An interesting thing just happened to the tablet world. We might’ve lost a whole size category before it had a chance to get popular.
It didn’t take long after the release of Apple’s first iPad for competing OEMs to start shipping their response products, expanded versions of Android 2.x and Honeycomb running on oversized slates. Led by devices like the first Samsung Galaxy Tab and the Motorola XOOM, the non-iOS sector of the tablet market grew quickly early on, but for a variety of reasons failed to sell well on the whole.
Thankfully for tech diversity, there’s that “interesting thing.” The non-iPad tablet family finally started grabbing some mind share late last year and early this year with devices like the Kindle Fire -Amazon’s e-reader on steroids- with Google later following that up with the much-more-impressive Nexus 7. Thanks to a vibrant content market in the Fire’s case, and a smooth, reliable, pure-Android experience in the Nexus 7’s, these tablets continue to sell well.
But those aren’t the only reasons behind their success. Both the Kindle Fire and Nexus 7 also feature economy pricing– often the first thing people point to when explaining their sales performance. That makes sense; for obvious reasons, it’s sometimes easier to sell cheaper products than pricier ones. But to my eye, the more significant difference is a question of size. The Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire are smaller tablets, and not by a negligible amount. Their more petite footprints make them substantially more portable than their larger counterparts, something that played a large role in making the Nexus 7 my new best friend.
The allure of that heightened portability, and its potential to boost sales, wasn’t lost on Apple. The company recently released its own pint-sized tablet, whose more-totable form factor we’ve praised in our full review and on the Pocketnow Weekly podcast. In the world of tablets, small is in; small is hot; small is -for now- the new big.
That’s fine by me, someone who prefers portability over big screens -remember, I used to carry an HP Veer- but what does it say about the future of larger tablets? Naturally our “full-size” friends in the 9- and 10-inch form factors will continue to prosper, but what of the fabled giants of the category?
If you don’t recall any of these monsters, allow me to refresh your memory. This past August, we asked where all the 15-inch tablets were hiding. This may seem an absurd question, but it was justified by the developments we saw taking shape in the earlier part of the year. Those developments included rumors of an 11.8-inch tablet from Samsung (which have yet to bear fruit) and whispers out of Toshiba that proved far more concrete: a massive slab with a 13.3-inch display, dubbed the AT330 or the “Excite 13.”
The latter device actually made it to market and was reviewed by PCWorld Australia (link at bottom), but the publication didn’t have much positive to say about the device’s huge stature in its review:
The sheer size of the AT330 … makes it a tough device to hold and we found no comfortable way to balance it in our hands. The extra screen size comes at a huge cost of weight, too. At almost 1kg (997.9g to be exact), the AT330 is by far the heaviest Android tablet on the market. Although this has been designed for use in and around the home, the weight will still pose an issue for many users.
Not that that’s much surprise. Big devices almost always carry big weight and space penalties. But in a world where the 7- and 8-inch mark is (for now) the new-hotness, such heft becomes even less attractive. It’s like the opposite of the smartphone world, where the order of the day has for a while been “jumbo-phones rule and tiny phones drool.” The social rules of the tablet world are different.
So big, bulky, clunky tablets may have already been doomed to failure, at least in the sense of mass consumer appeal. But before the explosion of the smaller 7- and 8-inch sector, there was less noise in the space. The case for mega-tablets could be made more easily. Manufacturers could differentiate themselves on the merits of the larger display and the (presumably) longer endurance that comes with a bigger battery. They could espouse the virtues of the larger screen for a more immersive movie-watching experience, and boldly point to a future where even beautiful coffee-table books are available in electronic form. “Think about it, folks,” they’d say; “You don’t want to look at that beautiful artwork on a small screen!”
But with mid-sized tablets now on the market in a very visible and popular way, those arguments lose power. They become transparent. Again, this isn’t the world of the smartphone, where people have a legitimate point if they can’t make out text on a 3.5-inch display. We’re talking tablets. Sure, 10-inch displays offer bigger text, but most tablet owners do just fine at the 7- and 8-inch size as well. For proof, just look at the numbers these devices are moving in.
With the screen argument out the window, there’s not much positive remaining in the mega-tablet’s corner. It’s tough to make the case for an unwieldy, oversized device based solely on battery life – an argument already somewhat tenuous because bigger displays generally equal bigger power consumption. Sure, OEMs can still point to their tablet Jumbotrons and say “it’s better than an iPad/Xoom/Galaxy Tab 10, because it’s so huge,” but as we’ve already discussed, that won’t work for them the way it worked in smartphones. A new argument -perhaps from the new convertible space, where a bigger screen docked to a keyboard could offer added value- is needed.
For now, though, those compelling pitches are absent. In the upside-down world of tablets, the new declaration of cool is “it’s better than the other guy’s — and look how svelte it is.” And that, more than anything else, makes the survival of the consumer-grade 13-inch mega-tablet extremely doubtful. No matter how many coffee-table books you can fit on them.
AT330 info, image source: PCWorld Australia
Snake-oil salesman image source: Stochastic Geometry