uses an Android phone and an Ubuntu laptop PC. He has been writing about technology and electronics since 2008.