Are two screens better than one?

Are two screens better than one?

Summary: Toshiba is reportedly developing a tablet with two 7-inch displays, which folds like a book. That would make it the latest in a long line of companies-both big names and start-ups-who have toyed with these dual-display devices.

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Toshiba is reportedly developing a tablet with two 7-inch displays, which folds like a book. That would make it the latest in a long line of companies-both big names and start-ups-who have toyed with these dual-display devices.

The concept makes some sense. A design with two displays maximizes the screen real estate while keeping the size down. You can mix-and-match different display technologies and operating systems to serve different applications in a single device. And the success of touchscreen smartphones, and more recently the Apple iPad, demonstrates that many users are willing to forgo a physical keyboard. But so far the dual-display has been DOA.

Asus, HTC, MSI and Sony among others have all experimented with these devices, either as full-blown tablets or e-book readers, but there's no sign any of them are coming to your Best Buy anytime soon. The Microsoft Courier project generated a lot of excitement, but never made it out of the incubator. One Laptop Per Child scrapped its XO-2 dual-screen tablet, and instead plans to release updates to its standard XO netbook. OLPC will eventually offer a standard low-cost tablet, the XO-3.

Then there are the dual-display e-readers. Start-up Kno demonstrated its device at the D8 conference, but its unwieldy tablet, which consists of two 14-inch displays, has puzzled reviewers. The Entourage Edge is a hybrid device-the company calls it a "dualbook"--with a 9.7-inch E-Ink display on one side and a 10.1-inch LCD tablet running Android on the other. It's a novel concept, but the device is much thicker than an e-book reader or tablet, and doesn't really excel at either.

There is, however, one very successful device with two displays: the Nintendo DS. (Yesterday the company announced the Nintendo 3DS, as anticipated.) Why has the DS worked so well? It has great software designed specifically for the two screens, including a touchscreen, as well as the stylus and buttons. The result is a dual-display device that is easy to use, even for young kids. (It also helps that the DS is meant to do one thing really well.)

This sounds easy, but it isn't. Recently I set-up a Nook, the Barnes & Noble e-reader, for a family member. Unlike Amazon's Kindle, the Nook has a second display, a small color LCD touchscreen, designed for a few basic tasks. It's a nice feature, but everyone who tried it found that the interaction between the two different displays was confusing at first.

Aside from Apple, no company has yet figured out how to deliver a great experience on a standard tablet, let alone one with two displays-sometime using different technologies and input mechanisms. Google is still working on versions of Android and Chrome OS tailored for tablets. And Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer recently admitted that the company has a lot of work to do on Windows 7 tablets to catch up with the iPad.

Developers may create apps for these platforms, but they are unlikely to spend a lot of time and money customizing them for a dual-display device unless the potential audience is really big, such as with the Nintendo DS. Without really good software tailored to them, dual-display devices will be no match for e-readers, tablets or netbooks.

Topics: Hardware, Laptops, Mobility, Tablets

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15 comments
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  • RE: Are two screens better than one?

    A virtual keyboard might actually be useful on a dual screen tablet.
    Lester Young
  • I still like the design

    When folded, the screens are protected and the unit is smaller to carry. When open, you have the equivalent of two facing pages, perfect for reading. Also, as Microsoft teased with the Courier and Nintendo has shown with the DS, dual screens offer some interesting possibilities for interactive software design. While I have no interest in Apples latest bit of iFluff, I continue to follow the evolution of these devices with interest.
    itpro_z
  • 2 screens are better then one

    well, that's if Apple made it... ;)
    John Zern
    • RE: Are two screens better than one?

      @John Zern

      Of course. It would be "revolutionary" and "magical". More so than the iPad was. Lol
      The one and only, Cylon Centurion
      • RE: Are two screens better than one?

        @NStalnecker

        Looks like the iPad was indeed "magical". It killed off so many other competitors (Courier, Slate, JooJoo) and sent many more back to the drawing board. ;-)
        dave95.
      • I call BS, Dave

        [i] It killed off so many other competitors (Courier, Slate, JooJoo)[/i]

        Sorry, it didn't kill anything.
        John Zern
  • Really?

    Honestly Man, Apple hasn't impressed with the iPad... I have one and when people ask me what I think I say, "It's alright, I like it but it really is just a big iPod Touch"...

    When I asked others what they thought, they all say, "It's alright"...

    Basically, right now it has that got to have it appeal but that will wear off soon enough and people won't have a real use for them.

    As for it's limitations, Quicktime limits the need for Flash on a lot of pages but on other things there's no getting around it and honestly, an OS that is now 3 years old and is supposed to feature, "The Best Browsing Experience Ever" yet doesn't even have FIND ON PAGE is A Pain At Times!
    slickjim
  • RE: Are two screens better than one?

    When sales reach a million or so a month, I'll be impressed. Otherwise it's still a windoze orphan or an Android clone with little bearing on anyone but the geekiest.
    dheady@...
  • How about using as much screen as you need?

    While I think the two screen approach is very sound and many will gravitate towards it, the "eRoll" idea is in my opinion far superior: http://ebookreader-ben.com/ereader-roll-up-scroll-fits-in-your-pocket/

    You have a fixed height of course, but the width can be rolled out to be as wide as you want (given the limitation of say 2 feet) to suit your reading purpose. This way, you can choose to have a standard one page read OR you can pull some more screen out and make it a two-pager! With the right software, you can get really creative with what to do with 2 screens, just like the DS.

    Maybe this concept will be a reality one day...
    eReaderBen
    • RE: Are two screens better than one?

      @eReaderBen I also am looking forward to a day when the screen can be either unrolled or unfolded seamlessly. Folding would be awesome. Start with a device that looks like a touch sensitive phone. Unfold it all the way for a huge screen television. Fold the television in half, the bottom is for a keyboard and touchpad, the top a monitor. Fold it a few more times and you have a travel sized laptop. Basically the user would pick the size of the screen they need for where they are and what they are doing.
      mr1972
  • I'm interested in the dual screen formfactor

    there have been many times I've held a small notebook in hand like a book, but of course, the keyboard side is nearly useless and no second screen. Something truly like a book and folds like a notebook / ds, is more tempting per say than buying a wrap-around flap for a single screen tablet or i-maxi. But it'll be the applications and experience created.
    Boot_Agnostic
  • RE: Are two screens better than one?

    I like the design... I hope this comes into production but I'm not holding my breath on it.
    athynz
  • Great for textbooks

    Imagine your library of college text books on one of these. It would seriously lighten up your backpack.
    bsvee
  • I saw on in FOSE for $599

    The price is ok, but I don't like linux os.

    Microsoft made a mistake to kill Courier.
    FADS_z
  • Pan-and-Scan Virtual Desktop Even Better than 2 Screens

    Even better than 2 screens -- and technologically available at nearly no cost -- is the pan-and-scan virtual desktop (not to be confused with a "virtual desktop") that enlarges your desktop beyond the boundaries of your monitor screen. When you move your cursor to the edge of the screen, the screen moves to reveal additional desktop real estate. This has been possible with ATI video cards where you use the Catalyst Control Center to set the desktop at, say 1600 x 1200 and the monitor at 800 x 600. (Unfortunately Windows 7 and Vista prevent you from doing this, although I strongly suspect there has got to be a workaround.) With the pan and scan virtual desktop you can open your word processing and spreadsheet documents full size and rarely need to use the productivity-robbing scroll bars.

    I've used two monitors side by side with the pan and scan virtual desktop for years. When one monitor died, I replaced them both with a single 24" LCD set up with the pan and scan virtual desktop. I've got to admit that a single large monitor with the pan and scan virtual desktop beats the heck out of using two monitors. I suspect the same may be true with tablet computers. Once the paper thin monitors become cost-effective to use, then manufacturers will be able to produce some really large screen tablets with a single monitor rather than splitting it into two monitors.
    dl@...