Back in 2010, Steve Jobs scoffed at the “current crop of seven-inch tablets,” calling them “dead on arrival.”
“There are clear limits of how close you can physically place elements on a touchscreen before users can reliably tap, flick, or pinch them,” he said on an October earnings call. “This is one of the key reasons we think the 10-inch screen size is the minimum size required to create great tablet apps.”
What a difference three years makes. The 7.85-inch iPad Mini has been a runaway success, and the new iPad Mini with Retina Display seems poised to become the company’s best-selling tablet. (Although Apple still needs to overcome early supply constraints.) Surely even Jobs would now admit that the 7.85-inch Mini deserves its place in Apple’s tablet lineup.
Apple’s current iPad lineup
That said, Jobs’ poor instincts might actually go a level deeper. Not only have 7-inch tablets proven their worth—they might just be the superior tablet size, period. First, there are the sales numbers, where the iPad Mini has reportedly cannibalized its bigger brother faster than Apple expected. Next, there’s feedback from users. Here’s a scatter plot charting FindTheBest’s average user rating against screen size for 64 of the most popular tablets.
The 7-inch tablets win handily. It’s somewhat remarkable to see a trend like this, particularly when the data on smartphone screen size is much more noisy.
The one clear conclusion here: smartphones over 5 inches are too big. (We’re looking at you, Samsung Galaxy Mega 6.3.) Otherwise there are plenty of top-rated options—it just depends on your personal needs and preferences.
So it really does seem that this phenomenon is unique to tablets. Incidentally, you won’t see the same trend when looking at tablet reviews from experts, but that’s likely for good reason. More screen real estate might impress for the first week or so, as professionals scramble to submit reviews, but what about over time? Sure, experts will run benchmarks, analyze hardware design, test out features, and compare display sharpness, but what about two years later, after months of reading on a busy subway, or two years of cross-country business trips? In the end, light-weight, portable options tend to win out.
iPads provide one of the more obvious examples, with clear user rating differences between Mini and full-sized options.
Apple may not have a 7.0-inch offering, but the 7.85-inch Minis have the obvious edge over their 9.7-inch counterparts.
What about Samsung? The trend isn’t nearly as clear, with the 10-inch Galaxy Tab and Note among the users’ favorite tablets.
Still, there’s a small surprise here: users tend to like the 7-inch Galaxy Tabs, despite only average reviews from experts. Score another point for small-screened devices.
Sony’s tablets fit the theory as well. Users score the 9.4-inch Xperia Tablet S 0.7 points higher than the flagship 10.1-inch Xperia Tablet Z.
If there’s any major tablet-maker that seems to break the pattern entirely, it’s Amazon. Users review Kindle Fires pretty consistently, regardless of screen size.
How does Amazon avoid the large-screen curse? Perhaps the 8.9-inch Kindle Fire is just light enough (1.25 lbs), or maybe there’s a breaking point right around 9 inches. We’ll see what happens with Apple’s iPad Air (9.7 inches, only 1 pound) once users have had enough time to really use it. We’re keeping a close eye on our hypothesis as tablets continue to get lighter.
– – – – –
Given that the man revolutionized the music, phone, and PC industry with his uncanny ability to see into the future, I’ll excuse Jobs for his oversight on tablet size. After getting so many things right, it was only a matter of time before he got something wrong. With apologies to Mr. Jobs, it seems we have a verdict: smaller really is better.
- Handing Out Grades for Apple’s New iPads
- Smartphone Experts vs. Users: Who Knows Better?
- The Top 3 Laptops in Each of 5 Key Categories
- 7 Areas Where the iPad Falls Short
- The Top 10 Smartphones on the Market
This article was written for TIME by Ben Taylor of FindTheBest.