iPad 2 vs. business class tablets

iPad2 is the gold standard, but Fujitsu Stylistic and GammaTech Durabook are strong contenders

Tech lovers have been flocking to the iPad 2 and other tablets in order to watch movies, read books, surf the Web and make video calls on the latest, greatest, thinnest, lightest, coolest devices. But where do tablets fit within the enterprise?

We tested 10 tablets to see which had the strongest set of business-related features. Our test subjects ranged from the high-end $1,699 GammaTech Durabook (a tablet/notebook hybrid) to the $279 Archus 70 and everything in between, including tablets from Fujitsu, RIM, Acer, ViewSonic, Toshiba, Motorola and, of course, Apple. We even tested a $79 no-name tablet from China.

We focused on business-related features, such as business-oriented programs and apps, security components, developer programs poised towards the enterprise, and accessories targeting business use. We also looked at battery life and Java-based browser performance.

Tablet throwdown: Amazon Kindle Fire vs. Apple iPad 2

Two tablets stood out: Fujitsu's Stylistic, and the GammaTech Durabook. Apple's market setting iPad2 has obvious strengths, but also suffers from a mixed feature set. Here are the individual reviews:

Apple iPad 2: The gold standard

The clear consumer market leader, the iPad2 has business features that are often underplayed. On the other hand, it lacks several features that we feel are important.

The iPad2 can be obtained with WiFi only, or WiFi and 3G. Apple uses a certificate-based system for downloads, the Apple Push Notification System. Developers are required to obtain certificates that in turn, allow communications to be pushed to Apple iOS 3+ devices, whether 3G or WiFi-connected.

First look at Apple iPad 2 and what it is missing

These "push certificates" authenticate the message payload, often an application or a policy toggle. A device, when connected to 3G mobile networks, can receive pushed messages. These messages are available to WiFi users only when they're logged on, of course.

The iPad 2 is initialized and backed up through iTunes. Its chain of authority comes through iTunes, and/or subsequent push-type messages that arrive from Apple or Apple-authorized systems. These systems must have encryption and authenticating certificates that allow Apple to communicate with the iPad via its operating system, iOS.

Mobile Device Management software packages usually use this chain of authority (the Apple Push Notification System), to communicate bi-directionally with an iPad 2. This allows policy enforcement, like software authorization, remote kill, and other policies to "enwrap" iPad 2 use. Tablets can be secured in this way against unauthorized access via password failure shutdowns, and prevention of unauthorized software installation.

Apple offered us a free "Find My iPad" subscription that locates a unit, and can wipe the iPad if necessary. Enterprises that already have this capability through third-party mobile management software may wish to disable this function.

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Enterprises may also want to enforce policies that suppress Bluetooth peer connectivity, as well as front and rear camera and microphone use. To their credit, Apple suppresses USB connectivity so there's no need to worry about data walking out the door on a USB drive.

Apple doesn't support Adobe Flash, claiming that Flash use has a direct bearing on battery life. In our battery tests, we got nine-plus hours of use on WiFi.

The issue of battery recharging comes into play in a scenario where the device is being used for multiple shifts - a hospital setting, for example. We found it took a little more than three hours to charge the battery via USB while the unit wasn't in operation.

The iPad 2 has Bluetooth available for headphones and keyboard attachments, but Bluetooth can't be used for file transfers between systems. The iPad 2 supports 802.11a/b/g/n-2 , where n-2 is dual band and offers more available free channels in dense environments. The iPad 2 also comes with a connector that allows it to be controlled through Microsoft's ActiveSync processes.

ActiveSync allows administrators of Microsoft Exchange to control the device through various policies. Mobile Device Management applications to use ActiveSync to discipline deployed devices.

Unless it is jailbroken/rooted, the iPad2 lives inside of a closed-loop delivery system, where organizational policies delivered via Microsoft ActiveSync or other MDM software are possible. Applications can be delivered via web page access. Apple permits organizational application stores, as well as possible controlled access to its enormous App Store.

However, there are downsides. There is no removable or user-serviceable battery, and its built-in cameras must be actively disabled for some organizations. The only network connection is through WiFi/3G wireless; no Ethernet or Bluetooth tethering is possible. Memory and storage isn't field upgradeable. There is no case or protection bag/device shipped with base units. Keyboards, sound devices, and external printer connectivity devices are possible, but were optional and not tested.

Still, Apple's iPad 2 is the one to beat. The subjective look and feel are strong, and mobile device management controls can contain iPad 2 use through pushed, authenticated policy control. Backup must be done through iTunes, a program whose security strength is tied through the aforementioned chain of authority for push messaging.

Chart on tablet battery life

Fujitsu Stylistic Q550: A standout, but pricey

The Fujitsu Stylistic stood out for several reasons. It runs Windows 7, and very well. There's a stylus, which was useful as the screen resolution is high and we gained precision with it. We also noted that the Stylistic has a user-replaceable battery, making this the only tablet tested that might be good for three shifts per day of mobile use. The battery takes seconds to change and seems to fit well.

There are also buttons to lock the display aspect (portrait, landscape, upside down, upside-down portrait; rotational in three positions) although the display can also autosense position. Another button pops out a keyboard displayed on the screen. There is a front-facing camera, and a button to shoot pics.

See how the tablets match up.

Integrated into the side bezel are switches that turn the device on and off, but also turn the WiFi on and off. While WiFi can be controlled through policies, it's easier and more secure to have the ability to turn WiFi off.

The WiFi is IEEE 802.11 a/b/g/n and dual band n (and Bluetooth 3.0, too). There are several ports, including an integrated fingerprint scanner, full-sized HDMI and USB 2 jacks, and a jack for noise-cancelling headphones. The tablet seems well-sealed, physically, and there's a license for McAfee anti-virus.

Fujitsu also includes a version of Microsoft Office called Microsoft Office Starter 2010, which doesn't include PowerPoint or Outlook, although there's an easy upgrade. There's an additional memory port (base is 32G or 64GB, which we tested) that's SD/SDHC-compatible for additional storage needs.

We found the visual keyboard easy to use with our fingers, but as mentioned, the stylus seemed to be helpful for fine-resolution control of window sizing, drawing, and other needs where fingertips didn't work well. Long fingernails often don't suit tablet touch sensitivity, and we found that problem here. The 1280x800, 10-inch anti-glare screen used by the Fujitsu Q550 was also helpful.

The Q550 seemed the most business compatible, if indeed a business needs a fingerprint reader, WiFi switch, removable battery, anti-glare screen, and/or a basic license load of MS Office. At $729 (32GB, lower battery life) to $849 (64GB, higher battery life), it has less potential storage than the Archos 70. But in other ways, this Intel Atom CPU-powered tablet is most likely among the non-Apple tablets to make it into offices.

RIM's Playbook: For Blackberry lovers only

RIM's Blackberry Playbook is a seven-inch notebook that runs the QNX operating system, but will soon be allowed to run a limited number of Android packages, we were told. Some of the Playbook features are enhanced if there's a Blackberry phone nearby, as they tether together, Bluetooth-style, to deliver additional RIM applications, contacts, and email via a software package from RIM called Bridge.

BlackBerry PlayBook apps: 5 worthy downloads

Barring a Blackberry phone nearby, the Playbook is more limited and organizational resources must be accessed via a browser, or through the use of optional VDI applications.

Fortunately, the browser is easy to use, and we were able to get to organizational web-based email, and other sites via WiFi as we might normally do. RIM's control of Blackberry smartphones via its Business Enterprise Server doesn't extend yet to the Playbook, although there are third-party applications that claim they can control the Playbook's features and policy sets through agent-based control.

Setup requires a Blackberry account, just as the Apple iPad 2 requires an Apple ID. Our unit downloaded about 80MB of updates before it would initially wake up, and installation was trivial. The Playbook has several ports, and connectivity through them is simple, but there are no printer drivers. Bluetooth support is very strong, and also allows one to connect as a peer (tethered) to a PC, Mac, or Linux machine for file transfer purposes, something that Apple doesn't support.

We were concerned that the Playbook didn't lay quite flat on a surface. It rocked very slightly when we typed or swiped. It had a bit of Middle Eastern feel, as swipes are right-to-left, rather than right-to-left. The Playbook is sent in a carrying sack, unlike every other unit sent.

We wish there was more to it. RIM has a developer network and an application store for the Playbook, but the number of applications available in the pre-Android phase that we examined are but a fraction of the diversity available for Android and iOS. The Blackberry Tablet OS is currently based on QNX, originally a Real Time Operating System (RTOS). RIM announced last week a merger of QNX with the Blackberry phone OS into the "BBX Platform".

If you're a Blackberry owner, the Playbook becomes a new member of the Blackberry ecosystem. The program load lacks ActiveSync, or even RIM's BES control. The Playbook has great origins, but needs to evolve before it's ready for widespread enterprise use, unless there's a Blackberry culture already there.

Acer Iconia Tab W500: Fast, runs Windows 7, has keyboard

Outside of the Durabook (which is a hybrid), the only other unit that came with a keyboard was the Iconia Tab W500. Driven by an AMD C-50 processor, the only one in this review, the Acer was fast, and used Windows 7 Professional 32-bit for its operating system.

There were several useful customizations to the program load of the W500, including a Migration and Synchronization Wizard that allowed data to be synced between a Windows 7 machine (ostensibly a notebook or desktop), and the W500 tablet.

We tried the sync tool. It uses a flash drive, and it works pretty quickly to initially backup settings on the W500, then installs a Windows ".msi" setup file for a host; we tried Windows XP and 7. Both worked, although the installation was quirky on Windows 7. Installed onto a "host" system, one checks a box associated with the files or folders that might be synced between the host and the W500. Outlook, unfortunately, wasn't an option, but POP3 mail could be synchronized, entire folders, shortcuts and other settings, along with video, music, pictures, and documents could be check-marked for transfer. It worked swimmingly.

The connection between the keyboard and the tablet isn't as solid as we'd like to see, and it doesn't quite balance on a lap, although it's largely stable enough on a flat desk, but perhaps not on a commuter train. That said, the keyboard was quite convenient to use and a nice standard accessory in this Windows 7-based tablet.

The W500 also has numerous adaptations for Windows 7, including a screen keyboard that we judged to be the best of the Windows 7 tablets we tested. The high-resolution display (1280 x 800) was crisp although it showed a higher than normal surface glare, especially outdoors.

Jacks on the unit include a full-sized USB on the bottom and HDMI jack, along with a proprietary charger connector and an SD memory card slot. A button on the front lower bezel starts the unit and also serves as the traditional Windows "Start" button. There are also jacks for headphones, an on/off button, and a front/back webcam. We worried, though, that all of the holes, jacks, and buttons might make the unit more susceptible to spills and such.

Overall the Iconia W500 is bright and crisp and Acer has made decent adaptations for Windows users to join the tablet to their devices in a meaningful if rudimentary way. The keyboard, while handy, seems a bit dodgy in practical use.

ViewSonic ViewPad 10Pro: Win 7, access to Android apps, some rough spots

We were surprised to boot the ViewSonic ViewPad 10Pro and find Windows 7 Professional Edition smiling back at us. One of the principal benefits of the 10Pro is that it uses a pretty generic, if slimmed version of an operating system that few people need to relearn: Windows. The 10Pro is a 10-inch tablet that runs Android apps in a hypervisor-like arrangement via a program called BlueStacks Alpha.

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