Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Why the 7-inch form factor deserves a place in the tablet space

My wife was marveling over 7-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab. After using it for two months, she finally discovered the vast world of Android apps and started customizing her "desktop" with third party widgets. I told her, that her next one would be a 10-inch model. She protested, "But that is too big." In the same way that we have different preferences in laptops, some preferring smaller 10.1 to 11.6-inch ultraportables, other preferring 17-inch or larger desktop replacements, the same is true with tablets. 

The 7-inch tablet has been labeled a "tweener". An awkward device between 4-inch monster smartphones and 10-inch tablets. But unlike personal computers, where applications which do not fill the screen, are displayed in windows floating over the background, with smartphone software, applications not big enough to fill the 7-inch 1024 x 600 resolution screen have a black border around them. But all the phone apps we have tried on the Galaxy Tab do work, some with awkwardly large fonts and others not making use of the entire screen. For the most part, everything does work, and things like web browsing, eBook reading, gaming and office suits are easier to use than on even the largest of smartphones. The portrait keyboard can get rather hard to use, being to big to thumb type and too small for conventional typing, but SWYPE fixes all that.   

Seven inch tablets are not made redundant by larger smartphones.
The massive HTC Desire HD (4.3") is dwarfed by the Samsung Galaxy Tab (7").

As big as some smartphones are these days, the Galaxy Tab still dwarfs HTC's massing HD line of mobile phones. Large smarthpones, do not make smaller tablet redundant.  

The end of the 7-inch factor came early when Google gave it no official support, launching a new variant of Android for tablets. Honeycomb, or Android for tablets is designed around a 10-inch 1280 x 800 screen. Time will tell, but it does not look like this new more computer like interface will not scale down well to a 7-inch screen. 

Seven inch tablet development should have focused around Android 2.x. The same software used on smartphones. It would not take much to make applications more tablet friendly. Widgets with 4 x 1, 4 x 2 and similar sizes leave one wrong blank. I do not see any reason why it would not be too difficult to make a 5 x 1, 5 x 2 an so on, widget. Many Android apps can scale down font sizes. In brief, it would not take too much work to make Android 2.x 7-inch tablet friendly. 

As nice as the HD resolution dual core Honeycomb tablets are,  I think there is still a place for this small 7-inch tablets. They could be built on older hardware, running on single core processors, lower end graphics, less RAM and internal memory for those with more modest needs. The Galaxy Tab fits the bill, except for it astronomic price. HTC Flyer, would probably do better if they trim down the specifications and the price. How much? Around US$350 I think. That would also be the netbook killer the tablet is reputed to be. Whether major smartphone and tablet makers want to spend their time on products selling a that price point is another matter. But second and third tier manufacturers may want a piece of this space.

Steve Job's predicted the 7-inch tablet was dead on arrival. My wife loves it, and if I ever buy a tablet, it would be RIM's 7-inch PlayBook. There is room for the "tweener" in the tablet space. I hope that Google realizes this, and gives a bit more notice to Gingerbread on the tablet.

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