Tablet Form Factor

by Matt Cholick

I've collected several Android devices over the past 1.5 years and decided I'd share some of my thoughts. Normally, I would leave this to Ars Technica and other, similar sites. The reason I decided to put something up here is that I feel the internet is collectively wrong about 7" tablets; the form factor is useless.

I think it's critical to preface a review with the reviewer's perspective. Here's mine

  • I'm a software developer. I can't do any significant fraction of my work from a tablet. I can read a little email, but that's it. This means that I always have a laptop and any tablet is relegated to a pure consumption devices. A tablet is only useful to me if it's going to outperform my laptop in some way at consuming content.
  • I have a Kindle and love reading on the device. The Kindle is feather-light and uses an E Ink screen; tablets just can't compete with that reading experience.
  • I rarely travel. Any device I purchase is mostly going to be used around the house.

Given my perspective, I really only have three use cases for a tablet: watching movies, reading things that don't work on a Kindle, and reading my RSS feeds.

I'll address watching movies first. When I last moved, I got rid of my TV. It was a crappy old CRT model and not worth hauling across the country. It saw almost no use anyway, so I didn't feel bad letting it go. I do watch hours of Netflix a week though (and sometimes Prime streaming or Hulu), so I still need some way to view that content. A desktop machine doesn't work out that well for this, mostly due to room arrangement and seating. There are better ways to watch a movie than sitting at a desk. My preferred method is to sit in bed with the machine on my chest. My development laptop is too big for that though. I have a Transformer tablet which turned out to be the perfect size. The stiff hinge also lets me adjust the angle of viewing. The Nexus 7, though, is just too small. I hoped it might replace my Transformer, but its small screen size isn't viable for TV.

My second use case for a tablet is non-Kindle reading. The content I can't read on a Kindle falls into two major categories. The first is reading full page pdfs. These are white papers, journal articles, or computer books. I've tried converting these for a Kindle, but it doesn't work out well. Most content of this type has special formatting for code sections or diagrams that don't translate well. These pdfs are something that I do read often, so a good experience is important. The Nexus 7 fails here, again due to its size. The screen is too small to display a full page and reading this type of content in a flow layout doesn't work well. The page-per-screen layout is the only viable way I've found to consume this content on a tablet and it takes a 10" screen. My transformer is a little too heavy for this use, but it works better than anything else I have. A 7" screen is just too small.

The second type of non-Kindle reading that I do is through pocket. Instapaper is an equivalent tool in this space. Both apps strip out navigation and other content from an article and save it in a clean format for later reading. The Nexus 7 actually does shine here; it's great for reading Instapaper-style articles.

The final use case I have for a tablet is consuming my feeds. A laptop is actually pretty good at this, but something lighter and a little more suited to reading can be an improvement. The Nexus 7 fails at this taks, too, due to its smaller size. Two screen shots of the Google Reader app follow:

Reader on Nexus 7
Reader on Nexus 7

Reader on Transformer
Reader on Transformer

The second screenshot shows how the larger size of the transformer triggers additional application navigation. Though this is a small difference, it's critical. I evaluate close to 50 articles from my feed each day to see if they're something I should read, and the expanded navigation makes that process much faster. Reading the actual article from the feed often can work on the Nexus 7, but that's only a small part of the experience.

I really did want to like my Nexus 7. The little guy is snappy, responsive, and a pleasure to use. Regrettably, though, it can't handle the few uses I have for which a tablet is actually well suited.