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

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It's true that the larger screen size often feels richer in such cases, but that's the same dynamic as when you watch a movie on someone's 46-inch TV and come home to your 42-inch. You marvel at your friend's 46-inch screen while watching it, but are perfectly happy back at home with your 42-inch model. We may prefer bigger, but other practical factors -- cost, bulkiness, and so on -- usually outweigh that preference.

Some people claim the iPad is too big to easily carry. That's nonsense. It weighs 1.5 pounds and is easily held in one hand, folded against the arm as you walk. It's the same size as a typical notepad and about the same weight as those leather-bound portfolios and calendars that many people carry. It slips easily into a backback or case -- or airline seatback compartment. (I often panic because -- since it's so much lighter than my laptop -- I think I left it behind, when in fact it's securely hiding in my backpack.) Because the 7-inch tablets don't fit in most pockets, I've found that I end up carrying them the same way as I do the iPad, so for carrying-around purposes, they're equivalent.

If you plan to use a tablet as a lightweight laptop, you really will want a (10-inch) iPad or one of the few 10-inch Android tablets announced so far, such as the Motorola Xoom. If your intended use is in a job where you work primarily on your feet, can't count on having a place to rest the tablet for data entry, and move around a lot (field force work), a 7-inch tablet makes more sense. For home entertainment, my guess is you'll end up with both sizes.

Apple can probably get away with having just a 10-inch model, given its "big media" and "new PC" aims. Plus, it has the 3.5-inch iPod Touch to fill the portable niche, and that device makes for a great portable game-player, e-book reader, and basic email and calendar device. However, it might be surprised by how popular a 7-inch model could be in several market segments.

RIM, Hewlett-Packard (which is making noises about "radically different" WebOS tablets), and the Android device makers should offer both sizes -- especially RIM and HP. Why? Because these companies are trying to play to the broad business and consumer markets, both of which have segments that each of the two sizes better serves. There's no reason their customers should compromise when the device makers could accommodate both sizes through separate models.

The real trick to that strategy, of course, is not in the hardware. The underlying OSes and the applications that run on it need to autoadjust based on the size. Apple has shown how that should work in its iOS, where apps can be designed for both iPhones and iPads, adjusting their display and even functionality to the specific device. RIM has shown some understanding of that strategy in its PlayBook, in how the RIM messaging and calendar apps appear in a richer view on the PlayBook than on a BlackBerry smartphone, but it's unclear if RIM has extended that autoadaption capabillity to its third-party software developers. As for Google, even less is really known about its tablet-oriented Android 3.0 Honeycomb OS, so customers and developers alike will have to wait and see.

In the meantime, we can stop playing screen-size envy games and instead look for the size that fits our needs best.

This article, "For tablets, does size matter?," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog and follow the latest developments in mobile technology at InfoWorld.com. Follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter at MobileGalen. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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