Here’s a question: why is the screen of Apple’s iPad 9.7in across? Why that size? Why not bigger? Or smaller?
If we examine this question, we may be able to figure out the answer to another question: how are the slew of tablets being released now (hello Samsung) going to fare in the market?
Consider what the iPad was going up against when it was being designed: the range of Windows-based tablet computers, which would have had screens in the 12in to 13in range; the Amazon Kindle, a dedicated e-reader, with a 7in screen; and the Kindle DX, launched in May 2009, which has a 9.7in screen.
Apple plumped for 9.7in, with 1024×768 pixels, and stuck in a huge battery too, which is what has given the iPad its (alleged) 10-hour battery life. Though for once, that claim seems to be backed up by anecdotal reports around the web: the iPad really does seem to last through the day.
But that battery life is also the reason the iPad weighs more than other tablets: because it’s got a big battery. acer aspire 3000 battery
Now we come to all the other tablets, which have been built and launched in the aftermath of Apple’s January announcement – and may well have been designed since January too.
Here comes Samsung; here too is Viewsonic, and Archos, and we even got an email from Binatone, one of the really old British consumer electronics names. It’s offering the “HomeSurf” for £130: 7in screen, 800×480, resistive touch screen “with stylus”, 2GB storage, Wi-Fi, Android (2.2 we assume, but it’s not specified), MicroSD card slot, plays MP4, H.264, XVID. The claimed video playback time: 3 hours. Plus there’s an 8in version for £180: 800×600, touchscreen with stylus, 2GB storage, video playback MP4, H.264 (but not XVID, apparently), video playback time 4 hours.
Toshiba has also launched a tablet, with a 10.1in screen (interesting) with Froyo; apparently the 16GB version will cost about £399 – making it a challenge to Apple .
Samsung, which has attracted a lot of attention with the announcement of its Galaxy Tab – whose specifications were well-known ahead of the launch, apart from the price, which then didn’t get announced – might struggle to make a big impact. Why? Because of the price: Heise Online at IFA says that the price for the unlocked 16GB 7in Wi-Fi/3G Galaxy Tab will be about euro800. And Expansys has (since this article went up) set the price for the 16GB unlocked version at £680.
Does that sound reasonable? Well, if you compare it to the 64GB Wi-Fi/3G iPad, which costs exactly the same amount in Euros, and only £19 more in the UK, then … no. The suggestion is that Samsung is actually letting the mobile carriers – which will be the only retail avenue – decide the price. Mobile carriers may be able to lower the up-front price through 3G contracts.
Next, battery life: the Samsung will manage seven hours of video playback, it’s claimed: we’ll have to see whether that’s the case. And you do get a camera on the front and back, plus other little extras. acer extensa 5220 battery
Tim Bray, formerly at Sun and now looking after various Android-y things at Google, has had an early hands-on with the Galaxy Tab. “The world still isn’t sure just where it is that tablets are the right tool for the job,” he notes
His other thoughts on the product:
“It’s got a phone but (at least on the pre-release model I used) you can’t hold it up to your head, which is a good thing as that would look supremely dorky… Did I mention that the screen is beautiful? Also it feels really good in the hand and looks pretty nice, and is obviously in the first microsecond’s glance not an iPad.”
So what will he do with it?
“I know what I’ll use the Galaxy Tab for: to show off Android. The big screen just makes everything easier to see and point at, and graphics look outstanding, and it passes from hand to hand easily. Showing off Android is part of my job and this will help me do my job better.”
That leads him onto his thoughts about what tablets are for:
“Which leads to a general theory, reinforced by informal observation of hipsters with iPads in coffee shops: a tablet is, crucially, a more shareable computer. A laptop, with its fragile hinge-ware and space-gobbling keyboard, is just not comfy to share. A tablet is easier to bring to the café, easier to hand across the table or along the sofa, easier to seize in the heat of the moment, easier to hold up in triumph, easier to set aside when you need to meet someone’s eyes.”
“How big a market is that? Anyone who says they know is lying.”
At which we turn to Ray Chen, the president of Compal, one of the big Taiwanese computer assembly companies – which builds tablets for companies including Dell, Acer and Lenovo. He thinks sales of non-Apple tablets will “not exceed” 15m units in 2011, and that there will be a fearsome shakeout soon after as the market turns out to be tougher than expected. Compare that to Apple, which says that it sold 3.27m iPads in the three months since the device launched in April. Clearly, Apple works out as the biggest player in that market.
But come around again to that question at the top: why is the iPad screen the size it is? If Apple thought that 7in was the sweet spot for this, it surely would have built it that size. Ignore the lack of features; remember the Slashdot observation when the first iPod came out: “No wireless. Less space than a [Creative Labs] Nomad. Lame.” But what the iPod did have was size (the Nomad was a giant compared to it) and battery life. acer travelmate 3260 battery
I think the same applies for tablets. The specs, and things like cameras, are all subsidiary to the main things that people want to do with tablets: browse on them and share them (per Bray) and use them for long periods without having to hunt around for a power source. True, it would be nice if we could browse for hours on end on our laptops, but the choice there seems to be between netbooks offering long battery lives but pokey screens and keyboards, or nice big laptop screens but unsatisfactory battery life.
And even for the former of those categories, things aren’t going well:
“Chen also noted that Wintel netbook sales have recently been devoured seriously by tablet PCs and if the two firms [presumably Microsoft and Intel] do not consider dropping prices or improve performance, sales will continue to drop.”
This chimes with something Jack Schofield posted at ZDNet: while sales of desktop and laptop PCs are rising towards 1m per day, “Gartner also sees diminishing sales of netbooks, which it calls mini-notebooks. Netbooks accounted for 20% of mobile PC sales at the end of last year, but Gartner expects it to fall to around 10% by late 2014.”
Netbooks are even beginning to look like a brief spasm in personal computing’s history; Apple’s disdain for them, and its refusal to produce one in the face of analysts and press who thought it was cutting its own throat by not doing so, now looks well-placed. Certainly, better to be the leader in a sector like tablets than a follower in netbooks.
But until more people have bought and tried out these tablets, we’re not going to know if a 7in screen can do the job – or if, as one ever so slightly suspects, it’s the 9.7in measurement that actually does the job best.
Chen’s forecast is definitely one to watch – and it will be interesting to see if tablets turn out to be a sort of computing flash in the pan, like netbooks are looking, or if they turn into the equivalent of the MP3 player, and carve out a whole new mode of use. And if the latter, the really interesting question will be: what’s the best-selling screen size? And how long is “long enough” for the battery? And is there any other essential element to a tablet that guarantees sales?
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