The 7-inch tablet advantage
Tablets aren't a one-size-fits-all hardware category. Depending on your tasks and needs, a smaller tablet may do more than just save you money—it may actually be a better choice for you. From spending time with tablets of all kinds, I've noticed when and why I frequently reach first for a smaller tablet. Some of these reasons may hold true for you, too.
Though I refer to 7-inch tablets throughout this article, my observations apply to tablets with screen sizes of up to about 8 inches. The size class thus encompasses everything from 7-inch models like the Amazon Kindle Fire HD and the Google Nexus 7 to the 7.7-inch Toshiba Excite 7.7, and the rumored 7.85-inch Apple iPad mini.
What makes this size so sweet? Let's start with their satisfying scale: 7-inch tablets strike a balance between portability and functionality. Of course, compared to a desktop replacement laptop, all tablets are portable, but 7-inch tablets are far easier to tote than 10-inch-class tablets like the 9.7-inch Apple iPad and the 10.1-inch Asus Transformer Pad Infinity.
A 7-inch tablet may be able to slide into a deep coat pocket, for example; and its smaller dimensions and weight make it simpler to slip into and out of a bag or to hold in one hand. For these reasons, a 7-inch tablet lends itself well to GPS navigation and mapping applications; I might still be trying to navigate a labyrinthine Tokyo subway station if I hadn't had a Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus (the predecessor to today's Galaxy Tab 2 7.0) with me that day. That episode helps explain why I used a 7-inch tablet with an augmented-reality app when I visited Hong Kong last year.
When I walk about a city with a 7-inch tablet, I feel less like a beacon for thieves than I do when carrying a 10-inch class tablet. I wouldn't whip out a 10-inch tablet for a quick consultation while touring—it's just too big and heavy. Along those lines, while on the New York City subway recently, I saw commuters clutching 7-inch tablets and blithely reading their screens. A 10-inch tablet would have looked out-of-place in that environment, but a 7-inch tablet in its case looked as sensibly proportioned as a paperback book. The smaller size clearly has its time and place—especially in crowds.
Just as paperback books can be more convenient than hardcover books, and just as a stenographer's pad is less obtrusive than a legal-size pad, the difference in size between 7-inch and 10-inch tablets is palpable. The smaller size is an advantage that I've appreciated and gravitated toward in many different situations and environments. For example, while at a luncheon meeting, I found myself reaching for a Nexus 7 over the iPad I was carrying, simply because it was easier and more unobtrusive to take notes on. Owing to its larger screen size, an iPad would have seemed less social, and it would have blocked my face more than the smaller Nexus 7 did, while I used it. Similarly, the 7-inch Nexus 7 was easier for me to use while standing, since I could thumb-type in portrait mode without having to lean the tablet on a surface.
Extending the paperback analogy a step farther, I also find 7-inch screens very pleasant for reading ebooks on. The lighter a tablet is, the more suitable it is for extended use in one hand, such as for reading. Most 7-inch tablets hover between 0.7 and 0.9 pound, as compared with 1.3 to 1.5 pounds for the larger tablets. That difference in weight makes for a very different reading experience as the minutes roll by.
The lighter weight also makes a difference when you're holding the tablet for extended gameplay or video watching. A 7-inch display is significantly larger than what you'd get on a phone—and the extra screen real estate translates into greater enjoyment of entertainment content, without having to deal with the heft of a larger display. I won't deny that games looked outstanding and head-turning on the massive 13-inch Toshiba Excite 13; but that immersive experience was very different from the more casual, more intimate play possible on the Excite 7.7 or on the Nexus 7.
Ultimately, I prefer the Excite's 7.7-inch display to the Nexus's 7-inch display: The extra bit of screen space makes the display that much more satisfying. And Toshiba's clever design yielded a svelte, compact tablet that effectively weighed no more than its rivals, even with the slightly larger display. Regrettably, despite dramatic shifts in the competitive tablet market, Toshiba continues to offer the 7.7 at $499—the same price that it debuted at (though it is available with a $100 discount via ToshibaDirect.com, through October 15).
In buying a 7-inch-class tablet, you might assume that you'll be accepting some big trade-offs in performance and design, especially since most 7-inch tablets cost far less than their larger brethren. That was often true of early 7-inch tablets from second-, third-, or no-tier manufacturers, but the situation today is quite different.
The big trade-off, of course, involves screen size. With a smaller display, you won't want to use your tablet to write the Great American Screenplay or to edit a complex spreadsheet. Likewise, even if you could do side-by-side screens, you probably wouldn't want to: The display just isn't big enough for two apps to run alongside one another. Content creation as a whole suffers on a smaller display: It's not impossible to perform, but 7-inch tablets are less suitable for creating documents or editing media than a 10-inch-class tablet is.
Beyond the display, you'll find a mixed bag of compromises on 7-inch tablets—and in some instances, no tangible compromises at all. Most recent 7-inch tablets run a version of Android (usually 4.0 or 4.1); but some are tied to specific curated app ecosystems, as is the case with the Barnes & Noble's Nook HD and Nook Tablet and Amazon's Kindle Fire and Kindle Fire HD. Some tablets lack the additional ports or inputs of larger-screen models; others may cut out the rear- or front-facing camera to save costs; and still others may opt for smaller on-board storage or less powerful processors than you'd get on bigger and more-expensive models.
As the Nexus 7 shows, however, you don't have to sacrifice performance. Though the Nvidia Tegra 3 processor inside the Nexus 7 isn't the fastest CPU in Nvidia's repertoire on our benchmarks, it's nonetheless highly capable and handles today's Android content well; it's also competitive with the processors found in larger tablets, too. Furthermore, the Nexus 7's battery lasted 10 hours, 12 minutes, besting the average that we've seen for tablets and ranking among the highest marks we've seen for an Android tablet of any size.
In addition to their advantage in size for some purposes, 7-inch tablets have a clear price edge, too. The smaller display translates into significantly lower manufacturing costs, making it that much simpler for a tablet to sneak into the family holiday budget this year for $250 or less.
Meanwhile, if Apple unveils its expected 7-or-so-inch iPad in time for holiday season, I would expect the company (as it often does) to beat the specs of competing products. That pressure could instigate price wars on existing 7-inch tablet models as we careen toward the end of the year. And next year, the Android competition could roar back with upgrades that will keep Apple on its toes.