Android Tablets: Size Matters – 10.1” vs. 7”

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With Google set to announce the Nexus tablet at next week’s Google I/O, a good many people will be chomping at the bit to scoop up what’s likely to be a $199 device (or less). Of course, the Nexus is expected to be a 7” device and to lack some of the capabilities of more expensive devices (e.g., a rear camera), and my guess is it will need to cut cost in other areas to hit that price point.

That said, I thought I’d take a minute to highlight what I see as the biggest thing to keep in mind when thinking about the Nexus: the 7” screen size. Having used the Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7” and now the Toshiba Excite 7.7 (a review will be posted soon), I can say that such smaller devices can be a different experience compared to their full-size, 10.1” cousins.

Update: Of course, Google introduced yet another UI in the Nexus 7, specifically a small-tablet UI that’s a hybrid between the smartphone UI and the large tablet UI present since Honeycomb. In this version, the launcher (i.e., home screens) run in portrait and notifications pull down from the top (as with smartphones), while tablet apps run perfectly fine in landscape. I’ll report back once I’ve had a chance to use the Nexus 7 on whether or not Google has made a good choice here.

The Downside
Simply put, Android scales the user interface according to a number of arcane criteria, including the physical screen size, the resolution, the pixel density, and how many angels can dance on the head of a pin (okay, I made this last one up). This means that the UI can be “squished” on smaller devices and lose some of the benefits of running tablet apps. While the anticipated 1280X800 resolution of the Nexus will result in sharper images and text, which I’ve experienced on the Excite 7.7 as well, anyone who’s used a 10.1” Android tablet might find the experience somewhat cramped.

We won’t know for sure about the Nexus, however, because, as Forrest Gump liked to say, you never know what you’re gonna get. While the Excite 7.7, with it’s 7.7” AMOLED screen, presents a more cramped UI wither larger items (icons, text, widgets, etc.), the seemingly identically spec’d Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.7, with it’s 7.7” (Super) AMOLED (Plus) screen, presents a UI that’s just like that on a 10.1” tablet, only smaller. This means that things like text, icons, and widgets are smaller, but you can fit more of them on the screen.

The impact can be felt in a number of areas, from having significantly less space on the home screens for icons and widgets, to apps that aren’t quite as convenient to use as on larger screens. For example, consider the following screenshots of Google Play on the Galaxy Tab 7.7 vs. the Excite 7.7:

Excite 7.7 Google Play Screen Shot
Excite 7.7 Google Play
Galaxy Tab 7.7 Google Play Screen Shot
sc06
Galxy Tab 10.1 Google Play Screen Shot
SC20120623-121809

Consider how much more information is displayed on the Galaxy Tab 7.7 screen as compared to the Excite 7.7. Notice also how various screen elements, such as the navigation buttons and notification icons, are considerably smaller. And yet, these are both 7.7” screens running at 1280X800. I’ve included a screen shot from the Galaxy Tab 10.1 to demonstrate that indeed, the Excite 7.7 is running as a smaller-screen device.

The Upside
At the same time, the 7”/7.7” form factor makes for a light and more portable device. The Excite 7.7 is an excellent tablet for a number of uses, particularly if you’re a heavy ebook reader. Already, it’s my favorite e-reading device, with text that, while not quite as crisp as the new iPad, is more than sharp enough to be read for longer periods. And, it’s it’s just big enough to show about a paperback’s page worth of text in portrait mode, and thin and light enough to be much more comfortable to hold than the iPad or 10.1” Android tablets.

Conclusion
We’ll have to wait and see how Google configures the Nexus tablet. Will it show more, but smaller, items on the screen, or will it show larger, sharper items, but less of them? And does it matter? For myself, I’d much rather have more on the screen, and so the Excite 7.7 may not be for me in spite of its benefits as an ebook reader. The small-screen format might just too limiting for me. The bottom line is this, though: make sure you know what you’re getting, either way.

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