With the impending announcement of the iPad Mini, all eyes seem to be focused on making tablets smaller. But the truly unexplored territory lies in the other direction - in tablets that go big. Really, really big.
While Samsung, Amazon and others have proven that smaller tablets do have value, and the impending release of the iPad Mini seems to indicate that Apple now agrees - there's only so small a tablet can go until it turns into a smartphone.
The Limits Of Small
Samsung Galaxy Note 2 - and other "phablets" is a no-mans-land for tablet makers. We're literally running out of room to make tablets smaller.The area between a 7-inch tablet and the 5.5-inch screen
Ironically, the field is wide open in the other direction. The full-size iPad's 9.7-inch display is hardly the upper limit for tablets, it's just the jumping off point. Several Android tablets sport 10.1-inch screens, and the upcoming Microsoft Surface tablets will have 10.6-inch screens.
But the search for more screen real-estate hardly stops there. Toshiba is about to test the waters with the Excite 13, which breaks the 10.6-inch screen barrier without breaking a sweat. Its 13-inch screen is frankly ginormous, easily bypassing the screen size of ultrabook laptops and landing squarely in the realm of portable business computers - though still without a real keyboard and other laptop niceties.
Is Bigger Better?
Sure, movies would look awesome on such a big screen, but what's the real value of giant tablets? After all, they'd be almost impossible to lug around without a dorky GoPad), and they'd likely cost more than smaller devices.
To find out, I asked a professional interaction designer at a San Francisco interactive agency. The designer, who asked not be named because his opinions were not necessarily those of his employer, was initially positive: "As long as you can still hold it with one hand and poke at it with the other, it should work."
As he thought through the reality of working on a giant touch screen, however, he started seeing problems.
"You can accelerate a mouse pointer to cover more ground with a smaller motion, but the main interface for a tablet is your hand, which is moving through physical space. Increased size would start to make navigating more tiresome. On an iPhone you can drag something across the screen by just moving your thumb. On an iPad, it's a wrist motion. On a bigger screen, you'd have to move your entire arm. Without doing any studies, I think 13 inches isn't too big of a deal, but if screens keep getting bigger, it may start to become less efficient to use your hands."
And then there are issues with gestures. "Increasing the size of screen objects and the distance between them could render some gestures – like pinching – impossible," he said, ""or at least make them awkward, which defeats the purpose of an intuitive touchscreen interface."
The UI designer was quick to add that "these problems aren't insurmountable," and "designers are getting used to building for different form factors," but he feels that at a certain point - and that might be 13 inches - "you're looking at a different class of device requiring a different set of controls."
Already Thinking Big
This isn't virgin territory. There are already plenty of giant touchscreens already in use. The 17-inch dashboard touchscreen on the new Tesla electric sedan is gorgeous, but designed for intermittent use – anything more might cause a crash. Larger touchscreens have been successful in ATMs, Point-of-Sale terminals, information kiosks, and other purpose-built devices where visibility and simplicity trump control and interactivity.
There's no doubt a market larger tablets, but we don't yet know how large will be comfortable to use or carry around. And it's likely that really large at-least-semi-portable touchscreens will find homes in different kinds of devices - like the Lenovo Yoga - not just what we now think of as tablets.