Mid-Range Tablets: Their Time Has Come

I was initially skeptical about mid-range tablets. I figured I have my phone in my pocket and my big-ass tablet in my living room; why would I need something in the middle. Niche at best, right?

I was wrong.

I got interested in this form factor when I saw my G+ stream starting to light up with rave reviews about the Nexus 7. Biased crowd, admittedly, but they weren’t the usual fanboys/girls. After Google dropped the price for the holidays, it was too much too ignore. I yoinked a 16GB Nexus for £159 and I haven’t looked back. It’s one of the best devices I’ve owned, up there with iPod, iPhone, and iPad for sheer delight of getting to know it. I find myself reaching for the Nexus even when the iPad 2 is nearby. It’s lighter and less bulky to hold, and works fine for any kind of surfing and reading. (And it doesn’t hurt that it’s running what has become a fantastic OS.) Only video suffers from the size, though the trade-off still makes it worth it for video sometimes, especially in environments like public transport.

The little secret about this form factor, now revealed to the masses, is that it fits fairly comfortably in most adult jeans. Not to mention handbags and glove boxes. I did have a crappy knock-off 7” model from early 2011, and it was simply too fat to fit comfortably in the pocket. But - thanks mostly to battery improvements, apparently - the Nexus 7 and iPad Mini are way thinner, and that really makes the difference. Furthermore, the grippy backplate of the Nexus 7 is genius, one of those “little things” that makes a huge difference and elevates the form factor overall.

The New Must-Carry Device

Given that (a) mid-range tablets are the sweet spot for many interactions, and (b) they are feasible to carry around, the natural deduction is I want to carry them around with me. Even more so as I’m often using it to listen to podcasts or watch videos prior to stepping out and want to continue that experience without switching over to the phone.

The mid-range tablet has begun to occupy the special place traditionally occupied by the phone: A personal device, always carried. Not a shared device like the iPads of yore, but a device as personal and omnipresent as the smartphone. So I’m often carrying two devices now; the convergence trend has been reversed and after shedding the dedicated MP3 player and camera, suddenly my gadget count has doubled. A smartphone and a tablet, both in my pockets? Don’t want.

Why even bother carrying a smartphone anymore? What does it offer that the mid-range tablet doesn’t? Well, two things for now: Bandwidth and actual phone services.

Bandwidth is mostly what I still need the smartphone for. The S3 has increasingly a dumb appendage which sits in my pocket and is only there to provide tethering support for the Nexus. Well, that happens as long as I have a wifi-only model, but if I could choose again, I’d splurge on a 4G model.

That leaves only one thing the smartphone is good for: the “phone” bit. And that’s why I’m talking about Phablets here. Modern tablets do in fact allow for phone services. We can use VOIP solutions like Facetime, Google Talk, and Skype, all with plenty of options for buying traditional phone numbers and interfacing with the regular network (including SMS and voicemail). Furthermore, it should be possible to access the radio and make actual phone calls using the standard dialling app (requires a rooted Android device for now, but it’s possible). One could easily make regular phone calls with a headset, bluetooth or wired, or speakerphone, or - yes - the comedy scenario of just holding the damn thing to your face for a few minutes.

Having explained why those two barriers are surmountable, I believe Phablet-Only is possible and something I want to do. I think we’ll see a little Phablet-Only trend gain momentum in the next year.

One Size Fits No-one

Phablet-Only is not for everyone. I know. Not everyone wants to interact with their phone using a headset. It’s super-convenient to just hit Call and hold the phone against your face. Others might object to the one-hand experience; if you’re standing on a crowded train every day, you probably want to hold a device where your thumb can reach every point on the screen. And the size itself, of course. If you don’t have big enough pockets and don’t want to carry a bag around, you can’t do this.

The real point is that everyone will have a range of options available. It’s likely that we’ll converge to one personal device, because most people will be too inconvenienced by keeping multiple devices with them at all time. Even with cloud syncing, you still have to install apps twice, set up your homescreen again, etc. Only a revolution in wearable devices, like Google Glass, will bring about more than one device. So assuming for now, we have only one device, what will that device be? In 2009, we could confidently say it will be an iPhone or similar form factor. But for 2013, I believe we won’t be able to say much at all as it could be anything from 3” to 8”. For Phablet-Only users, they might still keep their phone, but it would switch to a secondary device for occasions where a tablet isn’t practical (e.g., the running/clubbing/gyming scenario). The implications for developers are obvious: Get Responsive! And I mean this in the broader sense: Native apps must be responsive too and designers must consider how different form factors affect different usage patterns.