I tell anyone who’s asking about Android tablets these days to go look at the upcoming Transformer Prime, because it’s basically a whole generation ahead of anything else at this point. Yet, when I went to buy an Android tablet a few weeks ago, I ended up with a Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus. My reason for not going Prime myself was simple; I already have a ~10-inch tablet, the iPad 2. I wanted something that would at least have a chance to be useful, and I figured the best way to do that was to go with a completely different size. Turns out that the 7-inch form factor has a lot more going for it than I had imagined. It gives you enough screen real-estate to feel like you’re using a tablet, without being so big that it’s a two hand deal.
The first thing to be aware of is that screen size is not as straight forward as many think. A 7-inch device is not 7/10 the size of a 10-inch device, in fact the 7-inch 7.0 Plus is pretty much exactly half the size of the 9.7-inch iPad 2. This makes Samsung’s quest to create a tablet for any size ever a lot less crazy. The easiest way to imagine a 7-inch tablet is to think of the screen of a portable DVD player. Those are normally 7 inches.
Being that much smaller than a 10 inch tablet, 7 inchers are a lot more single hand friendly. Given a normal hand size you can grab around most 7 inch tablets with one hand, which makes a world of difference when you’re reading etc. They’re also lighter, although a word of caution in this respect as their weight varies considerably. The 7.0 Plus is 345 grams, about half of the original iPad. That naturally also makes a difference with less fatigue from holding it, easier to hold the tiny bezel without the weight dragging it down etc. Finally, 7 inches is normally the limit for what you can fit in a normal pocket. So much so in fact that we have a sister site on the CrowdGather network that only covers devices up to 7 inches because of the site’s name, Pocketables.
I’ve found the smaller size to be handy in many situations. I often play with my iPad when I’m semi-watching TV, and that’s great, but it sometimes feels like putting a mountain in front of me that makes it impossible to actually see the screen. The Tab is much better for that use as it’s a smaller screen yet big enough to do many of the same things. I guess Samsung had the same idea, as the 7.0 Plus has a handy built-in IR remote that the other Galaxy Tabs don’t. Its size simply makes it demand less attention that larger tablets, which is great. The same goes for gaming; the size is a lot closer to portable game consoles than any 10-inch tablet, and so it somehow feels more natural, without being as cramped with fingers on the screen as on e.g. an iPhone.
The size also makes it easier to use it for things that would otherwise look rather stupid doing with a tablet; grocery list while shopping, music player while out and about, using it to pick up packages at the post office using the Norwegin Postal System’s official app, etc. Using a 10 inch tablet for those things goes back to portability.
Of course it’s no all milk and honey, or all tablets would be 7 inches. Having a smaller device means that, well, you have a smaller device. Less physical screen real-estate for buttons, smaller keyboard, smaller area for stylus input (writing/drawing etc), smaller screen for video etc. This is true both for 1024 x 600 7-inchers and 1280 x 800 7-inchers, as higher resolution doesn’t magically make your fingers smaller and more accurate. While it’s easier to read a dynamically formatted ebook on 7 inches because of the closer-to-book-size, things like documents and magazines become more awkward to read because those are actually closer to 10 inchers in real life. One of the complaints about the Kindle Fire is that the magazine and comic viewers don’t work perfectly because of the size and resolution. Of course the aspect ratio has something to do with it as well – 16:9 is for video, not documents. A 7 inch iPad with a 1024 x 768 resolution would have been a lot better suited for the task than a 7-inch 1280 x 800 device simply because the screen is utilized fully and not wasted with extra space on the top and bottom in portrait mode.
Battery is another issue. These devices have a lot of the same components, and hence a lot of the same power requirements. You save quite a bit on LED back-lighting, but also have half the room for a battery. The Acer A100 is an example of a ridiculously inefficient tablet, that with a weight of 470 grams and a thickness of 13.1mm really should do better than 5 hours on the battery when the Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus pulls 8 from a 345 gram, 9.9mm thick device. I don’t know what Acer’s problem is, but they seem to have serious problems squeezing battery life out of their devices. Even 8 hours is less than most 10 inch tablets, so that’s something to keep in mind.
As for which tablets are currently in this segment, you actually have quite a few. The Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus, Kindle Fire, Nook Tablet and Nook Color, HTC Flyer, Acer A100, Blackberry Playbook, and others. The Honeycomb-version of Android couldn’t run properly on 7 inches until version 3.2 came out, so we’re starting to see more of these now while the existing one either didn’t run Android (the Playbook) or ran the phone version of Android (HTC Flyer).
All in all I have to say I’ve become a fan of the 7-inch form factor, which was what I was hoping would happen when I chose the 7.0 Plus over waiting for the Transformer Prime. It coexists perfectly with my iPad, and they generally complement one another fairly well. There ave been rumors of a smaller iPad for as long as the iPad has been out, and I think that would be a pretty neat thing to have. If the iPad 3 jumps the resolution to 1536 x 2048 then a 7-inch iPad Mini with the same 1024 x 768 as the current-day iPad would make sense as you would still essentially double the pixel density compared to the current iPad. The issue would be that you’d add another physical screen size to the mix that would require rewriting apps once again, but I’m sure developers would survive that burden. And of course if you think even 7 inches is too big, there’s always the 5-inch segment.