With RIM’s recent unveiling of the PlayBook, the long-anticipated tablet market is finally taking shape. Along with Apple and Samsung (backed by Android), we now have three major players on the scene.

First out of the blocks, of course, was Apple with its iPad. It had the job of the hard sell, trying to convince people that they needed this new tier of technology in their lives. By most accounts it’s done a fine job, despite lingering doubts among the mainstream press over the purpose of the format.

Indeed, the iPad has one major advantage of being the only device of the three that’s available to buy right now. The Galaxy Tab should be with us shortly, but we'll have to wait into the new year for the PlayBook.

With this in mind, we though we'd compare the technical specifications of the three devices, as well as their gaming pedigree. Which tablet looks to be the best package, on paper, for the discerning pocket gamer?

Naturally, we’ll bring you detailed comparisons as and when we get our hands on the other two devices.

Round 1: Form Factor

iPad Screen: 9.7-inch; Dimensions: 190mm x 243mm x 13mm; Weight: 680-730g
Galaxy Tab Screen: 7-inch; Dimensions: 120mm x 190mm x 12mm; Weight: 380g
PlayBook Screen: 7-inch; Dimensions: 130mm x 193mm x 10mm; Weight: 400g

From the start, iPad fans might justifiably argue that their device belongs in a separate sub-category of tablet to the other two. It’s a considerably bigger device, after all, with a screen that’s about 40 per cent larger than its two rivals.

Just because Samsung and RIM have opted to take a different approach to tablet design, though, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be compared with the iPad. All of these devices perform the same function, bridging the gap between smartphone and netbook.

It’s a matter of perspective, and from my viewpoint the Samsung and RIM approach is preferable. Both devices are just about pocketable and grippable in one hand (if you have reasonably sized pockets and hands), which the iPad definitely isn’t.

What’s more, the Galaxy Tab (the smallest of the three, although the PlayBook is the thinnest) is almost half the weight of the top-spec iPad.

Another reason I prefer the smaller form factor is the screen ratio, which is a far more natural fit for widescreen content than the iPad’s slightly square display.

Ultimately, for being the most compact device while retaining a decent sized widescreen display, the Samsung device takes this round by a smidgen.

Winner: Galaxy Tab

Round 2: Power

iPad CPU: 1 GHz Apple A4; GPU: PowerVR SGX 535; RAM: 256MB
Galaxy Tab CPU: 1 GHz ‘Hummingbird’ Application Processor; GPU: PowerVR SGX 540; RAM: 512MB
PlayBook CPU: 1 GHz dual-core processor; GPU: Unknown; RAM: 1GB

Pocket Gamer isn't a tech site, so we’re not going to go too deeply into the relative merits of each unit’s internal bits and bobs. We can build a general picture of each unit’s capabilities, though, and two of them are surprisingly similar.

Both the iPad and Galaxy Tab’s processors – while customised – are based on the same ARM A8 Cortex CPU. It’s a similar story when it comes to graphical grunt, though the Tab has a slightly superior chip to the PowerVR SGX series.

However, the Tab pulls into a more convincing lead when it comes to RAM, offering 512MB to the iPad’s 256MB.

The PlayBook is something of a dark horse, as not all of the specs have been announced just yet, but what we know so far seems to back up RIM’s suggestion that it will be the most powerful tablet on the market.

Its 1GHz dual core processor is based on the superior ARM A9 Cortex CPU, while the device will run on 1GB of RAM – that’s double the amount of the Tab and four times that of the iPad.

The only doubt concerns the as-yet-unannounced GPU, although it’s been confirmed that it will offer “significantly higher performance” than ARM’s own Marli architecture, so we’d expect something suitably meaty.

Winner: PlayBook

Round 3: Hardware features

iPad Storage: 16, 32 or 64GB; Camera: None; Connectivity: 3G (optional), 802.11n wi-fi, Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR
Galaxy Tab Storage: 16 or 32GB; Camera: 3MP rear-facing, 1.3MP front-facing; Connectivity: 3G, 802.11n wi-fi, PDMI, Bluetooth 3.0
PlayBook Storage: 16 or 32GB; Camera: 5MP rear-facing, 3MP front-facing; Connectivity: 4G (optional), 802.11n wi-fi, Micro HDMI, Micro USB, Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR

What other hardware features do the three tablets feature, particularly when it comes to accessing, capturing and storing multimedia content? Each device has its own particular strengths and weaknesses here.

In terms of raw storage, it appears to be pretty even between the two seven-inch devices (although the PlayBook’s options haven’t been officially confirmed).

The iPad emerges as the only device to offer a 64GB model – double that available in its two competitors. This is an important issue given the memory-hungry nature of high definition video, lossless music tracks, and 3D-intensive games.

Speaking of high definition video, the PlayBook stands out for allowing you to capture full HD (1080p) video with its five-megapixel camera, while the Galaxy Tab can only manage 720p video on its three-megapixel effort. Of course, both are preferable to the iPad, which doesn’t feature a camera at all.

When it comes to connectivity, only the Galaxy Tab comes with a 3G connection as standard. The iPad features only in an optional model, while it seems the PlayBook will follow the same path, with RIM promising to offer 3G and 4G (where available) models at some point in the future.

Both the PlayBook and the Galaxy Tab will be able to output video at up to 1080p – the former through its Micro HDMI port and the latter through its PDMI port. This is something the iPad can’t manage – indeed, it can’t even push out 720p video.

As we said, each has its strengths and weaknesses, and we’d have to call this tie between the PlayBook (superior camera) and Galaxy Tab (properly integrated 3G).

Winner: PlayBook and Galaxy Tab

Round 4: Operating system

iPad iOS
Galaxy Tab Android 2.2
PlayBook BlackBerry Tablet OS

It’s all very well having the most compact form factor, the most powerful hardware. or the best camera, but it’s arguable that nothing affects the user experience more than the quality of the operating system.

In this respect, the PlayBook loses out because it will run on a brand new, untested OS. Rather than go with a modified version of the recently released BlackBerry 6 OS, RIM is using a brand new OS based on QNX micro-kernel architecture. It promises to be brilliantly suited to multi-tasking, but we’ll have to wait and see.

Which leaves us with the iPad’s iOS and the Galaxy Tab’s Android 2.2 – currently the two hottest portable operating systems on the market. This is purely a matter of preference, with both systems offering distinct strengths and undeniable weaknesses.

iOS is arguably a tighter, more stable experience, but it’s been compromised a little by its tardy and half-hearted implementation of multi-tasking. Then there’s the matter of its web browser – a major function of any mobile OS – which still refuses to play nicely with Flash content.

Android is known and loved for its wide open, all-inclusive approach, letting manufacturers such as Samsung tinker with UI elements to their hearts' content. However, this makes for problems and inevitable delays when Google updates the core OS, and the overall Android experience still isn’t quite as slick as iOS’s.

It’s a predictable tie between the big two, then.

Winner: iPad and Galaxy Tab

Round 5: Gaming pedigree

The final round involves no direct tech spec comparisons. It involves, to some degree, all of the elements discussed above, but it opens out to incorporate each company’s approach to, and history with, gaming.

Again, we can count the PlayBook out of the reckoning straight away, despite the suggestive name. Make no mistake, RIM’s tablet is no plaything. In its own words, “RIM set out to engineer the best professional-grade tablet in the industry.”

While the PlayBook will no doubt handle games with aplomb (and it’s claimed that developers will be able to port games written in C or Java easily), RIM simply won’t place much emphasis on it as a gaming device. In the accompanying press-release, games were only mentioned once, and then in the context of the web-based variety.

Android has taken its time, but it finally appears to be taking off as a gaming platform. Major developers are giving serious thought to their output for the platform, with increasing numbers of quality iOS games being ported.

But they’re still conversions. At present, Apple’s App Store is the best place to go for mobile games, and the iPad is a part of that. While not every game is properly tweaked to make the most of the iPad’s unique attributes, it does at least run pretty much every iPhone game available. That’s a heck of a library to call on.

When games are properly optimised for the iPad, they bring unique elements, like Fruit Ninja and Piyo Blocks 2’s ability to play simultaneous two-player.

Can you imagine that working as well on the smaller screens of its rivals? What’s more, the fact that it shares a similar architecture to the iPhone 4 means it can benefit from many of the technical and graphical enhancements made with that device in mind.

As a gaming tablet – both now and in the immediate future – the iPad wins, hands-down

Winner: iPad

Conclusion

So, the Galaxy Tab edges it over the five rounds. This is backed up by early reports that it’s a high quality piece of kit, and a more than worthy iPhone rival.

But really, it’s a fairly even outcome, with each device only coming out as the clear winner once each. They all have a lot going for them, with each possessing sufficiently unique features to mark them out as special.

Anyway, our final recommendation isn’t the Galaxy Tab. How could it be, on a site that focuses on portable gaming?

Right now, our vote goes with the iPad – not only because it’s the only device we’ve handled (although being early to market is a notable plus), but because it will almost certainly continue to be the best tablet for gaming well into 2011.