CES 2010: Where are the tablets?

The 2010 Consumer Electronics show was a disappointing, almost embarrassing event for tablet computers.

Let’s be clear that I’m not talking about the laptop computers with swiveling touch screens. Those have been around for years, and while they’re not going away, I don’t see them taking off either. But I was hoping to see some impressive single-panel, touch screen devices at this year’s show, and came away suspecting that every manufacturer is hanging back, waiting for Apple’s rumored tablet to take the lead.

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That’s not to say CES didn’t have any tablet products to show. Lenovo kicked off a pre-show press event with its IdeaPad U1, a laptop whose touch screen completely detaches from the body and becomes its own device. And NVidia was showing off ICD’s Ultra, a 7-inch Android-based tablet running on NVidia’s Tegra chip. But both of those products left something to be desired. The IdeaPad U1’s homemade operating system was sluggish, and the Ultra, being shown as an early prototype, was prone to crashing. Same goes for MSI’s “E-book,” a wrongly-named and barely functional Android tablet that I tried for a few minutes before giving up in frustration.

The outlook gets bleaker still. Other Android tablets, including ICD’s large-screen Vega and Notion Ink’s slick-looking device, were behind glass and non-operational at NVidia’s booth. Dell wouldn’t let anyone see its tablet for more than 90 seconds, and there was no word from Asus. Microsoft chief executive officer Steve Ballmer flashed an HP tablet on stage at his keynote speech but offered few details. Intel and NVidia are apparently going to square off in this market, but the only tablet I could find at Intel’s booth was the Archos 9, a Windows machine that was announced last year.

It seems as if computer manufacturers both major and minor cobbled together these devices for the sake of having something, anything at all for show-and-tell. But if Apple really is going to unveil an actual product this month, it’ll blow these rough works in progress out of the water.