What is a tablet computer?

Tablet is a generic term which refers to a slate-shaped mobile computer, which is little bigger than its own screen and is therefore highly portable. Instead of a keyboard or mouse, a tablet will have a more integrated user interface such as a touchscreen that can be used with just your fingers, or for more accurate work a stylus or digital pen. Tablets may be a preferred device where normal notebooks are impractical or heavy, or do not suit the functionality desired by the user for graphics, ebook reading, or media viewing.

Slate computers, which are named for the shape and size of old-style writing slates, are tablet computers without a dedicated keyboard. For text input, users rely on handwriting recognition via active digitizer, touching the screen with a fingertip or stylus or by using an external keyboard can usually be attached via a wireless or USB connection. The iPad is the most well-known example today (at one stage it was actually rumoured to be called the iSlate after Apple reportedly acquired the domain name islate.com). Most new models now have multi-touch capabilities where a whole range of actions can be achieved by tapping or moving one or more fingertips around the touchscreen.

HP Pavilion convertible tablet laptopSome tablets are called convertible, with a swivel out keyboard. These are more useful than slates for people who need to do a lot of text input or emails, as they give the option of touch screen (like a slate), and also full keyboard (like a laptop or netbook). Hybrids are a type of tablet that share the features of the slate and convertible by using a detachable keyboard which operates in a similar fashion to a convertible when attached.

Cool facts: why tablets are different!

1. No moving parts, cheaper to make

The One Laptop Per Child organisation may switch to "one tablet per child" because tablets have no moving parts (not even a hinge) are much cheaper to make. The goal was to get a laptop mass produced for under US$100, but tablet computers were the only way they could do it.

2. Sumos can use them as iPhones

In Japan, sumo wrestlers are using iPads as a touchscreen phone. Their fingers are too big for iPhones and other touch phones, but an iPad is just the right size!

3. It knows where you are, and where it's facing

What better map than one that already knows where you are! Perfect for travel, a location aware tablet can be your map, tour guide (point the camera at a building to find out about it), foreign language translator (use the camera to translate menus, street signs, etc), and phrase book.

4. Entertainment central

A tablet has much longer battery life than a laptop (10 hours+), and is made for movies, TV, and games. Coming web standards like HTML5 and Google's focus on its Chrome OS for cloud computing will make so many more gaming options available with just a browser, and no need to install software.

5. A new way of delivering technical information

Sure, magazines and newspapers look better on a tablet because they can embed video, music, and quick links. But a tablet also works well for technical applications because sometimes you need more than just text. Airplane pilots use tablet-like devices to bring their data on-board, which includes massive text databases (flight manuals), graphics (airport layouts, maps), and dynamic graphics (wind patterns, airspace corridors). The data is updated constantly by satellite. Hyundai is going to use tablets for the user manual in its new high end cars - it will not only show you a video of how to change a tyre or set the cruise control, it will also book your car in for a service when it detects that you need one!