When the iPad launched in the spring of 2010, the closest analog most users had to a tablet was the smartphone: a device that favored the portrait orientation by necessity. Barring a few fringe examples, most pocketable smart devices still took their design cues from the telephone receivers of yesteryear, whose vertical design was born of the necessity to simultaneously cover both the ear and mouth of a user. Portrait designs also made one-handed use easier, long an important element of the smartphone experience.
These ideas -along with a lot of design and software cues- were duplicated essentially wholesale in the new tablet experience. Indeed, the iPad was called a "a giant iPhone" by many. One of the smartest of these duplications was the idea of multiple orientations: the accelerometer triggered the device's OS to flip to landscape when rotated on its side, then back to portrait when returned to vertical. Of course, Apple wasn't the first to offer multiple orientations on a mobile device: Windows Mobile had been doing it for years, but Apple was the first to use an accelerometer to make it relatively effortless.
The finishing touch, though, was in the iPad's minimalist design. The only break in the featureless front panel was the home button, which provided a slight visual anchor to portrait orientation, but which didn't look all that out of place when the device was rotated to landscape. In this manner, the experience stayed versatile, and the iPad felt equally "correct" in either orientation.
Since the iPad, we've seen a slew of tablets launch from all manner of competing companies, not all of whom have been so open to the idea of multiple orientations. Sure, most of them still provide the ability to transition between portrait and landscape modes just by turning the device, but the cues their designs provide are much less flexible in their "suggested" means of holding them. Buttons, casings, and -worst of all- logos dictate how we should hold the non-Apple tablets of today.
The original Galaxy Tab was the first mainstream iPad competitor to gain any real traction, and it favored portrait usage. In the case of this device, the visual cues in favor of verticality were even more pronounced because, as a pre-Honeycomb device, hardware buttons still ran across the bezel below the screen.
Since then, we've seen the Motorola Xoom and Xyboard devices launch in many flavors, sporting both manufacturer logos and garish carrier branding as well. Aside from telling us who's provided the device, these unsubtle decals let us know that these are landscape-centric devices
unless you're talking about the 8.9-inch Xyboard:
And landscape-centric design isn't just confined to the larger tablets, as the Blackberry Playbook and aborted HP TouchPad Go demonstrate.
The nice thing about these divergent approaches is choice: even though consumers can choose between only two dominant OSes when tablet shopping, they have a multitude of form factors if they opt for Google's flavor. Which one is "better" overall will always be a matter of the user's taste, but broadly speaking, some orientations work better for some tasks. Movies, for example, are best watched in landscape mode to take advantage of the wider display area.
That brings to light another important point: aspect ratio. Where the iPad uses a 4:3 ratio, many other tablets, such as the ASUS Transformer line and the aforementioned Xoom devices, employ a much more "theatrical" 16:9 or 16:10. This is excellent for watching movies, but not as ideal for activities like document editing (unless you're making use of an app that employs many columns).
And just try using one of those "widescreen" tablets in portrait configuration. Devices in the 7' range suffer a less from the awkwardness, but using a full-sized Xoom or that huge ham-beast, the Toshiba Excite 13.3, in portrait mode is an exercise in hilarity. It feels a little like holding a diving board in your hands.
That awkward feeling isn't confined to the portrait mode, either; landscape-optimized devices like the Playbook aren't exactly a joy to use one-handed. Granted, that's true for most tablets, but a selling point of 7' devices is easier one-handed operation something that evaporates when the OS demands you stay locked in to landscape.
Ultimately, what we need from tomorrow's tablet devices is versatility. It's not enough that the OS supports multiple orientations; the hardware needs to be usable in those different orientations. It's fine to design software that prefers one orientation over another: such choices often result in intelligent use of the canvas and standout features and capabilities. But the hardware needs to feel equally comfortable in any case.
That's a tough pill to swallow for those who love putting logos on device bezels, but it's the only intelligent way forward for tablet makers. And, truthfully, I've never heard anyone clamoring for more silkscreened carrier logos on any of their mobile devices. By and large, we know what product we're using, and we don't need the constant reminder of a company insignia to help us remember — particularly when it's sideways or upside-down because we're using our tablet in all the different orientations the OS allows.
In short, neither is "better" overall; the road to "better" ends at smart design that doesn't confine us to one or the other.