Let’s face it, there are a lot of tablets out there. It goes beyond iOS or Android now. There are so many form factors to choose from that it’s getting to be a terrible headache to decide what’s the best for you.
First, there was the iPad, which is still the last word in the tablet market for most people. At 9.7 inches, the iPad is what late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs believed to be the ideal size for a tablet. Jobs was scornful of smaller tablets, saying once in an earnings call that tablets smaller than the iPad should come with sandpaper so that users could pare down their fingers to use them.
Most tablets on the market are in the 9- to 10-inch range. These tablets are best as supplements or substitutes for your laptop, and should be thought of that way. They don’t slip easily into your pocket or purse, but are at home in most briefcases and larger bags. Obviously, a larger tablet is good for you if screen real estate is key for you. So if you want the screen size for the best video or photo viewing — or particularly if you’re sharing presentations for work — then this size is a no-brainer for you. The same goes for e-mail. While the iPad and its brethren aren’t ideal for typing, they’re as close as you’ll get to a full-size on-screen keyboard. Bigger is better, too, if you do a lot of reading but don’t like flipping digital pages that often.
The down side to a big tablet, however, is that it’s not as portable as a smaller one and weighs quite a bit. If you’re going to be staring at this screen for a while, you’ll probably want a desk or a stand nearby. Otherwise, you’ll probably get sick of holding it.
The next most-common screen size is the 7- or 8-inch tablet, the form factor for the Amazon Kindle Fire, the Nook Tablet and the BlackBerry PlayBook, to name a few. Samsung has also been offering tablets in this size and announced a new 7-inch slab this week.
Apple may be looking into this space as well down the line — the Wall Street Journal reported that the company could be emulating the diversity of the iPod line and testing an 8-inch tablet, despite Jobs’s stated opposition to displays smaller than the iPad’s current 9.7-inch screen. It seems unlikely that the iPad 3 would be this size, since the report indicated the smaller screens are in testing, but one could be coming down the pike.
These mid-size tablets also have their ups and downs. They’re far more portable — think paperback vs. coffee table book — and slip easily into purses and smaller bags. They even fit into a generous pocket with relative ease, though having one on hand will make your suit lay a little funny. They’re also much easier to hold for long periods of time, making them good for sneaking in some reading or catching up on television shows in line or on long subway rides.
On the flip side, they’re still a little too big to be truly portable, and deciphering text or watching video for a long period of time on a 7-inch screen can be hard on the eyes. And while typing isn’t great on any tablet, it can be hard to type with precision on these small screens. I personally like this size because it’s big enough to do some work and small enough to carry in my purse, but it should be noted that tablets of this size are truly best as consumption, not creation devices.
Finally, the new kid on the block for tablets is. . .well, actually kind of a throwback. The Galaxy Note from Samsung builds on the roots of the ill-fated Dell Streak 5, an attempt to marry the smartphone and the tablet. LG is also said to be preparing a phone that’s this size, called the Optimus Vu.
With a 5-inch screen, these phone/tablets bridge the gap between the 3- to 4-inch screens on smartphones and the larger tablet displays. The result is a device known as — and this is probably one of the ugliest portmanteaus ever created— a “phablet.” The device is aiming to be your all-in-one, and it does the job credibly well. Tablets, after all, have essentially the same software as smartphones and are essentially big smartphones that don't make calls. The Galaxy Note is the right size for very light video viewing, light note-taking and heavy Web browsing. Even at five inches, it’s small enough to fit in most pockets. Think of this way: you can put a 5-inch screen anywhere you would put a notepad. (It fits particularly well in the front pocket of an dress shirt.)
With a 5-inch screen, of course, all the space problems you may have on a 7-inch screen are multiplied, though arguably offset by the increased portability. You may not be using a screen this small for a lot of video, but it’s a good size for, say, sharing quick YouTube clips.
The major downside to this form factor, of course, is in calling. A 5-inch screen can be awkward to hold up to your cheek for telephone calls, and opens you up to cracks about the brickphones of the 1980s. Even so, that hurdle can be overcome with the purchase of a good pair of headphones, a Bluetooth headset or by using speakerphone. Just be prepared for some discomfort — to your hands or your pride — if you ever forget your headset.