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Touch and Go

The latest generation of Android tablets just might give the iPad a run for its money


APPLE’S IPHONE MAY face some stiff competition — according to Nielsen, the leading smartphone platform in the U.S. is Android — but in the tablet arena, the iPad has reigned supreme. This should come as no surprise: Until recently, most Android tablets were generic, me-too bores with access to a mere fraction of the kinds of apps that make the iPad compelling.

In the past few months, however, several manufacturers have upped the ante by introducing tablets with significant differentiating features — some practical, some stylish. These gadgets tend to cost the same or less than their Apple counterpart and offer cutting-edge specs (superfast dual-core processors and USB 2.0 ports, the ability to play Flash videos and animations) and head-turning looks. Here are the early winners in a showdown that’s only just begun.

Tired of row after row and screen after screen of app thumbnails? You’re in luck: Amazon’s Kindle Fire ($199, www.amazon.com) features a “Cover Flow”-style interface on top of its Android operating system that lets you flip through 3-D icons (representing books, videos, apps, websites and more) on a virtual bookshelf. The Fire is attractively small, at 7.5 inches across, and, naturally, offers full one-click purchase integration with Amazon books, music and video, including free streaming of TV shows and movies for Amazon Prime members.

The sexiest of the stack is the Sony Tablet S ($500, www.sony.com), which has a sloping design that puts extra weight on one side. This makes the device feel lighter, which is handy for reading or watching a movie in bed. The inclined viewing angle also makes reading the tablet edition of your favorite newspaper over breakfast much easier, since there’s no need for a clumsy external stand. At 9.4 inches across, the Tablet S is about as compact as the iPad, but, like the Fire, lacks an HDMI output.

Appealing to those for whom bigger is better is the Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet ($499, www.lenovo.com). I never thought that I’d want a heftier tablet, but this slab’s 0.6-inch thickness packs quite a punch. In addition to a built-in 3-in-1 media card reader, the ThinkPad has a USB 2.0 port, thereby eliminating one of the reasons I usually bring a laptop on work trips. I can use the port for quick file transfers to an external hard drive, as well as for connecting a mouse, speakers or other USB devices (and even power an iPad). And though it harks back to tablets of yore, the included digital stylus — easily stored in a built-in compartment — is convenient for taking notes and drawing.

Equally business-ready is the Asus Slider ($500, www.asus.com), which, like the ThinkPad, has a built-in 3G SIM slot, meaning that you can use it with most mobile carriers across the globe (you’ll need to sign up for a plan and get a SIM card with the appropriate carrier first, of course). As the name suggests, this tablet’s touchscreen pivots to reveal a full QWERTY keyboard with physical keys. While this might sound gimmicky, the mix of touchscreen and keyboard is surprisingly effective. The keys are a bit smaller than average, but on a recent cross-country flight I found this tablet, in its upright, opened position, to be the perfect size for, say, banging out a magazine column without having to contort myself like a circus performer — which is a victory in itself.

Hemispheres tech columnist TOM SAMILJAN is still waiting for someone to invent a tablet with a built-in cup holder.

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