For tablets, does size matter?

Apple is adamant about the 10-inch screen for the iPad, but almost everyone else is going for 7-inch screens

Are 10 inches better than 7? Or are they just too much to handle? Conversely, are 7 inches too few to do the job well? The debate rages on as the world prepares for an onslaught of Android tablets and the RIM PlayBook tablet this spring, a year after the iPad shipped and created a whole new category of computing. The PlayBook and nearly all the announced Android tablets have 7-inch screens, whereas the iPad has a 10-inch screen.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs has decried the 7-inch size as too small, and his product instincts are unrivaled. So why the rush to 7-inch screens by everyone else seeking to capture some of the iPad magic? The question came up this week when I met with several executives from Research in Motion, who showed me a prototype of the forthcoming 7-inch PlayBook. I asked why RIM chose the 7-inch form factor, and the execs asked me what I preferred as I use both a (10-inch) iPad and a (7-inch) Samsung Galaxy Tab.

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Where bigger is better
The 10-inch size has several advantages, and I have no doubt why Apple insists on that size for its iPad: The large expanse makes for a true desktop when watching videos. Given Apple's iTunes play, which includes video sales and rentals, a home-entertainment-style screen makes sense.

The 10-inch size also makes Web surfing feel normal, similar to the desktop experience. Many websites are complex, and you really benefit from a large screen to be able to read their screens and navigate their content. Ditto for productivity-oriented applications, such as presentation software, spreadsheet editors, and email clients. And for typing-oriented applications, the iPad's on-screen keyboard is full-size when in landscape mode, so you can touch-type as if you were using a PC or laptop. For people who view the tablet as a lightweight laptop replacement, the 10-inch screen also makes sense (it's the same as a typical netbook).

Where smaller is better
The 7-inch size has several advantages as well. It's easy to hold a 7-inch tablet in one hand and do stuff with your other hand. By contrast, to use an iPad for more than a few minutes, you really need to be stationary, preferably with the Pad resting on a surface. Otherwise, it's awkward to hold with one hand while tapping with the other.

The smaller 7-inch form factor makes a lot of sense for activities done while you're in motion. Touring an art gallery, entering tolerance values on a factory floor, inspecting construction work at a job site, recording drug dispension at the patient bedside, and completing surveys in a waiting room are all examples of where the smaller size makes sense. Notice that most of those are "field force" uses, so RIM's decision to make its PlayBook a 7-inch device makes sense given its historic corporate market. For consumer users -- the target of the Android device makers -- the 7-inch size makes sense for game-playing, casual email, and casual personal video-playing (such as YouTube snippets).

Where size doesn't matter (much)
There are many activities for which either a 10- or 7-inch tablet are quite suitable. Playing Angry Birds and most games is equally pleasant on the two form factors. If you have a single email box and don't use folders extensively to manage those emails, both sizes are perfectly acceptable. Calendar apps, e-book readers, and playback apps (such as to watch a presentation or training video) also work well in both sizes.

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