CES 2011 starts in just a few days and once again the iPad competitors are lining up to take a shot at Apple's breakthrough tablet. I say "once again" because last year, even before Apple had announced the iPad, rumor of it alone was enough to get Steve Ballmer on stage showing off a Windows-powered HP Slate, and to line the halls with all sorts of in-development tablets based on Android, Linus, etc.

None of those materialized for the mainstream but now that Apple has launched iPad and sold millions upon millions of them, you can bet this year will be different, and here are just some of the players:

  • Microsoft's Steve Ballmer is giving "a number" of slates another shot on stage, this time by Samsung and Dell (HP now has webOS, see below). The SammyPad is said to be similar to iPad but not as thin, allowing for a slide-out keyboard as differentiator. They'll run full-blown Windows 7 but have a layer on top for better touch-computing. [New York Times]

  • HP/Palm's webOS tablet, unofficially the PalmPad, was rumored to be showing up for CES dressed in the old HP Slate duds from last year, but that rumor now seems to have been smashed. Too bad. Palm Pre and Palm Pre Plus both debuted at CES, and a Palm Pad debut would have had interesting symmetry. webOS optimized for the big screen, like iOS was for iPad, could be a serious contender for Apple in usability, elegance, and design -- where it's usually ahead -- so hopefully if we don't see it at CES we'll see PalmPad soon thereafter. Worst case scenario, Palm is focusing on phones, which isn't a bad thing... [PreCentral.net]

  • RIM BlackBerry PlayBook will almost certainly grab a lot of attention at CES. A bold departure from the traditional hierarchy of BlackBerry strengths -- BBOS, keyboards, communication -- RIM's tablet runs their new QNX-based PlayBook OS with UI layers powered by Adobe's Flash. That means RIM can brag about a "fuller" web experience than Apple provides. So, while it might look like an iPad running something akin to webOS, it'll have the RIM brain-trust (and security focus) behind it. For years they've been making fun of Apple's "toys", but putting the BlackBerry brand (and BBM) on the device might just get all those who've had secret iPad lust in their hearts a way to get some PlayBook, and play-time all their own. [CrackBerry.com]

  • Android 3.0 Honeycomb-powered tablets wil probably the biggest, baddest competition coming Apple's way, and Motorola's (DroidPad?) will spearhead that assault. Demonstrated by Andy Rubin last month, the prototype was as big as an iPhone and looked to really take advantage of that extra size. Android apps can split out into pane-views (perhaps similar to Apple's column-views, perhaps more free form like windowed computing?) and who knows what else at this point? We'll also likely see a googolplex of other Android tablets on the floor, shipping with a variety of versions and customizations to the OS, showing again the strength-in-numbers of the platform. [AndroidCentral.com]

There will no doubt be a lot of other contenders as well, some ultra-cheap, some amazingly innovative. Yours truly from TiPb and the rest of SPE, including Dieter, Kevin, and Phil will be on the ground covering the event and will bring you back all the highlights. Which of these devices do you think will be the biggest story and the toughest competition?

Which one do you think Steve Jobs will target the hardest when he takes the stage just a short time later (don't know when yet!) and introduces iPad 2?