July 17, 2012

More thoughts on Tablets - Sizes & Screens

  • Think about what you are planning to use the tablet for
  • Unless you are already an iOS Device user - get an Android 2.3 (or higher) tablet
  • You really want to have all of the following features, no matter what:
    • WiFi-N & BlueTooth
    • Charging over USB
    • Camera
    • Flash Card Slot / Expandable Memory
    • Video-out
    • ***Capacitive Multitouch Touchscreen*** no exceptions
  • Read Reviews
  • Don't get a device that requires a contract
    • Most tablet users, even those who have 3G/4G contracts, use their tablets over WiFi almost all the time
  • Brand names, for the most part, do not matter
  • Tech specs change all the time, and are not always the best way to measure quality
This time around I'm going to focus on the size and the screen.
  • Screen size
  • Resolution & aspect ratio
    • Onscreen and video-out
    • What is a refresh rate?
      • The idea of "Bottlenecking"
  • eReaders (eInk)
Screen Size - One question I did not address is screen size.  Part of me want to take the cheap way out and say "It's a preference issue, get whatever size you want" - but most of what I've shared is just my opinion, and I can't control what you buy anyway, so I will share my thoughts on the subject.

Quick answer - 7" screen is perfection.

For what I would hope are obvious reasons - you don't want a tiny screen. Watching movies, playing games, designing documents - all of those experiences benefit from as much screen space as possible. However - tablets are, by design, meant to be portable (ultraportable to use an outdated buzzword). Anything bigger than 7" limits how you can carry it.

Personally, I am a large human being (read: obese) - and one thing about clothing for larger (fat) people is the clothing designers tend to scale the pockets with the pants - so I can easily fit a 7" tablet in my pocket.  I don't know if that is true for most people, but it is for me. What I do know is true for everyone - a 7" tablet is easier to carry than a 9" or 10" one.

At 10" I would rather just bring a laptop. If I'm going to carry something that big around - might as well make it a full-fledged computer.

What about smaller tablets?  Like 5" ones, or pocket-sized ones like the iPod Touch?  Well at that size, you should pretty much just get a smart-phone. I do like the iPod Touch, but you can do a lot more with an Android tablet.

Screen Resolution & Aspect Ratio - This is different than screen size. You can have three 7" screens - each with different resolutions, and possibly even 3 different aspect ratios. In fact, screen resolution is more important than screen size in everything other than portability.

Quick answer - The higher the resolution display, the better (no less than 1024 x 600) and widescreen format (16:9 or 16:10). For video-out resolution, no less than 1080p at 60 Hz.

Here is an article with screen shots comparing different tablet resolutions.  It gives you a good overall picture as to why you want a higher resolution display. It affects apps, keyboards, browsing, movies, everything. For your built-in screen, you want at least 1024 x 600, or 1024 x 768 - but, of course, the higher the better.

If you are following my advice (and you should) then you already know you want a tablet with video out. So when you are looking at tablets, you will probably see 2 resolutions listed - one would be the resolution of the built-in screen and the other will be the maximum screen size supported by the video-out (HDMI or mini-HDMI most likely).  Generally speaking, the built-in screen with be the lower of the two resolutions, unless they are the same resolution.  

For video-out, you want at least 720p (1280 x 720) but really 1080p (1920 x 1080) should be your target.  Some even offer what is called "Double HD" or "Double 1080p" or even "4K".  What this is referring to is supporting a resolution that is 2304 x 4096.  This won't help if the TV or monitor you are plugging into doesn't support that resolution, but it's good to have anyway.  The main way that would used today would be for 3D HD videos, where you need two 1080p images - one for each eye.

Why widescreen? The most famous, best selling tablet on Earth is not widescreen.  It's aspect ratio is 4:3 - same as an old "standard def" TV.  Yes, the iPad, even the one in all its "retina" glory - is pretty square. What's up with that?  To be honest, no clue. Maybe they were thinking of the size of holding the device than the shape of the screen. But regardless - movies are widescreen, HDTV shows are widescreen, our eyes are horizontally placed making our entire visual perception of reality widescreen.

Other video-out thoughts - Another spec you might see on the video out is the refresh rate, measured in Hertz (Hz) or Frames per Second (fps). As usual, the higher the better.  What this is referring to is how many different images can be shown on the screen each second. That's the way "motion pictures" works - what you are actually seeing is a static image (or a "frame") made up of lots of little dots of light (pixels) being quickly replaced with a similar, but slightly different image, and another and another and another.  Like a flip-book or cartoon.  You knew that already, but just wanted us all on the same page. So the more images per second, the smoother the animation. You want at least 30 Hz, but 60 Hz or higher would be better.

An aside, general tech advice "Bottlenecking" - most technology is not a stand-alone device. Even tablets rely heavily on the Internet, which is a huge and complex system of machines.  But even within a given device, there are different components.  In all systems, there is a concept known as "the bottleneck". You've heard a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, well a system is only as fast as its slowest component.  You can have a tablet, for example, that is capable of outputting Double 1080p at 240 Hz - but if your monitor can only handle 720p at 60 Hz, that's all you are going to get. Or if your computer has a crazy-fast CPU and tons of RAM, but your hard drive is a 5400 rpm magnetic drive, it's not going to make full use of its speed.  The hard drive (in this example) is the bottle neck - the "narrowest point" in the "flow" of information.  That's why getting a router with Gigabit ethernet won't supercharge your 3 Mbps internet connection. It is only as fast as its slowest component.

eReaders - Something I never have understood why it is a thing is the eReader. A specialized device for books? I don't even think an mp3 player makes any sense any more.  Specialized devices are out - multifunction is in.

Quick answer - No, get a real tablet.

I see the appeal of eInk technology, somewhat. Primarily the battery life thing. The whole "You can read it in the sunlight" angle was lost on me.  I, like the vast majority of humans, spend the vast majority of my life indoors - out of the sun. Typically the advertisement makes the argument by showing people at the beach, or by a pool. And hence, their need to be in the sun.

Not once in my 34 years of existence have I found myself on a beach thinking anything close to the following: "I would really like to be using my sensitive, expensive, electronic device in this hot, salt-water-sprayed environment, but I can't because of the glare. The surf and sand and other people around me are all so boring!  I really wish I could read a book - but I don't want to actually use a book to do that."

When I go to the beach, or a pool (which I really don't do often) - I do so in order to, idk, GO SWIMMING!  Something that doesn't require any type of screen other than sunscreen.

If you read in the sun - really - just use a book.  And maybe try going inside sometime.  There's air conditioning, and it's probably better for your eyes anyway.

The concept of carrying a bazillion books on a small electronic device makes sense, but having a device that only does that does not make sense.  I would not recommend an eReader at all.  Get a tablet.
The only possible exception to that would be if you KNOW you will NEVER need a tablet for ANYTHING other than reading books. In that case - and that case ONLY - find the cheapest one you can.  I'm talking $40 MAX.  I see them for $25 all the time.  But remember, you still have to buy the books.  But seriously, you can find a cheap refurbished tablet with a color screen and Wifi for $50 or less if you look hard enough.  It is very hard for me to ever justify buying just an eReader. Of course, I wouldn't buy just a digital camera either, or just a cell phone, or just a digital picture frame, or just a BluRay player.......

Recap.  You should get a 7" tablet with a 1024 x 600 or higher widescreen display and 1080p video out. Plus all that stuff I said last time. Stay away from eReaders and buy a full tablet.

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JAmes said...

Another good article. I have an Aurora II from Ainol, which was cheap, and has everything you mentioned but don't forget ONE thing..


Chinese tablets are great for about anything, but they have bloated firmware. I advise to search around tablet forums and see the most popular tablets from that country and if there's devs improving them. Currently, my tablet has great support. Other tablets from Onda, Cube, recalling a few, have very nice support on the web. Same goes with smartphones. THL, Newman...

I know the mainstream tablets usually have either official and community support, but they're much more expensive.

Chad said...

Thanks James.

By "ROM Support" are you referring to the ability to update the firmware? If so, I agree. Buying a tablet from outside of your home country does tend to bring along with it apps that you can't use because they are completely in another language.

I plan on a follow up to this article with information about that and a few more thoughts I've had on tablets, including thoughts on the iPad Mini, iPad 4, Google Nexus 7, Kindle Fire HD, and Nook HD.

james said...

Exactly, firmware support. A person close to me has a THL V9, which is a nice phone, ordered with modded rom for western use, rooted etc (just perfect, from etotalk), but when I misleadingly updated it to ICS, bye bye modded rom. I got China in my hands (like the song, yes..) So, I went crazy searching all over the web and found some friendly people in a RUSSIAN forum (yeah, they have kasparovs in the android scene too) that helped me. And along with google translator I managed to fix the phone, get CWM for backups in case of screwups, gapps, multi-language etc. I nailed the lottery with this, otherwise the phone was simply another piece of crap. Regarding tablets, slatedroid is a good place to check tablet bugs, impressions and improved firmwares (check the aurora II section, they have some great articles pinned there). Xda devs are more mainstream, but there's some small efforts that make it also worth the visit (one of them was a perfect custom CM7, miracle version, for a galaxy gio I had). It was your colleague at obscurehandhelds that gave me some tips and I just had to dig and dig and got to know the world of obscure android ^^. I just wouldn't recommend those brandless phones, because you can't google for those. But, THL, Newman, Jiayu, Zopo, to name a few, have already an underground scene developing better firwmare for westerners.

About the russian forum, check this out and see what's most supported on that corner of the world: Forum.China-iPhone.Ru

To sum up, I always check around what's hot and being supported before buying. The same goes with web stores. I'll look forward to see the article you're planning to write. I'm not much mainstream, but anyways, go ahead with it!


Chad said...

Thanks for the tips.

Don't get me wrong, I'm still going to speak in generalities about finding a tablet, but I will address the new line of mainstream tablets, if for no other reason than to explain what's wrong with them. :D

James said...

I just got a Google Nexus 7 2013 version and updated to Android 4.4 KitKat. I think a 7" tablet is a perfect size and still portable. Yes, I had an iPad 3 and I like the Nexus 7 better. I love the widescreen landscape.