When it comes to tablet PCs, there's still only one name that matters: iPad. It's just topped a Nielsen poll as the most desired Christmas present.
And however many rivals are launched, they just can't make a dent in Apple's ownership of the market. Some competitors are terrific - the best was HP's TouchPad but that flopped so badly it was deleted within weeks of going on sale. And classy Android machines like Sony's beautiful Tablet S still can't get decent traction.
Not least this is because they're all about the same price as the iPad. Faced with Apple's smart machine with an unparalleled range of apps, astonishing interface and classy build quality and another similarly priced machine, why wouldn't you opt for the iPad?
But things may be about to change, now that Amazon has released its Kindle Fire tablet for just $199, less than half the cheapest iPad, though early reviews have been mixed. A UK date seems certain for early next year. Like the iPad, it has a massive range of content, from music to books to video. All easily bought from Amazon's store, as simply as stuff can be snagged via iTunes for the iPad. In the meantime, rival ebook reader maker Kobo hasstolen a march on Amazon by releasing its similar-looking Kobo Vox.
So what can keep Apple on top? This week I had an early view of a range of apps which Apple hopes will do the trick. First there were games. The word edutainment is not only ugly, it has associations with tiresome educational software barely enlivened by tedious but cute animation. But Apple seems to have turned it into genuine fun. Take The Numberlys, a new game from the makers of The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore (£2.99), a sweet diversion with animation that wouldn't look out of place on the big screen. The Numberlys is set in a dystopian world where there are no letters, only digits… until five friends protest. Players must fashion 26 letters from digits with each puzzle involving a degree of ingenuity. It's out soon. There's no reason why Android shouldn't have games as good as this. But it doesn't.
Partly that's because of Apple's quality control - a system with its detractors but which more or less guarantees you won't be wasting your money on a title that performs badly. Android still feels like the Wild West, and it really shouldn't by now.
There are other kids' titles like Cars 2 AppMATes for littl'uns where you can buy a model vehicle from the movie Cars 2 and push it around on the screen. The iPad knows it's there and reacts accordingly. Some of the cars even have cunning mirrors inside them so light from the iPad is reflected into the model cars so the headlights light up. It's the first in a new way of using the tablet, with extra cars or add-ons possible. The app is free, but cars are bought separately for £12.95 each.
Older kids will appreciate A Charlie Brown Christmas which matches authentically styled animation with strong interaction. When Charlie Brown's friends are noodling around on their musical instruments, the player must learn a simple tune to play on the keyboard. The reward is an instant concert playing a familiar Charlie Brown theme. Nostalgic but fun, though not as cheap as some apps: £4.99. Other nostalgic games include Dizzy: Prince of the Yolkfolk - Dizzy is an animated egg who starred in several video games in the late 80s. The iPad game, priced £2.49, is simple and charming, even if not quite perfectly adapted to a touch interface.
The inventive developer Smule builds on its success with Ocarina and Magic Piano with another noise-based app, MadPad HD, £1.99. You sample real sounds (car noises, breakfast sounds) with accompanying video and build a repertoire of “notes” which you can combine to make lovely tunes. Good fun and tests your imagination and musicality.
The latest iPad has a lot of games for older players such as the popular Real Racing 2 HD. Similarly impressive is a new flying game called Sky Gamblers (69p), with some of the most advanced graphics yet seen, and which gleam on the 9.7in display, down to the superb water effects and reflectiondetail. The game will play on the first iPad, but the graphics are enhanced on the newer machine thanks to its faster processor and graphics oomph.
More serious ways to show off with your tablet include Solar Walk, £1.99, a sumptuous view of the planets around Earth which lets you spin planets, and zoom out so far you feel totally, utterly insignificant. Don't spend time with it when you're feeling gloomy.
And later this month, Boxing Day to be precise, Apple launches its regular annual crowd-pleaser, The iTunes 12 Days of Christmas.From 26 December to 6 January, Apple releases a free item each day, including videos, apps and music tracks. It's definitely worth signing up for.
As always, the iPad delights because it is constantly new, its capabilities changing as innovative apps are released that add to the machine's potential. Google does this with Android tablets when it releases a new feature on its own apps like Google Goggles, say. But Apple's skill is to have created a software environment where developers feel empowered to devise immersive, exciting experiences, so third-party apps are often as impressive as Apple's own. And the iPad hardware is inviting, handsome and pleasurable to use in a way that rival products have yet to match. Next year, perhaps Android and BlackBerry will have closed the gap, but for now the iPad still leads the field.Reuse content