8 top tablets for the discriminating fed

Agencies should consider five criteria when buying a tablet. Here is how eight popular models, including the Apple iPad, BlackBerry PlayBook, HP TouchPad and Motion J3500, match up.

(Scores are on a scale of 1 to 10)  

Government workers are bombarded with the same tablet PC commercials everyone sees, touting features and buzzwords like "faster," "more powerful," "4G," "access points" and "apps." But what works best on the job? It can be hard to know what’s really important for a tablet that needs to fulfill an important role in government, as opposed to one that just needs to connect to Facebook and help those Angry Birds survive their war.

Some really cool features for consumers might even be negatives for government users — such as some tablets’ ability to act as wireless hotspots, allowing other devices to connect to the Internet through them. But depending on how this is handled, can be a huge security concern, with the tablet broadcasting its position and inviting others to connect.

So here are the five features that government users should probably consider above all others when buying a tablet for work. After that, we’ll list eight of the most popular models available right now, and how they rank against our criteria.

1. Security. The No. 1 concern of any government employee. These devices are small, popular and expensive, and are a target for thieves. Should the worst happen, you want to make sure that, at the very least, nobody can get to your valuable data. Features such as biometric access controls, security chips and even tracking features in the event the tablet is stolen should all be part of the package, even if some of these can be added after the fact.

2. Ruggedness. If you’re using a tablet on a critical project, you want to be sure that work is not disrupted or lost by environmental factors. You probably don’t need a fully Mil-Spec rugged device covered in titanium armor, but extras such as flash-memory hard drives or a protection rating against environmental factors would help.
 
3. Ease of use. Does a device use an interface your employees are familiar with, or do they have to learn an entirely new way of doing things? Also, how easily will a tablet sync with an existing backend network to be able to make use of things like e-mail and calendar functions?

4. Performance. This means two things: the ability to run programs that are vital to doing your job and the ability to quickly connect to the Internet to transfer files, receive e-mail and generally stay connected in this fast-paced world.

5. Value. Our value score here is based on how well a tablet scores on the other four in relation to its price. So, a bargain-basement tablet could still get a low value score if it fails miserably otherwise. And an expensive tablet can have a respectable value score if it’s perfect for government employees. Sometimes you get what you pay for in the tech world.

In each of our categories, we score the tablets on a scale of one to 10.

NEXT: Apple iPad 2 (Wi-Fi) 16G

Apple iPad 2

Apple iPad 2 (Wi-Fi) 16G

Security: 7
Ruggedness: 6
Ease of use: 9
Performance: 8
Value: 8

The original iPad set the bar for tablet computers, and the new iPad 2 continues that trend.

The iPad 2 is thin and light, has cameras for video conferencing, and options to take the Wi-Fi only model on the Web with AT&T or Verizon.

Security is still a bit of a concern, as demonstrated by the recent discovery of a vulnerability that would allow some users of the device to be tracked (though no actual exploitation of this was found). However, the inclusion of a Passcode feature, which requires a four-digit code to be entered before the device will function and which can even erase all data if the improper code is used, beefs up security quite a bit.

The device itself is quite fragile, but Apple sells a Smart Cover case that can compensate. Ease of use is a bit of a mixed bag for government users. The device is incredibly simple to operate, hence the high score, but if you are used to PC-based applications, it will require a bit of retraining. The base device starts at $499, though it only connects to wireless networks. It costs another $140 or so per year to add in 3G. Even so, that is a good value for the market leader.

NEXT: BlackBerry PlayBook

BlackBerry PlayBook

BlackBerry PlayBook
(Scores are on a scale of 1 to 10)

Security: 9
Ruggedness: 6
Ease of use: 7
Performance: 8
Value: 8

There is this general impression that all feds carry around BlackBerry smart phones, and RIM had better hope that is true. Because, although the PlayBook is a really powerful device, you need a separate BlackBerry handheld of the traditional variety to make use of all its best features.

The device is all about security. There are no dedicated e-mail, calendar, messaging, contacts, tasks, or memo programs on the PlayBook. Instead, you need to pair it with a BlackBerry smart phone to use it with your existing RIM-based e-mail. The good thing is that no information is left behind on the PlayBook, so if it gets stolen, it’s no big deal in terms of lost data. And it has a great browser to go along with its unique, dedicated OS that can be used to access Web mail programs like Gmail or Yahoo if you don’t want to use, or don’t have, a smart phone.

The PlayBook can also piggyback onto a smart phone and use that connection, whether it’s a BlackBerry or not, but if it is a RIM smart phone, that connection is invisible. So if your provider charges extra for piggybacking, they won’t know you’re doing it.

Oddly enough, the PlayBook is pretty different from a BlackBerry phone, so there is some learning involved even for dedicated BlackBerry fans. Thankfully, the interface is a good one. The device is not exceptionally rugged, but RIM sells a protective case for $50 that we would highly recommend to help shore it up a bit. The price is in line with other tablets, at $499 for a 16G Wi-Fi model. If you already have a BlackBerry smart phone, the PlayBook is close to the perfect choice. If not, then it’s still a good one, though you might find a slightly better overall experience elsewhere.

NEXT: Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.2

Samsung Galaxy Tablet

Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.2
(Scores are on a scale of 1 to 10)

Security: 6
Ruggedness: 6
Ease of use: 8
Performance: 8
Value: 8

The Galaxy Tab is a real workhorse. It can run multiple applications at the same time and has full Flash support, something that sets it apart from and above the iPad.

Unfortunately, there is no extra security, as this device is clearly designed for consumers. And it’s not exceptionally rugged. The large 10-inch screen becomes a bit of weakness in that sense. The price is fairly standard, with a 16G unit costing $499. Despite some flaws that would make it less than perfect for government users, if you are looking for a powerhouse with a huge screen, this is it.

NEXT: Motion Computing J3500 Tablet PC

Motion Computing J3500

Motion Computing J3500 Tablet PC
(Scores are on a scale of 1 to 10)

Security: 9
Ruggedness: 9
Ease of use: 7
Performance: 9
Value: 7

The difference between the J3500 and many other tablets is that this one is designed from the ground up for government. As such, there are extra features, such as a biometric fingerprint scanner that denies access to anyone but authorized users. It’s also rugged, up to the military’s tough rugged Mil-Spec 810G specifications.

The Intel i3, i5 or i7 chip inside the tablet makes it about as powerful as a notebook PC. The one negative may be that the J3500 is expensive —more than $3,000 depending on how it’s configured. But that is still a good value if your work demands protection and security in an easy-to-use platform.

NEXT: HP TouchPad

HP TouchPad

HP TouchPad
(Scores are on a scale of 1 to 10)

Security: 9
Ruggedness: 6
Ease of use: 8
Performance: 10
Value: 9

The HP TouchPad could be a huge deal. Just released, it features a blazing fast, dual-core 1.2 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon CPU. A tablet with a dual core processor at the standard $499 price for a Wi-Fi only model? Impressive.

In terms of security, the tablet runs WebOS, which means there is inherent security, such as the ability to use encryption that will work in the enterprise. That means you don’t have to add extra programs to fully protect your files. And it’s not just a top-level access control program, but full encryption for everything.

For ease of use, you can link the device to any other device running WebOS to share files. The price is pretty much like most tablets this size, but you get a lot more power and security under the hood. In fact, the HP TouchPad may be the best choice overall for government users looking to use tablets without spending a ton of money.

NEXT: Motorola Xoom

Motorola Xoom
(Scores are on a scale of 1 to 10)

Motorola Xoom

Security: 8
Ruggedness: 6
Ease of use: 7
Performance: 9
Value: 8

The Motorola Xoom is a nice tablet if you want a Windows-like experience without actually running Windows. Its Honeycomb software is quick and speedy, and the interface with Gmail is practically elegant.

Security originally was a little weak, but a recent upgrade added some needed features, such as Secure Sockets Layer data transfer with websites. The Xoom can be used as a hotspot, which we noted in the intro could be a big negative for government users, but again, the software has mostly compensated for this by enabling Wi-Fi Protected Access pre-shared key pass phrases whenever the hotspot is active.

The performance is really good, and the battery life is solid at over eight hours on a single charge, even when running movies the whole time. The price is higher than we expected, at $799, but in this case, you get what you pay for in a rather elegant design.

NEXT: HTC Flyer

HTC Flyer

HTC Flyer
(Scores are on a scale of 1 to 10)

Security: 7
Ruggedness: 9
Ease of use: 6
Performance: 7
Value: 8

The HTC Flyer is one of the most smart phone-like tablets we looked at for this piece. In fact, instead of running the new Honeycomb OS, like the Xoom, it instead runs Android Gingerbread, which is mostly designed for smart phones.

This is not plain vanilla Gingerbread, though, and enhancements have been made. However, it still feels more like a smart phone than a working tablet.

On the plus side, the entire frame is solid aluminum without a hint of plastic. Although the Flyer is not rated for Mil-Spec, it still makes a very rugged device.

The interface is a little difficult to use. There is only a 7-inch screen, and to truly make use of the applications, you need to use a stylus called a Magic Pen. The nice thing is that when using the pen, the normal touch interface is deactivated, so you won’t accidentally hit something with your finger. When you put the pen away, you can use your fingers again, though with less accuracy.

The HTC Flyer is a good value at $499, especially if you are looking for a rugged unit and just want to dip your feet in the tablet waters without getting too far away from your smart-phone comfort zone.

NEXT: Dell Streak 7

Dell Streak 7

Dell Streak 7
(Scores are on a scale of 1 to 10)

Security: 7
Ruggedness: 7
Ease of use: 7
Performance: 7
Value: 8

The Dell Streak 7 is another tablet that keeps a hand in the smart-phone arena. In fact, the Streak 7 seems almost like the smaller Streak 5 model, but with a 7-inch screen. Some people might not need a larger tablet, and it’s nice that these 7-inch models exist for them. The smaller size and the inclusion of Gorilla Glass on the front panel make the Streak a little more rugged than a standard tablet.

In terms of performance, the Streak 7 comes with a 1 GHz dual-core Tegra 2 T20 processor from Nvidia, which is pretty zippy. Unfortunately, the screen is only 800 by 480 pixels; with that kind of power under the hood, we wanted to see the resolution bumped up. It’s a good resolution for a smart phone, but a little blocky for a tablet.

The Streak 7 is a good choice for someone who would like a smaller tablet and doesn’t want to pay a lot to get it. The Streak is on sale for $450 most places, and if you add in a contract from T-Mobile, you can get it for $199 (it’s a long-term contract, of course). It’s not the most impressive tablet on the market, but for the price it can probably get you where you need to go.

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