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Tablet Computers: Staying a Step Ahead

Plus: Best Buys in E-Book Readers

Manufacturers are increasing the size of tablet-computer screens in reaction to expanding smartphone screens. Meanwhile, the shape of tablets is becoming more uniform, and the latest operating systems make it easier than ever before to use more than one mobile application at once.


Two years ago, the main benefit of a tablet computer was that it provided a larger touch-screen display than a smartphone did. Back then, we defined a small-screen tablet as a model that had a display that was 8 inches or smaller.

Today, we consider a small-screen tablet to be a model that has a display that’s 9 inches or smaller. That’s because in the past 2 years, most manufacturers moved away from 6- and 7-inch tablets as smartphones expanded into that screen size. (You now can find 29 phablets, which are smartphones that have touch screens that are large enough—5.3 inches to 7.0 inches—and powerful enough to use as a tablet.)

As small-screen tablets increase in size, large-screen tablets also are expanding. Previously, it was rare to find a tablet that had a screen that was larger than 10.1 inches. Now, it’s common. Today, six tablets measure at least 12 inches, and experts believe that we’ll see more tablets of that size in the next year.

“Tablets will keep moving toward larger screens, as manufacturers try to differentiate the products from smartphones,” says Rhoda Alexander of IHS, which is an industry research company.

The good news is that although tablets increased in size, they aren’t increasing in price. You can expect to pay at least $500 for an ultrapremium 12-inch tablet, but, in general, large- and small-screen tablets cost the same as they did in 2014.

NOW SEE THIS. While tablet-screen sizes change, tablet-screen shapes slowly are becoming more uniform.

Until late 2014, most tablets had a 16:9 aspect ratio (the proportion between width and height) to better match the rectangular shape of a movie or TV screen. Apple tablets always had a squarish 4:3 aspect ratio, which we find to be easier to hold.


Apparently, manufacturers are coming around to that way of thinking. Google’s Nexus 9 ($400), which was released in November 2014, and HP’s Pro Slate (starting at $449), which was released in January 2015, have a 4:3 aspect ratio. Samsung’s Galaxy Tab S2 (starting at $400), which came out in September 2015, has a 4:3 aspect ratio, and the company indicated that it will embrace that shape in future tablets. Microsoft uses a 3:2 ratio, which is closer to 4:3 than it is to 16:9, on its Surface 3 (starting at $499) and Surface Pro 3 (starting at $799). At press time, Microsoft was expected to release a 14-inch Surface Pro 4 in October 2015, but the company wouldn’t give us any details on the model’s aspect ratio.

We haven’t seen much evolution in screen resolution, however. Six tablets now have high-resolution displays of at least 2560 x 1600 pixels. (Panasonic’s 20-inch Toughpad has 4K ultrahigh-definition resolution, which is 3840 x 2560 pixels, but it costs $6,000.) That’s nearly twice the number of pixels that are in a high-definition (HD) TV (1920 x 1080 pixels), but we found that the added pixels don’t make a difference in a display that’s as small as a tablet. You probably won’t see the added detail.

For the average tablet user, HD 1080p resolution will be more than adequate for most mobile applications. Previously, only one small-screen tablet had 1080p resolution, but now 1080p resolution is common in tablets of all sizes that start at $180.

Today, almost all tablets have LCD screens. However, all Samsung tablets include organic LED (OLED) screens. Experts tell us that OLEDs deliver better contrast and a broader range of colors, and most experts believe that all tablets will shift to OLED screens in the next 2–3 years.