Tablet Screens are no Small Matter!

There is a scene that has become commonplace in almost all science-fiction movies. The hero, superhero or scientist needs to access a computer file. He or she calls out a vocal command and a gigantic, holographic screen is projected into the room from nowhere. The protagonist then goes on to move objects on the screen by small and simple hand gestures, snapping their fingers as they go.

We may not quite have reached that level of technology yet, but this vignette exemplifies the fundamental appeal of electronic tablets: extensive, instantaneous and intuitive interface, the doing-away with peripherals, such as keyboard or mouse, and a minimal amount of concrete hardware. But the question we seem to be missing in all of this is, in reality, how big should a tablet’s screen be?

It is an issue that relates more to design than to engineering. In theory, it is possible to make either powerful software that can fit into a very small machine or screens of enormous size that have exceptional resolution and performance. The shift from one generation of tablets to the next often sees multiple changes in terms of internal technology and applications, without upsizing to a larger machine (and therefore a larger screen). This BlackBerry Playbook review, for example, shows just how many more features were added to the tablet between model upgrades, even as the size of the machine itself was left unchanged.

So, the problem is not that a smaller machine diminishes performance, but that in rendering it more portable the screen size must be reduced – and this is really crucial to consumer experience. In this sense, tablets are distinctly different from PCs. When it comes to a regular computer, the size of the screen is really only a secondary question; almost all computers have screens large enough to execute most tasks in a comfortable and enjoyable way. With tablets it is a bit different. The iPad mini and Google Nexus 7 are both small tablets, but how small can you go before you start to feel that Full Metal Jacket is not worth watching on such a diminutive screen? On the flip-side, the ViewSonic VSD220 has a monster screen and exceptional performance, but it is way too large to take with you on the subway. Some formats, such as those described in these BlackBerry PlayBook reviews, are clearly attempts to strike a balance, as they are more portable than an average iPad but have screens comparable in size to those of a small laptop.

Ultimately the choice comes down to the consumer, who must define his, or her, needs and who then will buy accordingly. Even so, this design tension in the world of tablets remains one of the most defining and fascinating aspects of their nature, distinguishing them from desktop PCs, and almost any other electronic consumer product. They must have a big screen but also be small enough to carry. So what is the right balance? That’ll remain a subjective question, at least until we can catch up with holographic technology that we keep seeing in science fiction movies.