First, personal preference and bias toward 10-inch tablets explained: When I was assigned this story, I tried to approach it without bias, leaving the warm feelings I have for my iPad 2 at the door. I wanted to explore the tablet size debate on level ground, giving a 7-inch tablet a fair shake against the 9.7-inch iPad 2. Over the past week, I’ve used a 7-inch Blackberry PlayBook and a 10.1-inch Lenovo IdeaPad K1, along with my iPad 2, to discover various charms and limitations of 7-inch and 10-inch tablets.
It’s difficult, of course, to check one’s preconceived notions at the door. I have long thought that 7-inch tablets were caught in between smartphones and tablets in the 10-inch range. Why would I need a 7-inch tablet when I already have a 3.5-inch iPhone? To my thinking, a 7-inch tablet was too big to fit in a pocket and too small to act as a fully featured entertainment device. I don’t have a limitless budget, and tech purchases made within my budget must also gain spousal approval. Thus, when I received clearance for a tablet purchase earlier this year, I walked past 7-inch tablets such as the Dell Streak 7 and Samsung Galaxy Tab and into the arms of an iPad 2.
Did I make the right decision? I was fairly confident I did, given that I thoroughly enjoy having the iPad 2 in my house, and my wife and kids use it more than I do. After spending some time with the 7-inch BlackBerry PlayBook this week, however, I’m less certain of my choice. I found that I liked the 7-inch form factor in many scenarios, though there remains one clear advantage for larger, 10-inch tablets.
In the end, the decision between choosing a 7-inch tablet and a 10-inch tablet is a personal one, but let’s walk through a number of usage scenarios, comparing the relative strengths and weaknesses of these two popular tablet sizes. Given your specific reasons for buying a tablet, and how you anticipate using the device, perhaps my experience with each size of tablet will help you decide whether to go big or small.
One quick disclaimer: differences in operating system do not factor in here. If you are looking for a debate between iOS vs. Android vs. BlackBerry Tablet OS, you’ve come to the wrong place. This article puts a laser focus on tablet size and size alone.
A small 7-inch tablet has an advantage in terms of portability, but not as much as you might think. After all, it’s too large to fit into your pocket, so you’ll need to throw it in a bag when you’re on the move. Sure, ladies can squeeze a 7-inch tablet in to a pocketbook where a 10-inch tablet might not be able to go, but in a laptop bag or backpack, you won’t notice much difference between a 7- and a 10-inch tablet. At a hair over 15 ounces, the BlackBerry PlayBook is about 6 ounces lighter than the iPad 2 and 11 ounces lighter than the Lenovo K1.
Movies and Videos
Common sense suggests watching YouTube videos and movies on a 10-inch tablet would be a clearly superior experience, but it’s often not the case. In many cases, the quality of a YouTube video is such that playing it at full screen is a poor choice. Watching a video from the standard YouTube player is preferable on the PlayBook to the iPad 2 or the Lenovo K1, for the simple fact that there is less wasted space on the small screen.
Further, you don’t necessarily sacrifice screen resolution on a smaller tablet. For example, the 7-inch BlackBerry PlayBook features a 1200 x 600 resolution while the iPad 2 offers only a handful more of pixels spread across its 9.7-inch display with its 1024 x 768 resolution, while the Lenovo K1’s 10.1-inch display has a 1280 x 800 resolution.
With games, again the BlackBerry PlayBook offers an excellent experience. In fact, it was easier to control the action in a game on the PlayBook, particularly on a games played in landscape mode where both thumbs are active. Again, this isn’t to say that the PlayBook is a better tablet for gaming than the iPad. Given the dearth of games available on the PlayBook compared with the vast selection Apple offers, it’s no contest. But let’s just say that the idea of a 7-inch iPad is appealing.
eBooks and Magazines
Whether you like to read eBooks on a 7-inch tablet like the PlayBook or a 10-inch tablet like the iPad depends largely on whether you prefer to read paperbacks or hard covers. I have a preference for paperbacks, and not only because they are cheaper. They are easier to keep with you, increasing the odds I’ll get through a novel in something approaching a timely fashion. I also find they are more comfortable to hold, particularly when reading in bed. Thus, I prefer the PlayBook to the iPad for reading eBooks, mainly for the increased ability to hold it one-handed. On the other hand (no pun intended), I preferred reading magazines and newspapers on the iPad, where the added screen space allowed for more creative and engaging page layouts.
But with the iPad 2 and particularly the heavier Lenovo K1, my hand and wrist became fatigued after a time when holding it with one hand, when reading an eBook or watching lengthy videos. It’s not only their increased weight, but also the added length that creates added pressure during sustained use.
Although Apple’s App Store features an ever increasing number of apps, I still find I use Safari a great deal to browse the Web, and this is the biggest advantage to using a larger tablet. On the 7-inch PlayBook’s browser, text is often small and difficult to read and links are often small and difficult to tap. I found myself zooming, panning, and scrolling far too much to make Web surfing relaxing or productive. I much preferred Web surfing on either the iPad 2 or Lenovo K1, to the point where it equals or surpasses the many advantages I encountered with the BlackBerry PlayBook.
On a consumer tablet like the iPad 2, there are still times when you need to get some work done, whether it’s answering afew emails or knocking out a draft in Pages. Even with the ability to split the keyboard on the iPad 2 for more comfortable two-thumb typing, I found it easier and more comfortable to type on a smaller tablet. The BlackBerry PlayBook just felt better in landscape mode for two-thumb typing. If you hunt and peck with your index fingers, however, then you might prefer the larger onscreen keyboard a 10-inch tablet affords.
Before you settle on a tablet size, you must first try to anticipate how you will use the device. Will you use it only for games and eBooks, leaving Web surfing to your laptop and magazine reading to that dusty stack of of periodicals in the corner of your living room? If so, you might do well to consider a smaller tablet. But if you are buying a tablet primarily to surf the Web at home and think you’ll make only the occasional trip to an app store, then a larger tablet is the better bet.
In my experience, I was surprised to find I liked a 7-inch tablet in more scenarios than a 10-inch tablet, but the huge advantage a 10-inch tablet has with its Web browser trumps all of them — at least to my tablet-using ways. The comfort and ease-of-use I gained for gaming, eBook reading, and YouTubing on a 7-inch tablet could not make up for all the zooming and panning and scrolling it required when Web surfing.
In conclusion, I would say that Web surfing is the crucible. Make a good guess on how much you’ll use a tablet for surfing the Web before you begin to think about eBooks, games, and even your manner of typing. If you think you’ll use a tablet’s browser frequently, then the various charms of a 7-inch tablet (though greater in number) won’t be enough to tip the scales in its favor.
What do you think? Sound off in the comments below.