Jul 182012
 

Is there only one ideal size for a tablet? If so, which size is ideal, and why?

Note :  This is a follow up article, building on the points in our earlier article when the Nexus 7 was first announced and adding further commentary based on using the Nexus 7 alongside an iPad – ‘Does Size Really Matter for Tablet Screens‘.

Steve Jobs insisted there was only one suitable size for tablets – the 9.7″ diagonal, 4:3 aspect ratio screen which currently adorns all three model iPads.  He was ultra-dismissive of smaller screen sizes such as the 7″ screen that has become popular, believing them to be ‘too small to express the software’ and subsequently describing the 9.7″ screen as ‘the minimum necessary’.

By interesting coincidence, a 7″ wider aspect ratio screen is almost exactly half the size of the iPad’s 9.7″ screen.  This is not what you’d think by simply comparing 7″ to 9.7″, but when you put the two screens side by side, you see that the long side of the smaller tablet is the same as the short side of the iPad, and the short side of the 7″ tablet is just less than half the long side of the iPad.

So the first point to appreciate is that the difference in screen square inches is more significant than it seems by merely reciting the numbers.

The Unavoidable Compromises Between Size and Convenience

On the face of it, bigger is always better with computer screens, but any type of mobile/portable device inevitably embodies a complex mix of tradeoffs.  Bigger – while visually better, also definitely means heavier and bulkier, may means shorter battery life, and probably means more expensive.

A 7″ screened tablet, without any additional protective case, is right at the maximum size that such a device can be conveniently carried inside a lady’s handbag or in a gent’s jacket pocket.  A 9.7″ sized tablet definitely is too large for such methods of carrying, and needs either its own carry bag or else a protected place in a larger carry-bag or briefcase.

Is this an important issue for you?  People with a larger iPad sized tablet will say that for ultra-portable mobile needs, they can use their smartphone instead, and with smartphone screen sizes now ranging up to almost 5″, and cross-over devices that are somewhere between a big phone and a small tablet going slightly bigger still, it is true that much of what one could do on a 7″ screen can also be done on a smaller screen.

In particular, when considering the alternatives posed by a 7″ Nexus 7 device and a 9.7″ iPad device, the tradeoffs are :

   Nexus 7    iPad
Screen size Smallish Largish (twice as big   )
Battery life Good Slightly Better
Portability Good Bad
Price Low – $249 Higher – $499 and up

 Bigger Isn’t Just Bigger

If, for example, you’ve had a chance to see an app running on an iPhone and then its companion app running on an iPad, you’ll know that the extra screen space on the iPad doesn’t just allow for everything to be identical, but simply bigger.  The extra screen space allows for a totally different approach to how the screen is used and how the program interfaces with you.  There can be more information on the screen, more user-prompting and helpful guidance, and a generally more useful approach to managing whatever the application is.

Everyone knows a bigger screen is bigger.  But you need to realize that a bigger screen also allows for a total redesign of how an application is presented to its user, a redesign that makes it more intuitive and obvious to use, and more helpful in the information it displays.

So if you halve the amount of screen space by reducing down to a 7″ sized screen, you’re not just making everything smaller.  You may be requiring the program to cut down on the amount of information it displays on the screen, retreating back to a more bare-bones type presentation more akin to a smartphone screen.

Games

Extra space isn’t always essential for all types of applications (although, in our opinion, it is almost always better, even if not essential).

But extra space comes into its own with many types of computer game.  If you try and squash an entire game ‘world’ onto the smaller screen, you lose details and the ability to readily control the components of the world.  Most games call for larger screen sizes.

Videos

There’s been a steady increase in screen size for our at-home television sets, which tends to confirm that most people agree with the concept of bigger being better when watching video entertainment.

Although some brave people have struggled through entire movies on the miniature screen of an iPhone (or, even smaller, an earlier generation iPod), most of us, being less masochistic and seeking more pleasure from our video entertainment, will find the twice as large 9.7″ screen to be much preferable to the half sized 7″ screen when watching video.

Typing

I’ve not really thought of my fingers as being short and stubby, but maybe they are – or perhaps I’m just lacking in fine motor control skills.  But, whatever the explanation, I find typing on the 7″ screen’s virtual keyboard to be much more difficult than typing on the iPad’s much larger virtual keyboard.

Neither device allows anything close to a touch typing experience, and similarly, both devices are each appreciably better than typing on the even smaller keyboard on a smartphone.

However, unless you’re the type of person who currently stoically types out long messages on a smartphone keyboard, you’ll definitely find the larger keyboard on the larger screen to be much more convenient to use.

Is Apple About to Turn its Back on Steve Jobs

The interesting thing is how the marketplace response to Google’s announcing the Nexus 7 saw a frantic flurry of strategic leaks from both Apple and Amazon.

Amazon urgently said ‘We’re going to come up with a better Kindle Fire real soon now’ in a hope to staunch the otherwise certain loss of most of their ongoing market share to the vastly superior Nexus 7 (compared to their current generation Kindle Fire).

As for Apple, whether it was an officially sanctioned leak or not (our guess is that it was), news emerged from the formerly notoriously tight-lipped company that Apple was likely to release a lower priced 7″ type iPad sometime reasonably soon, too.  The clear subtext was that people should wait and then compare the Apple and Google tablets side by side, rather than perhaps foolishly rush to buy the Google Nexus 7 now and regret it subsequently.

Apple is in a difficult position.  As our analysis above indicates, at least in theory, Steve Jobs is correct – the larger sized screen is enormously beneficial.

Apple’s first iPad release seemed an impossibly amazing value with a $499 entry level price, and for several years, competitors struggled to get anywhere near that price, even with a 7″ sized device.  But Amazon redefined the market last fall with its $199 priced Kindle Fire, and the market clearly showed Apple that while a 9.7″ screen might be the better screen, the $199 price point was motivation for many people to buy a tablet, even if it had an arguably ‘too small’ screen attached to it.

Apple can’t afford to ignore this part of the tablet market, for two reasons.  The obvious one is that a sale is a sale, and Apple wants all the sales it can get.

The other reason is more subtle, and perhaps also more important.

It Doesn’t Matter if Jobs is Correct – There’s a More Important Issue

First Amazon, and then Google, with their respective amazing low prices, have clearly shown that tablets are becoming a strategic essential part of the equation for becoming the user’s primary supply for all their digital entertainment needs, whether it be books, movies, games or applications.  The strategic value of this makes the profit on the tablet sale itself almost unnecessary – it is all about making the person a ‘captive’ user of the supplier’s main ‘ecosystem’.

Indeed, Amazon has become such a convert to this concept that it is now copying another part of the Apple and Google product range – it too is expected to be releasing a smartphone sometime this year.

So, for Apple, the superiority or not of its larger screened iPad is almost an irrelevancy when considered alongside the unavoidable fact that it is losing millions of customers who are choosing an Amazon or Google overall system, based probably on the $199 instead of $499 price point.

Apple really has no choice but to respond with a closely comparable priced unit if it wishes to maintain its market dominance.  Of course, the same challenge presented itself when the marketplace split into PC and Mac slices, and back then, Apple was quite content to keep its prices high and allow its market share to nosedive.

So the next few months will be very interesting, as we see how Apple will respond to this key challenge to its future.

It May Not Be Only an Either/Or Choice

Lastly, one remaining point.  If Apple is clever, it will copy the one sensible part of Microsoft’s tablet strategy.  Apple will attempt to create a 7″ screened device not as an alternative to the 9.7″ screened iPad, but as an additional device.

Maybe some people will first buy the 7″ unit due to its lower price point – Apple should view those people as upgrade opportunities to then sell them a subsequent 9.7″ screened unit too.

There’s an easy way for Apple to do this.  It already has its touch-screen iPod – a device which is an iPhone in almost every relevant respect other than not being able to be used for regular phone calling.  If Apple were to name its new 7″ screened device an iPod rather than an iPad (only the smallest of changes in spelling) it would leave the integrity of its ‘up market full sized’ brand intact, while simultaneously coming out with a product to compete against the other low priced 7″ tablets that are now multiplying in the market.

This would be the equivalent of having its cake and eating it too – something we all hope for but seldom enjoy.

  One Response to “Tablet Screen Size – Was Steve Jobs Right?”

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