How to build the perfect Android tablet, part 4: Resolution and aspect ratio

How to build the perfect Android tablet, part 4: Resolution and aspect ratio

Summary: The perfect tablet should be wide enough to view typical web pages in landscape mode, but not so wide that it looks weird when turned on its side. Here's how to pick the right compromise.

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In part 2 of this series I stressed the importance of a responsive multi-touch screen to the success of upcoming Android tablets (or any tablet shaped device that competes with the iPad). For this installment I want to return to the display and discuss a different, um, aspect with you. My pick for the 4th most important feature of the perfect tablet is:

#4: A high resolution display that is wide but not *too* wide

One of the top reasons to have a mobile internet-capable device, be it a tablet or smart phone, is to browse the web. Unfortunately the web doesn't look so great on most mobile displays unless the web site has been specifically formatted for the small screen. The reason is that the vast majority of web sites were created for desktop and laptop monitors which are both wide and tall.

What is the resolution of the monitor you are using right now? You're probably using it in landscape mode, which means the width is more than the height. According to one site, 96% of web users in 2010 have a display which is 1024 pixels wide by 768 pixels tall or bigger, and 69% use displays that are at least 1280 pixels wide. Web developers design their sites to look good on the majority of screens, so most web sites expect at least 1024x768. If you screen is smaller than that, then the result can often be hard to read. Either the text is too small, or you'll have to do a lot of scrolling to see it, or both.

For example, one of the sites I frequently visit is dzone.com (I used to run an Eclipse forum for them a few years ago). Unfortunately the site is almost unusable on my Nexus One, which has a resolution of 800x480. Try viewing this page on your phone to see what I mean. I know that with proper use of style sheets you can design a site that will be friendly to many different resolutions, but flexible sites like that are few and far between. Therefore, for best results on the real web, a width of 1024 pixels is pretty much the minimum you should accept in a tablet.

How about height? The ratio of width / height is called the aspect ratio. There's a great chart on Wikipedia showing all the standard aspect ratios, but here are some common screen sizes and ratios you might be familiar with:

Device Resolution Ratio
Nexus One 800x480 1.67 (5:3)
Droid 2 854x480 1.78 (16:9)
iPhone 4 960x640 1.5 (3:2)
Samsung Tab 1024x600 1.71
iPad, older laptops 1024x768 1.33 (4:3)
TV Hi-def 720p 1280x720 1.78 (16:9)
Apple MacBook 1280x800 1.6
MacBook Pro 1440x900 1.6
WSXGA+ 1680x1050 1.6
TV Hi-def 1080p 1920x1080 1.78 (16:9)
Theatrical standard n/a 1.85
Anamorphic wide screen n/a 2.39
Clearly, a 1.78 ratio (16:9) or higher would be ideal for watching movies. But movies probably aren't the only thing you're going to do with the device. Remember web browsing? How about using it in portrait mode for reading books or running games? A very wide screen turns into a very tall screen when you rotate it 90 degrees. The all-purpose nature of tablets is probably why Apple chose an old-school 1.33 (4:3) ratio for the iPad. But having used the iPad for several months, I think they went a little too far. On the other extreme, my Droid seems a little too tall for portrait work. Therefore my perfect tablet will have a screen aspect ratio somewhere between 1.5 and 1.7.

Interestingly, the "golden ratio" is 1.618, which is right in the middle of my range. Who am I to argue with centuries of artists, architects, and mathematicians? Given a width of 1024 or 1280 pixels, and factoring in commonly available LCD panel sizes, I recommend picking one of the following screen sizes for your new tablet:

1024x600: A little on the wide side for my tastes, but should be adequate for web browsing. 1280x800: Tall enough to watch 720p video without scaling, and wide enough for any web site you're likely to encounter.

To summarize, avoid tablets that are 800 or even 854 pixels wide or less. I'm not saying they won't be functional and useful for some purposes, but we're talking perfection here, folks. Also, I'd avoid anything much above 1280 for now. Without zooming, you'll find that most of the web sites out there on the net will be too tiny to read.

Finally, don't get fixated on the 1.78 (16:9) ratio just because High Definition TV uses that. A little letterboxing while watching Avatar is a small price to pay for a much more generally usable device that can be viewed in any orientation. Your TV doesn't have to work on its side in portrait mode, but your tablet does.

See all the articles in the "Perfect Android Tablet" series:

  1. Long lasting battery
  2. Capacitive multi-touch
  3. Android Market and friends
  4. High resolution
  5. Low price

What would you build into *your* perfect Android tablet? Share your thoughts in the comment area below. In a week or two, I'll have one final feature idea to share with you.

Topics: Tablets, Google, Hardware, Laptops, Mobility

Ed Burnette

About Ed Burnette

Ed Burnette is a software industry veteran with more than 25 years of experience as a programmer, author, and speaker. He has written numerous technical articles and books, most recently "Hello, Android: Introducing Google's Mobile Development Platform" from the Pragmatic Programmers.

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20 comments
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  • Good series Ed! I am waiting for a 11 inch or slightly bigger Android

    tablet. I think the 1024x600 resolution will be a good sweet spot for now.
    DonnieBoy
  • Part 0

    NEAR INSTANT ON/OFF - This is the biggest real world advantage the iPad has over previous tablet computing devices (next is battery life). Having the device available when you want to use it (not 5-10 minutes later) is essential. As is being able to put it away (without waiting for a shutdown process to finish or putting an active device in a case during a protracted shut-down).

    I have had two MS tablets and while battery life is an issue, so is waiting forever for the d*mn tablet to come to life or waiting for it to turn off before you can put it away. With windoze, boot up (particularly if it was setup in a corporate environment) can take forever while it searches for networks, drives and apps that are not accessible on the road. Similarly, when you want to quickly turn it off and stow the device (like on an airplane), true shutdown can take forever or you have to stow it while the drive is whirring and the machine is running hot risking damage to the tablet.
    grgnv
    • Instant on/off

      I agree, that's definitely a must-have feature. It's so basic, and it's already a feature on all current Android devices, that I didn't think I needed to list it.
      Ed Burnette
      • RE: How to build the perfect Android tablet, part 4: Resolution and aspect ratio

        @Ed Burnette - Regarding "Instant on/off", isn't that called "sleep mode" in Windows?

        On all of the devices that support "instant on/off", they're not really off, they're just in extreme power conservation mode, using just enough energy to keep the volitile memory and CPU registers fresh so that when the owner presses the button, the screen turns on and the power steps up to the memory/cpu and it's usable. On Windows systems, the thing that takes the longest is logging back into the locked desktop of a sleeping computer.
        PollyProteus
  • Multi-use

    You're on the right track, but make sure you try your wide screen while using the virtual keyboard in landscape mode--you've suddenly run out of screen! That's why Apple went 4:3 on iPad. That, and I think they were going for a work slate feel (like a letter sized pad) rather than simply aping the look of 'widescreen'. Widescreen is ok on desktops or laptops because you're not expected to rotate those. But you're right, watching movies is only a small portion of what you'll probably be doing with a slate tablet device. Too many people get hung up on the idea that screen real-estate is somehow being wasted if a movie is ever presented as letterbox. People are strange sometimes.
    jaypeg
    • Re: Multi-use

      @jaypeg Agreed, it's almost like they'd rather the extra pixels be not there at all rather than drawn in black letterbox when watching HD movies. I'd rather have them and not use them than not have them.
      Ed Burnette
    • For Galaxy Tab is the Ideal Form Factor Size & Aspect Ratio!

      @jaypeg Holding this 7" tablet that fits perfectly in one hand, is the very reason it will most likely be more successful than even iPad. It's the ideal compromise in size. And let's not forget the fact that it's more powerful than iPad, with many more features. Not only is it a slate but it's perfect form factor size combo device as both a phone and a slate.<br><br>Now I know the first thing that some ignorant fool is going to state is who's going to hold a Galaxy Tab up to their ear to talk on a phone? Nobody! lol.... but who has to? Because just like many cell phone users do (especially ones with the intelligence enough to use it hands free) today (with latest BlueTooth 3.0 at 10x speed and increased distance over the BlueTooth 2.1 in iPhone 4. Like in Galaxy Series phones and Tab), they use them with a BlueTooth earphone (now required in some states for driving and being incorporated into new vehicles). Then you can keep it in your pocket, in your purse, or belt case and only carry your BlueTooth earphone on a strap or in your ear. Yes... that too used to look foolish, but now it's common place to see someone driving, looking like they're talking to themselves or in the store shopping in a hands free phone conversation!!!<br><br>So to me anyway, that 7" form factor near 16:9 aspect is just right to hold in one hand while inputing on the touch screen with the other. Even while walking or sitting down. It doesn't matter and it's supposed to be a mobile device after all... right? While iPad just feels way too awkward to use while moving about with it, in one hand. It defeats the purpose of the form factor design. Might as well buy a netbook and at least you can actually use a real keyboard without looking like you're carrying around a newspaper or magazine stuffed in your face.<br><br>The Tab too will have superior battery life with the ability to have a spare battery for days and days of use. The Galaxy Tab therefore meets the writer's ideal scenario as well as being able to do everything your phone can do. That with more screen real estate and it can still fit in one hand or in your pocket!!!
      i2fun
  • RE: How to build the perfect Android tablet, part 4: Resolution and aspect ratio

    Netbooks typically have 600 pixel vertical resolution, and I really hate it - too much vertical scrolling. 1280 X 800 has the most benefits, least compromises. A 9" display would be about the right size for a paperback-sized tablet ~5" X ~8.5" X ~.6" that would also accomodate a standard 2.5"HDD (spinner or solid state) and help keep costs down. That package would also accomodate 4XAA batteries for a 6V 2400MAH (14.4 W) battery package. User replaceable.
    panzrwagn1
  • RE: How to build the perfect Android tablet, part 4: Resolution and aspect ratio

    As close to 16:9 is mandatory for these devices. HD video is mostly in 16:9 ratio.
    Droid101
  • RE: How to build the perfect Android tablet, part 4: Resolution and aspect ratio

    It should be about the size of a sheet of paper.
    In at least the same aspect. Why keep trying to reinvent the wheel.
    hornkt
  • 800X600 is the perfect

    aspect ratio and pixel count for most computers and web sites. It was used for decades, and there was no reason to change it. Simply because theaters used a wider screen does not mean that televisionss or computers need to, other than greed of manufacturers wanting to have you buy something "new and improved." (widescreen is NOT an improvement as it takes away from screen height!)
    Most people see best and concentrate best in the narrower width and larger height of 4:3, and with the 800X600 resolution, words and numbers (what a computer is designed for, after all, and not multimedia) are larger and more readable in the same size font than they would be in a large pixel count screen. Face it, we're all getting older, and SMALLER is NOT better!
    janitorman
    • RE: How to build the perfect Android tablet, part 4: Resolution and aspect ratio

      @janitorman
      Mostly agree if one does not want to view a lot of web content, and is satisfied with single-window-at-a-time app usage. I have found a Pandigital Novel Android-based 7-inch 800x600 ereader to be quite nice for that purpose, and ho-hum for most other Android web-centric apps - in other words, adequate, but not a real substitute for a netbook/notebook PC for more "serious" productivity apps like heavy web browsing or word processing docs and spreadsheets.

      IMO, Google has a valid reason for not wanting to support Android on tablets and larger form factors. Get a netbook/notebook with SSD, good battery life, and optmiized window manager for the screen, and stable sleep/standby/quickboot abilities (Linux is my preference, but YMMV, if it does not work with your hardware well).

      FWIW
      aroc
  • 167 or more ppi

    Most computer interfaces have been designed using the 72dpi or 90dpi

    72dpi is 800x600 on a 14"...
    a typical eBook reader averages about 167ppi... or 800x600 on a 6" screen...

    But that is too small for a typical website surfing device.

    A tablet has a great e-book vocation...

    I would go for a 167 ppi minimum with

    So a 1280x800 at 9" would be great... with a browser that supports good zooming features making the site zoom adustable. (it fits in about A5 form factor 720p)...

    In the larger formats I would go for a 1920x1200 A4 size (13"@175ppi)...

    that would make a great eBook reader,Internet Surfing + Full HD media viewer...
    Davidaaaaaa9
  • feature: hot-swappable battery

    yeah baby!!!

    :)
    .
    wessonjoe
  • RE: How to build the perfect Android tablet, part 4: Resolution and aspect ratio

    16:9 totally sucks in portrait mode! A 1.5 ratio on an 8 inch screen would be just about perfect.
    la_picker
  • Docking station for a phone.

    I'd like a case with a 1280x800 screen, large battery and not much else. A slot where I can slide in my Android phone. So if I don't need the physical size, I just use my phone, if I do all my data etc is common to both devices. Then put in OpenOffice, Inkscape and a few open source apps and I can get rid of my netbook, then my Laptop and Desktop PCs. Killer for schools because most kids have phones and they will soon be all Smartphones. then all the school has to pay for is the larger screens and perhaps some USB keyboards and we can junk all the obsolete LAN stuff that is impossibly expensive to maintain.
    INGOTIAN
  • RE: How to build the perfect Android tablet, part 4: Resolution and aspect ratio

    It needs to open like a book and have an e-ink display (preferably color, but b/w is okay) on the left like the Entourage Edge does. (http://www.entourageedge.com/)

    The device needs to support disconnected storage for my favorite web sites and blogs so I don't need a WiFi or even a 3g connection to catch up. E-ink has to be a first-class data type so I can scribble my own notes anywhere I want without needing a keyboard. I don't care about handwriting recognition, but partial background h/w recognition--just enough so that my hand-written notes could be indexed and searchable would be very nice.

    I have an Edge and in spite of the fact that the hardware specs don't wow and it uses a resistive touch screen over the LCD, I simply can't put it down. It's my favorite method for keeping on top of email, reading a book, and checking web sites.

    - Dave Orme
    dvorme
  • good idea about android

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    gavin.chan
  • good idea about android

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    gavin.chan
  • Missed market segment - those of us who own a digital camera.

    Most of us own a digital camera, but have no convenient digital replacement for the pysical photo album or packet of photos that we used to hand round, although some of us have a digital photo frame that we can hang on the wall or put on the shelf. Isn't this a rather obvious, huge and mostly ignored market segment for tablets... Targeting this untapped market would mean a tablet with 4:3 aspect ratio, good viewing angles, and a full size SD card slot (so you can take the card out of your camera & plug it straight in). Another cheap addition would be notches to allow it to be hung on the wall, plus perhaps an optional stand to allow it to be placed on the shelf. A look at the software used on good photo frames to create an appropriate app would be good too.

    Robin
    msitekkie