¶ The 7-inch Apple "Tablet"

There has been a lot of buzz lately about a 7-inch Apple tablet — specifically a 7.85-inch tablet — supposedly in the works in Cupertino.

I’ve been thinking about such a tablet for a while now, and wondered whether such a thing, if brought to market, would be labeled as part of the iPad family. To me, it makes far more sense to move the iPod touch product line up to this mid-range screen size.

Odi Kosmatos crunched some numbers and discovered that the difference between 7-inches and 7.85-inches is everything:

Perhaps you’ve read these Steve Jobs quotes before, they go something like this:

“The 7-inch form factor is not a good size for tablet applications” and “7-inch tablets should come with sandpaper, so that users can file down their fingers so they can use them.“

Note the words in bold.

Every rumor and theory about a smaller iPad I have seen seems to claim it will be 7.85″ with a 1024×768 screen. If that were the case, Steve Jobs would be right on the money with the above quotes. A 7.85″ 1024×768 display would be appropriate if the smaller tablet were designed to run iPad applications, because these applications could run unscaled on the device, at a 1:1 pixel ratio. However, the PPI of that 7.85″ screen would be 163. But the size of the user interface elements on iPad applications are tailored for a 132 PPI screen. If squeezed into 163 PPI, every button and control would become smaller, harder to accurately touch. Hence the need for sandpaper.

The same argument applies if the 7.85″ tablet had a retina display with the same resolution as the new iPad’s 2048×1536. It would have 326 PPI, but the UI elements of retina iPad applications are designed for 264 PPI. Sandpaper required.

But consider if the new tablet had a 7″ screen. What’s so special about 7″? A couple of very interesting things.

A 7″ diagonal screen (7.08″ to be exact) just happens to be the exact size of two by two iPod touch retina displays. That’s a 4″ x 6″ display surface. An iPod touch screen has 326 PPI. The 7″ screen would also have 326 PPI just like iPhones and iPods. This would yield a resolution of 1920 x 1280. This resolution would be able to run current retina iPhone applications pixel perfect using the traditional 4:1 pixel scaling, like retina displays do with non-retina apps.

What’s so special about that? By running iPhone applications on a larger screen, as opposed to running iPad applications on a smaller screen, you don’t need the sandpaper anymore. Heck, if you have fat fingers, you’ll rejoice. Larger touch targets are just easier to hit, but still look amazing, especially text, which will be drawn using the full 1920 x 1280 resolution. Anyone that finds the iPod touch or iPhone screen slightly cramped would love it, and could continue to enjoy amazing apps like iMovie, iPhoto, and other apps designed for iPhone.

I have no doubt a 7.85-inch tablet-like device exists in Apple’s labs. I also have no doubt a 7.08-inch device exists. Of course Apple plays around with different approaches to products. I’m sure Apple has both a larger iPod and a smaller iPad, and they are testing which is best.

Everyone has focused on the smaller iPad because the iPad is the new hotness. I am much more interested in what a larger iPod would bring to the mid-range.

Here’s how I see it:

  • The iPhone needs to fit in your hand and your pocket comfortably, hence its 3.5-inch screen.
  • The iPod touch, to date, has been modeled after the iPhone. This is mainly due to transitioning from the old iPod classic size and to simplify software design. Apps made for the iPhone work on the iPod touch. Simple.
  • The iPad is great, and its large screen, while not as portable as some would like, is comparable to a glossy magazine in both size and quality. Its keyboard is very comfortable in landscape, and in portrait, if you split the keyboard.
  • There seems to be plenty of people that want something larger than an iPhone but not as large as an iPad.

That last bullet point is where I see the opportunity for the iPod to move to. I think iPad apps would feel cramped. But if iPhone/iPod interfaces could be scaled up at retina resolution to a 7-inch screen, I think that would satisfy most people desiring a mid-range screen. Thumb-typing would still be comfortable. Text and pictures would be sharp. Developers wouldn’t need to rewrite the book again. And, most of all, the iPod line would be given new life.

When the first iPad was announced, it was derided by many as being “just a big iPod touch”. That clearly has not been the case, because software differentiated it. But does that mean there isn’t a market for an actual “big iPod touch”? I think a 7-inch retina display iPod would grab the corner of the market that Amazon is currently aiming at with the Kindle Fire. It isn’t a full-featured tablet, like an iPad. It isn’t a full telecommunication device, like an iPhone. But it is the best of both worlds for certain people — the people who want a little more screen than an iPhone but want more pocketability than an iPad.

For instance, my three-year-old son uses a second-generation iPod touch filled with kid games, educational apps, children’s books, and Pixar movies. He usually uses it for an hour or two after his nap, and he loves it. But, boy, does he look at my iPad with envious eyes. He loves the larger screen. I do not love him toting around an iPad that is as big as his entire torso.

A 7-inch iPod would be fantastic for him. It’s the perfect size for a young child. I imagine there are many adults who would enjoy it as well.

All-in-all, if Apple is planning to bring a device with a screen in the 7-inch ballpark to market, I think I’d rather see the iPod touch grow up a little, rather than the iPad get squeezed into a smaller screen.