Size may not always matter, but screen size does. In the always-online lives that many of us lead today, we often have a device in our pocket, maybe a device in out backpack, satchel, or purse, or maybe a device under our arm. Smartphones continue to adopt larger displays, with the kings of that size race hitting the 7-inch ceiling a while ago, but the other displays around most users, namely laptops and tablets, seem to stay roughly the same size and shape. But, as with many things, why has the market become seemingly stagnant? And what could the future of this seemingly stuck market be?
Dedicated tablets come in anywhere from 7 to 12 inches, with laptops that come in both traditional and 2-in-1 variations ranging from 10 to 17. Smartphones go from 3.5 to 7 inches and desktops tend to have 20″+ displays, because that’s the nature of the platform. But, as mentioned, laptops and their 2-in1 siblings overlap greatly with the traditional tablet as far as display and functionality go, and that seems to be the problem.
If you have a smartphone and want to get a laptop or upgrade to a new phone, you are stuck with the choice of getting a traditional laptop, or opt for a tablet-laptop hybrid, or even go for a dedicated tablet and add on a keyboard to allow for laptop-esque productivity. Microsoft’s Windows platform covers phones, tablets, 2-in-1s, laptops, and desktops. Apple’s OSes cover phones, tablets, laptops and desktops. Google’s OSes cover phones, tablets, laptops, and desktops. But the fact that many of these company’s tablets can become as useful and multitalented as their laptops with the aid of a keyboard is the problem that tablets face. Google’s Chromebook lineup has seen traditional form factor laptops for a long time, and the Chromebook Flip from Asus is the first to truly introduce a Chrome OS-powered 2-in-1, with its 10-inch touchscreen display, and 360-rotating hinge. The 10-inch Android tablet competes directly with this relatively new computer, even though it’s years older (as a product category, that is).
12-inch productivity-focused Android tablets, like the Galaxy Note Pro and Galaxy Tab Pro from Samsung a few years ago, had 10- and 12-inch offerings of each, and the Note Pro obviously came with an S Pen to allow even more tablet functionality. But the 12-inch laptop market was a direct competitor, even though laptops had a fuller OS experience than the Note and Tab Pro that ran Android. We’ve even seen companies make the leap when releasing a new tablet, like Sony’s Xperia Z4 Tablet and the Nexus 9 from HTC and Google, and release an official keyboard case or accessory. What does that say of the tablet now, that it’s ready to be treated as more than a media consumption device?
It would seem so. This year, Microsoft released full free versions of their Office suite apps Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote for Android and iOS, aiming them at tablets first, then allowing phones to jump on board. Google’s had their online Drive office suite on Android for years, obviously, but it’s not as convenient as opening a laptop and launching the web browser to edit your documents. But, even if you spend $600+ on an android tablet, you’re getting absolutely shafted when considering what $600 can buy if you’re shopping for laptops or 2-in-1s. And that might be the biggest reason that tablets and 2-in-1s are still competing product categories.
If you have $600 to spend on a new laptop-like device, here are some example of what you could buy. $599 gets you Microsoft’s Surface 3 with 128Gb of internal storage, a 10-inch 1080p touchscreen display, full Windows 10, and 4GB of RAM. $529 can get you the new Chromebook 13 from Dell, with a carbon fibre body, 16GB of internal storage, 4GB of RAM, a 13-inch 1080p display (with a touchscreen being optional), and a 12-hour battery life. $649 can get you that Galaxy Note Pro 12.2 mentioned earlier. With the extra price, you’ll get a 12.2-inch, S Pen-optimized WQHD (2560 by 1600 pixels) display, 32GB of internal storage, Android 4.4 Kit Kat, and 3GB of RAM. With two of those, you’ll be stuck using a touchscreen keyboard, or not using the device for typing. And with all three, you’ll get a computing experience that relies at least partially on the cloud. But the compromises still exist.
Dedicated 2-in-1 hardware often takes more from its laptop brethren than its tablet lineage. Tablets, however, share much more with their smartphone siblings than the laptop world at all. Tablets are, at least for the moment, meant to be extensions of our lives on our smartphones, while 2-in-1s are the literal bridge between laptop features and benefits while trading some power for the usability of a touchscreen and thinner profile of a tablet. If a tablet had more internal storage, instead of being limited by a max of 64GB typically, and instead of only being given a Snapdragon, Exynos, or MediaTek processor had options like Intel’s Atom line, tablets might feel less like upsized smartphones, which, at least for the time, they are and are meant to. But as screen sizes approach the boundaries of other form factors with different use cases and raisons d’ªtre, lines blur and the choice becomes important of whether to settle for the lacking features of a tablet or go for a fully-equipped 2-in-1. Or, the two could become selling sisters, one offering built-in keyboard availability, and one focusing more on a touch interface.