21 Sep 2015

The Right Size of Device

Tablets are under threat by phones from one side and laptops from the other. Phones, because they’ve increased in screen size and power over the years. Laptops, which are thinner and lighter and have better battery life. Tablets are caught in the middle.

I then realised that this logic applies all over the continuum of screen sizes, from 5 to 30 inches.

For example, I tried the Nexus 6, and I found that it was too big and unwieldy [1] to comfortably use as a phone, or put in my pocket [2], or to take it out of it. On the other hand, it was no iPad-substitute, with its comparatively tiny screen. The Nexus 6 was a bad phone, and a bad tablet. I realised that normal-sized phones, like the iPhone 6 or the Nexus 5, work better for me. When I’m at home and want a longer session, I have an iPad, anyway. I’m better off having a phone that works great as a phone, and a tablet that works great as a tablet, rather than a phablet that does neither well.

This logic applies to tablets as well. I wouldn’t buy a tablet anymore. Instead, if I wanted something bigger than a phone, I’d go straight to a laptop. If weight and size were paramount, I’d buy the 12-inch Macbook. No matter the size, the Macbook has a far more powerful OS and is suitable for real work and content creation, rather than just consumption. Even simple tasks like downloading files, organising them, or syncing a folder to Google Drive, work better on OS X. 

If I had to buy an iPad, I’d rather buy the Mini, which is small enough to hold one-handed in bed, which the full-sized one isn’t, even the Air 2. Besides, 8 inches is enough space. There’s no reason to waste money buying a more expensive, bigger iPad that’s harder to use in bed. The Air 2 is too heavy a tablet, and too crippled a laptop. An iPad Mini is, for me, the best tablet, assuming I had to buy a tablet at all.

Moving beyond phones and tablets, if I had to buy a computer today, I’d probably buy the 27-inch 5k iMac. This has a big, high-resolution screen that you can’t practically get as an external monitor. I have a phone, phablet and tablet, which together give me all the mobility I want. Perhaps it’s not critical for a computer to be mobile, as well. I perhaps don’t need ALL my devices to be mobile.

Even among Macbooks, one way of looking at the 12-inch Macbook is that it’s too compromised relative to a proper laptop like the Pro or Air. The 12-inch Macbook is the worst of both worlds: neither powerful and versatile like the Pro or Air, and not as portable as a phone or tablet. So, you’re better off buying a Pro or Air, and a phone. The counter-argument is that a Macbook Pro is itself a compromised device: just use an iMac and a phone or tablet or 12-inch Macbook. You can play this game any way you want.

In summary, there’s a huge overlap between product categories:

- A phablet is, for some people, a poor phone and a poor tablet; they are better off buying a great phone and a great tablet.

- A tablet is neither always with you like a phone, nor is powerful like a laptop; I’m better off not buying a tablet at all, and instead buying a phone and a laptop.

- If I had to buy a tablet, a full-sized one is too heavy a tablet and too crippled a laptop; I’d instead buy an iPad Mini.

- A Macbook Pro has a tiny screen compared to the 5K iMac, and is much more expensive; if I wanted a computer, the iMac may serve me much better than a Macbook Pro.

It’s interesting how huge an overlap there is between form factors and product categories, and that in almost every case, the “X is under attack from Y” game can be played both ways.

[1] I can’t use it one-handed, which I realised after buying the Nexus 6 is an important use case. For example, when I take my walk in the garden with my phone in one hand and a teacup in the other. When I’m at a supermarket carrying a basket in one hand and trying to look up my shopping list with the other. A phone that’s impossible to use one-handed is a poor phone for me.

Before buying the Nexus 6, I thought that the Nexus 5 isn’t one-hand-able either, so what do I lose by switching to the Nexus 6? After buying the Nexus 6, I realised that that logic was wrong: one-handed-ness isn’t binary, where the iPhone 3GS is one-hand-able and the Nexus 5 and 6 aren’t. Instead, it’s a continuum. The Nexus 6 is harder to use with one hand than the Nexus 5 which is worse than the iPhone 5s which is worse than the iPhone 3GS, the gold standard for one-hand use.

[2] It takes up too much space in my pocket, and pushes against my leg, say when I’m sitting in my car or at my desk at the office. I end up taking it out often, and put it on the dashboard or on the table. Which means, in turn, that when I get up from my desk, I end up leaving the phone at my desk, missing calls, not having the phone with me to quickly check something when I want to, and irritating my colleagues with my calls.

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