YOUR next computer will be a tablet.
Just as laptops replaced desktops as the preferred choice for computing use in the home, tablets like the iPad are supplanting laptops and pushing them to the margins for "serious" work.
In many ways, the change is bad. Tablets are not as powerful or flexible as PCs.
Their screens are smaller and their use for productive work is dependent on expensive peripherals like physical keyboards. They're not necessarily cheap, not meant to last and tend to be physically and virtually locked up tight to the hardware, content and software ecosystem of the company that makes them. A PC is the best tool box you've ever owned. A tablet is a cool toaster.
But for most of us, a toaster is all we need as long as toast is all we want. Tablets are much lighter and more portable than laptops, and their touch-based interfaces, when well done, are natural to use. They don't require an office or desk. All you need is a couch and your hands.
You have two decisions to make when choosing a tablet: what size and which operating system.
Tablets are evolving into two major sizes: 10-inch and seven-inch, as measured by the diagonal size of the screen. The iPad at 9.7 inches is in the 10-inch range. The BlackBerry Playbook is seven inches.
The seven-inch tablets are by far the more portable. They fit easily in one hand, and can be slipped into a purse, bag or large coat pocket. They can do anything their larger counterparts can and make excellent e-readers. They are also cheaper.
The downside is the smaller screen. Web surfing works just fine, but unless you're looking at the mobile version of websites you will be pinching and zooming with your fingers to magnify text and images. Video will also be smaller. Comfort when watching The Hunger Games will depend on your eyesight.
Ten-inch tablets are less portable. They won't fit in a coat pocket, and if you have to buy a separate bag to carry one around, you're wasting money, but they make natural home-based devices.
They are excellent for surfing the web and doing light work like email or tweeting and their larger screen is great for gaming and watching video, especially for older people. They seem too large for e-readers to me, but friends use them that way and like it.
Bottom line: If you want portable, look at seven inches. If it's for the home or office, go large.
Like smartphones and computers, tablets run on operating systems. The iPad runs the same OS as the iPhone and iPod touch. If you have an Apple-centric household, go iPad. It's still considered the best tablet on the market, and for Canadians it has by far the widest availability of apps and content, like video and music, compared to any other tablet for sale in our northern tech ghetto. Be warned: iPads are expensive, with the cheapest model in Canada selling for $419.
The next choice is Android, the operating system created by Google. Android tablets come from a variety of manufacturers with prices from cheap to ridiculously high. Android on tablets has had a difficult evolution catching up to the iPad, but if you find the right price, it can make you happy. I tried out a preview 10-inch Acer Iconia Tab earlier this year running an earlier version of Android. Aside from some quirks and Android's fewer apps for tablets it was useful and fun.
Also seriously look at the Nexus 7 Android tablet by Asus, which just hit the market. At seven inches, it's reportedly a powerhouse going for the incredible price of $209.
RIM's Playbook was a troubled product when it made its debut last year, but after a major software update and dramatic price cuts its smooth hardware and interface made it the best tablet deal in Canada until the arrival of the Nexus 7. Its critical flaw: lack of apps, Netflix and Skype being two painful examples.
Finally there's Windows 8, which is Microsoft's radical reset of its Windows operating system coming out in October. Reviewer opinions vary on advance looks at the interface, but be prepared for a flood of Windows 8 tablets this fall.
Barry Link is the editor of the Vancouver Courier. Email: blink@ vancourier.com.