The tablet problem: Mobility trumps screen size

The tablet problem: Mobility trumps screen size

Summary: The problem with mobile devices has always been that the size of the display determines how portable they are. You can’t have a large screen on a small device. That situation raises its ugly head for many looking for the perfect device.

TOPICS: Mobility, Tablets

Many have long been looking for that perfect mobile device, the mythical gadget that will meet all of their needs without compromise. Whether the holy grail is in the form of a smartphone, tablet, or laptop is not important as long as it can do everything desired.

Galaxy Tab S
Samsung Galaxy Tab S (Image: Steve Ranger/ZDNet)

There are two primary criteria for mobile devices that contradict one another. For most, a mobile device needs to be highly portable, and that usually means small enough to be easy to carry around. The desired size of the device may be different for different folks, it just needs to be very portable.

That’s the dilemma confronting both tablet buyers and the companies that make the devices. The gadgets need to be big enough to fit a screen that makes sense, yet small enough to be comfortably portable. The size of the display determines the size of the device, so they go hand-in-hand.

This is a fine line that tablet makers must navigate, and unfortunately for them the line is a moving target for different buyers. Some are happy with a giant slab of a tablet, while others want the smallest gadget possible. It’s no wonder that OEMs are throwing tablets out with different sizes. They are trying to appeal to everyone and that’s what it takes.

It’s not a surprise that some big tablets are appearing in the market place. Customers wanting to use a tablet with peripherals to replace a laptop find the bigger screen more appropriate. When you strap a keyboard dock or cover onto a tablet for such use, screen size matters.

Of course, that impacts the other criteria crucial to tablets, as it results in a very large device. The portability is greatly reduced, and for many that’s not a good thing.

For some, the quest for the perfect mobile device, especially a tablet, is a futile quest. Those wanting to work with larger documents will need the bigger screen. Those preferring a little device that’s easy to carry should gravitate toward the smaller gadget and screen. Those wanting both are out of luck.

Before buying a tablet, either consumer or enterprise, careful consideration should be given about the portability vs. display size. Odds are, over time one will trump the other when it comes to actual usage. Unfortunately, it’s not always obvious at purchase time.

I hear from folks regularly who bought a small or large tablet and after a month or two came to realize it was the wrong choice. Either the small screen is not big enough to use comfortably or the big tablet is being left at home/work as it’s too large to carry around regularly. There’s no easy way to avoid this.

The only option for most is to shop the big box stores and try to get a feel for devices of different sizes. Then go with the smallest device that has a big enough screen to use comfortably and with less compromise. Many tell me that they find that small size ends up mattering the most. When it comes right to it, when getting a tablet big enough to replace the laptop, it doesn’t get taken anywhere you wouldn’t take a laptop. Small tablets are easily taken most everywhere.

So before you buy that nice new Samsung Galaxy Tab S, you might want to go for the smaller size. As nice as the bigger one is, it might end up getting left at home or the office a lot.

See also:

Topics: Mobility, Tablets

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  • Interesting point, but Luddite conclusion.

    ... the conclusion is weird.

    AS I read the article, I thought you were arguing for a position I've long supported: "Horses for courses">

    I started with a 10" tablet, and went down tothe gorgeous Nexus 7, because it fits comfortably in most of my jackets, without making me walk like Quasimodo.

    Briefcase carriers can obviously use a 10" without issue - and some may be grateful for a 13".

    From the eraly days of iPads, I've seen musicians use them instead of carting a great wodge of sheet music - a 16" tablet might seem big, but compared to a stack of yellowing paper, it may not be so bad.

    And I'd also argue for a 22"+ for architects, graphic designers etc.

    So it's sad to see that now Apple has finally rejected Steve Jobs petulant demand that everyone uses HIS favorite size, you are reviving the one size fits all mentality.

    One size of car? Never.
    One size of TV? Don't be stupid.
    One size of shirt? Grow up!

    So why restrict yourself to inside the box?
    Hey, some people might even use 2 tablets!! (I know I do).
  • This is Amost a Maxim - small device with largest display that is portable

    I bought a 10" tablet a couple of years ago, which turned out to be too big and heavy to carry around and didn't have the requisite keyboard to make it useful. A year ago I traded up to my HTC One with a 4.7 in screen. For me, this is the largest screen that is truly portable and with me all the time since it slides comfortably inside my pant pocket. For traveling, I opted to get a Samsung Chromebook a year ago, which has been fantastic for doing research when traveling. It's also very light and has a highly usable, chiclet-style keyboard. My HTC Android phone is with me at all times and is immensely powerful with a full-fledged Chrome browser. When I need a larger screen for research when traveling, the Samsung Chromebook fills that gap.
    • The Complementary Solution

      You have gone pretty much where I have in concept: Use multiple devices that complement each one's disadvantages with the other's advantages. Keeping it down to 2, "big" and "small" in simplistic terms, seems to be the general approach.

      I keep mixing my 2 devices in response to various strengths/weaknesses within each one's respective category as I continue experimenting in looking for the ultimate complements.

      Also, my "needs" and "wants" change as I realize the importance of each as weighed against the penalties such as when I finally decided my Samsung Note 2 was just a bit too big to be toting around on my belt in warm weather without a jacket to protect it from various snags and bumps in tight quarters or crowded places (prime snatch-and-run target). My 4.7" Moto Razr HD fits in much better in that respect with a still decent size screen size that has same resolution as the Note (just all a bit smaller...).

      Now I am working on the "big" complement, evaluating a new Lenovo Miix 2 10" tablet/keyboard. I like the still-portable "bigness", but not getting past UEFI to install a linux distro is my biggest disappointment (seeing if VirtualBox linux installation running full-screen is a feasible workaround).

      It's fun a lot of the time since I like this kind of tinker-hacking anyway (when not aggravating as a particular weakness finally becomes the last straw).

      • Agreed, though slightly different

        I had an S2, 7", and 10" Galaxy Tabs 9 months ago. Decided to dump them all and get a Note 2 and Note 10.
        The 5.5" on the note (to me) is the perfect size to be useful and portable.
        I actually tend to travel with the note 2 and my Chromebook, for the complementary aspect of the 2 together.
        Where the CB lacks (Skype, games etc), the Note 2 subs. Together the 2 handle most things.
        The 10" tablet vary rarely makes it off the sofa.
  • Poor R&D on their part

    I have been using an HP Split x2, great idea but poorly designed. I researched for months and couldn't find what I would think would be a good design. The size issue wouldn't be a problem if they would cooperate better in designing a system that would wirelessly transmit the monitor signal to your TV or desk monitor. Some have this feature but it's in its infancy. Also I can't figure out why 90% of them don't have a full size USB 3.0 port, mine has one but it is in the keyboard dock, so much for portability... I think it's funny that my iPhone has more computing power than my laptop hybrid. If only I could have a tablet with USB, hdmi, docking station, full version windows, wireless video, and good memory, I could finally do away with my desktop PC, laptop, and tablet for just one device.
    • I just pre-ordered one of those...

      The Surface Pro 3 fits your description. I was very much so, I ordered one.
  • My favorite tablet size

    After using tablets in every size and aspect ratio between 3.5" to 10", I find that the 9" 16:9 screen on my Nook HD+ falls into my "Goldilocks zone" of being neither too big, nor too small.

    Other people will have different preferences, of course.
    • Nook HD+ Ratio

      As I recall from a lot of yearning for one, the screen is 1920x1200, which makes it a 16:10 (8:5) ratio, just like my 15.6" Dell Latitude D820, which was a prime attractor for me - not so oriented to movies as 16:9, and thus better for text on books, web pages, and various documents (for me at least).
  • Only One Real Solution

    Two devices - a 10" plus thin tablet that can sub for a laptop in a inch, plus the largest screen smartphone you can comfortably carry (whether purse or pants pocket). Even a 7" tablet is really too big for coat pocketing on a consistent basis - if it's not important enough to justify brining the tablet, go with that 5"-5.7" smartphone Otherwise, carry a tablet that can truly display what you need to read/view/reply from...
    • Oops

      *pinch (PLEASE, ZDNet, let us have a couple of minutes to edit a reply)....
  • Every computing device is a compromise

    This isn't some unique situation that only applies to tablets as it almost seems James is trying to make the point... and other often do pretend that is the case.

    Every device has a strength and a weakness. Some have more strengths and some have weaknesses that are meaningless to some users. The more options that are available the more likely someone will find a device the is best suited for their personal needs.

    At this point I think the choice of phone has more relevance on tablet buying choice than what James brings up. Having a 5-6 inch phone that is almost always with a user can easily replace what a 7 inch tablet offers in most situations. The tradeoff being screen size for portability (and always available), but it offers more flexibility when buying a tablet. Suddenly buying a 10 inch tablet that isn't always travelling with you isn't such a negative as buying a smaller 7 inch screen that doesn't offer much over a large screen phone.

    Solutions for everyone though.
    • I agree.

      I have a 5" phone which works for all my portable needs just fine. I just pre-ordered the Surface Pro 3 and I believe that I'll be able to have just these two devices and probably eliminate the need for my 8" tablet. I love my 8" tabby, but it doesn't offer too much more than my 5" phone. I may eventually upgrade my phone to something larger like a phablet, which the Lumia 1520 has caught my eye as it will share well with my Surface Pro 3.
  • Companies are confused about the use case of tablets.

    Or I should say they are confused how the majority uses these tablet 'devices'.

    Tablets = Small light mobile computing/entertainment device (Aka a large screen smart phone). This is how the majority uses these devices so what you are offering needs to reflect that. Unless your intended target is a very small niche segment.
  • Screen vs. Device size

    "The size of the display determines the size of the device, so they go hand-in-hand."

    For now. This is where I think someone will make a breakthough eventually. Samsung's foldable device patent is a start (and I'm sure there are others) but the person/company that figures this out will have a winner. I don't know what this will look like - could be foldable, stretchable, wearable (glasses/VR) - but I think we'll start to see more of these in the near future.
  • I've got three devices:

    My Galaxy SIII with the 4.8" screen goes with me everywhere.
    My Nexus 7 goes with me almost everywhere (when I'm having lunch by myself I like to surf the web, and this screen size is unobtrusive and convenient).
    My Samsung Galaxt Tab 4 with the 10.1" screen mostly stays at home. It's the device I reach for when I'm at home and want to surf the web.

    All in all works well.
  • Consolidation

    Of all the programs and apps bundled and loaded on computers from desktops down to smartphones I bet many people use only the same few - the browser - and if separate - an email client and perhaps a photo/video viewer and a leisure app like freecell but nothing else i.e. no office and no other multimedia or game app - in particular with everything moving into the cloud. And as a phablet can handle that then I bet many in the long run will drop the desktop, the laptop, the tablet and the nuc and settle for a phablet as their only device (aside from the TV) - a phablet being a large but pocketable all-purpose computing device (with phone capability).
    The mobile webpage size will stay the same for fit on smaller smartphones but the desktop webpage size will become slightly narrower perhaps 800 pix wide in stead of 1000 for better legibility on the phablet.
    For the occasions when a larger display is convenient then perhaps the projector tech will find its way into the phablet allowing display on a wall or the current tech allowing a phablet to connect to a standalone display unit will mature and perhaps become wireless.
    In a more distant future perhaps headgear like Google Glass or VR (Virtual Reality) will take off because why use a big display some distance away if a small one close to our eyes will do.
  • I won't accept a compromise of form over function.

    Been there and done that. Now I have a retired iPad and Galaxy Note 10.1 that have no purpose since the acquisition of a Surface Pro (first generation). I would actually go up in size to the Surface 3 because I feel the slight increase in size and reduction in weight are worthwhile changes. The perfect form factor for a tablet was invented over 100 years ago, it is a pad of 8.5 x 11 paper in a binder with a pencil or pen. The Surface in size, weight and function matches that ideal and adds the ultimate convenience of doing everything that my 5 pound laptop can do.
    The Heretic
    • That 8.5" x 11"

      paper size gives us a 13.9" diagonal "screen" so a 14" tablet would match. Oh, the aspect ratio is 10:13. Now if you went with the "legal" pad size of 8.5" x 14" you have an aspect ratio of 10:16.5 (which is close to the HDTV 9:16), and a diagonal "screen size of 16.4".
      • Pads of paper have a margin Just as a tablet has a bezel measuring the bezel or margin on that paper isn't the right way to do it. Physically, a Surface Pro 3 is akin to picking up a pad of paper. Virtually, it has many more pieces of paper and the paper can be scrollable and virtually larger than the physical dimensions. Think of the SP3 as the T.A.R.D.I.S. of Paper Pads, bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.
    • Form = function

      I played with a Surface Pro 3 and no way does it feel like a pad of paper. A pad of paper is lightweight enough where you can hold in one hand for long periods without feeling the need to rest it on a body part. The Surface Pro still feels too large and to heavy and too complex for ideal one handed tablet use (pad of paper). That's the problem with convergence. You are trying to up the screen size and power to make it more ideal for laptop use but in doing so you are sacrificing the ideal tablet use case. You can't avoid compromise when trying to converge these two worlds.