Hands On With the Cisco Cius Tablet

Toss all preconceptions of the Cisco Cius out the door. This is not just another Android tablet. Instead, Cisco has taken great pains to position the Cius as a very different type of tablet, and one whose primary purpose lies less in competing head-to-head with the tablet masses, and more at changing how corporate America does business.

Cisco aims the Cius squarely at large enterprises, companies whose pockets are deep and whose workforces are scattered and thus crave the easy visual communication the Cius aims to provide. That said, the device’s seamless visual communications, coupled with Cisco’s support, could offer a lot to smaller businesses that have far-flung staffers, too. It also is ideal for vertical industries that are developing an Android-based app infrastructure, and for healthcare and other organizations that rely heavily on videoconferencing.

The Cius tablet, while it can be used on its own, is really intended to be employed in conjunction with the “media station” dock that Cisco sells separately and that turns the Cius into an office workstation and an advanced telecommunications system in one. The media station has no price as yet, but the tablet will cost between $650 and $750 and will not be sold via retail; pricing will depend in part upon the volume sold and other incentives. The model here is the Wi-Fi-only variant; a 4G version is expected from Verizon in the fall.

It would be easy to dismiss the Cius on numerous counts when comparing it with, say, the sexier, larger-screen hardware of Apple’s iPad 2 or any of the less sexy Android competitors. It’s heavy, it’s thick, and at launch, it’s running the Android 2.2 (Froyo) operating system.

But with the Cius, Cisco has no designs on competing with the iPad or almost any of the Android tablets–consumer devices that may find their way into the enterprise, less by virtue of a company actively deciding to use the technology than by individuals approaching the IT department asking how to get onto the company’s network with their shiny new toy.

Instead, Cisco has its sights set on larger-scale deployment at the company level. The scalability of the Cius is limited only by the server infrastructure of the company implementing the system, up into the tens of thousands of users. The Cius tablet can serve as a communications hub and virtual desktop interface, too. Collaboration and video conferencing goes to a whole new level with the Cius: Think of it as an advanced video phone that can also play Angry Birds–and run custom-designed apps. It’s mobile office communications with a twenty-first century twist.

As a tablet, the Cius doesn’t physically distinguish itself through its stylish design. It measures 8.9 by 5.5 by 0.6 inches and weighs 1.15 pounds–heavy by 7-inch tablet standards, but not so heavy as to discredit it from being a mobile device. The Cius is obviously optimized for use in landscape mode; in that orientation, the video camera is centered above the display, and the speakers are positioned below it, with three physical Android navigation buttons. The menu, home, and back buttons are contoured and well-defined. At back, an indentation beneath the battery houses some of the inputs (headphone jack, two docking station jacks, and a Mini-HDMI port).

When handling the tablet, I found the indentation for the ports was actually a convenient resting point for my fingers.

Along the top of the tablet is an oval-shaped power button, the dual-array echo-canceling microphone, a microSD card slot under a sturdy lid, and a microUSB port. The left edge has a curved up-and-down volume button and a mute button; the right side is largely devoid of inputs, with just a slider to release the removable battery, and an AC input.

The inclusion of a removable battery is an important one for businesses and vertical environments; time and again, I hear a call for batteries to be user-replaceable, as it minimizes downtime. Cisco says the battery should last about 8 hours for “business” use, which it defines as video calling, some Web browsing, Cisco WebEx collaboration calls, email, and staying in standby mode during meetings.