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Android Tablets Aren’t Made To Be Held The Right Way

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Tim Bray, Google’s Developer Advocate for Android, has taken a stand on tablet orientation, and he says portrait mode is the way to go. I wouldn’t go that far, but he makes some good points. Unfortunately, the problem isn’t with how people are holding their Android tablets, but how manufacturers are designing them.

Back when Tablet PCs were in their prime (however low that was), lively debates over the right way to hold one’s tablet would spring up regularly. I’m primarily a landscape user myself due to my two-handed horizontal approach, but I love portrait mode too. I prefer the tall view for walking around or reading material in bed with my tablet propped up on my leg, both situations where I’m holding the tablet in one hand and controlling with the other. Tim Bray doesn’t have to convince me that portrait is, in his words, “the way the information wants to be, anyhow.” It’s the companies making Android tablets who seem unconvinced.

Another hot topic from the old Tablet PC days was the transition from the 4:3 screen ratio to widescreen. There was nothing tablet-centric about the shift, just a consequence with the overall industry transition to widescreen displays. This shift was poorly received by many Tablet PC enthusiasts. Why? Because, they (including me) argued, widescreen is intended for landscape viewing and is poorly suited for portrait.

In a 4:3 ratio display, like that of the iPad, HP Touchpad and old Tablet PCs, including the HP TC1100, the display’s width decreases 25% when shifting from landscape to portrait. On 16:10 display, like that of the Motorola Xoom, the decrease is 37.5%. Seems small, but compared to 25%, it’s a 50% greater change. The width of a 16:9 display, like that of the BlackBerry Playbook, decreases 43.75% from landscape to portrait. That cuts a page nearly in half. Slashing the page width like this greatly changes the reading experience by reducing the size of the content or the amount that can be fit within the width. Since scrolling up and down a page is already second nature to computer and tablet users, it makes little sense to constrict the width to this degree in order to fit more in the vertical space.

The length of a widescreen display in portrait mode is also problematic. Bray points out that reading in portrait mode is natural. However, the most common paper size in the world is A4, which has an aspect ratio of roughly 10:7. In the U.S., the common paper size is letter with an aspect of nearly 10:8. That means the difference between landscape and portrait orientations for the most widely used sizes of reading material are 30% and 20%, respectively. At a 25% difference between landscape and portrait, 4:3 falls right in the middle.

There are other paper sizes, of course, but letter and A4 are the sizes most of us are familiar with and are accustomed to reading. 16:10 and 16:9 displays are more akin to legal size paper, which is a common size but not nearly as common as the other two. I sit in front of literally a hundred medical books at work. No more than a handful deviate far from 4:3 aspect. For handhelds and smaller tablets, like the 7″ Samsung Galaxy Tab, a narrow design can seem more natural since they are similar to pamphlets and flyers, but hopefully those don’t make up a big portion of anyone’s reading material. If we’re judging strictly by what’s natural, the 4:3 aspect wins through sheer volume of what we read.

So while agree with Bray that portrait usage of tablets should be encouraged (though I stop short of saying it’s saying it’s the right way), I think his message is aimed at the wrong end of the industry. Users are trained to read content in portrait mode, but not in such long aspect ratios. 4:3 hits a comfort zone well-established by the paper and printing industry. If Android tablet makers don’t cater to that zone, Bray should not expect many users to “hold [their] damn tablet the right way up.”

So what say you? Is there a right way to hold a tablet? Is it portrait like Bray insists, or landscape as I use primarily? Does screen aspect make the difference?

Hat tip to Technologizer

Alleged Apple fanboi, accused Android apologist, and confirmed Microsoft MVP for touch and tablet Mark Sumimoto a.k.a. Sumocat dabbles in all areas of mobile computing with a focus on Windows-based Tablet PCs and pen input. A mobile computing enthusiast since 2004, he pioneered the field of ink blogging via his personal blog, Sumocat's Scribbles. His current tools include a Fujitsu Lifebook T900, TEGA v2, and iPhone 4. Email: sumocat [at] notebooks.com

13 Comments

  1. Cuhulin

    05/24/2011 at 7:39 pm

    I believe the preferred orientation also is related to tablet size.  A 7″ tablet is good for portrait orientation, because it easily is held on one hand, for most people.  You would need basketball players’ hands to grip a 10″ tablet or a 7″ tablet in landscape with fingers on both sides.  (Yes, one can old the tablet on one edge, but that gets old quickly.)

    If you’re going to two-hands, then a 10″ tablet may make more sense anyway.

  2. Anonymous

    05/24/2011 at 8:12 pm

    Portrait for just about everything is preferred. The best ratio is a 4:3 or 5:4. If you want to play a widescreen game or movie, you can comfortably turn it. It doesn’t work as well the other way. 16:10 and 16:9 are too skinny to easily read or operate in portrait without making compromises.

  3. DNel

    05/24/2011 at 8:49 pm

    The Nook Color uses a 16:9 ratio on a 7″ diagonal screen that is a near perfect match for book reading (closest to paperback ratio) in portrait. As for surfing the internet, it depends on how the website is set up for viewing. Many have ads on both sides of the material that you want to read so just sliding over brings most of the articles into reading view with the obnoxious ads not on screen. Looking at documents or pdfs require you to scale the material to fill the screen for optimum reading. To each their own to what ratio and orientation they prefer and what content they use their tablet for most.

  4. Dmpellow

    05/24/2011 at 9:44 pm

    The manufacturer’s design choice betrays the manufacturer’s assumption of how most users (buyers) expect to use the device. If the manufacturer thinks users will buy in order to consume (widescreen) movies and TV, or to send two-thumbed text messages, landscape orientation will be optimized. If the assumption is that a user will do what I want to do – read material and take digital ink notes – then portrait orientation will be optimized. I think the biggest influence will be the one identified by DNel – accessing information from webpages. Webpages evolved in a desktop monitor environment – originally slightly landscape, and increasingly widescreen. Even business information is increasingly accessed through web page displays. So, I predict that we portraitists may lose this battle.

  5. Zen Strive

    05/25/2011 at 5:14 am

    I tried portrait
    in the end, I prefer my tablet to be 7″, 16:10 ratio. Wider and more serious looking. Portrait orientation is for things not bigger than 5″.

  6. Christina

    05/25/2011 at 1:13 pm

    I’m a landscaper with both my lenovo x201 tablet and my iPad. Exception is sketching on iPad, where my figures need to be in portrait mode to get their whole bodies on that little screen.

  7. Ryan Stuckmaier

    05/26/2011 at 6:43 pm

    Think about this, too: Android tablets with Honeycomb are being designed to be held landscape with the app split into two fragments, each taking have the screen.  16:10 quickly becomes two 8:10 screens in this format, which is exactly the standard US paper ratio.

  8. Arek Stryjski

    06/12/2011 at 10:21 pm

    For me it is mostly portrait in most of the cases, but it is up side down all the time. The charger plug and navigation buttons don’t make a sense if they are not on the top.

  9. Robert Massaioli

    06/16/2011 at 11:49 pm

    “Is there a right way to hold a tablet?” Apparently there is, it is landscape, unless you like lag: http://redd.it/i0slo

    • Anonymous

      07/16/2011 at 6:57 am

      Heh it’s my video ;).

      The reason Android tablets are in landscape is because of the Tegra2 fail. The Xoom 2 is rumored to be 4:3 portrait ;)

      People can say “landscape” is winning, but the iPad is winning (in terms of marketshare). Plus a higher percentage of people with iPads are happy with their purchase vs tons of Android tablets being returned so I’d say since iPad is portrait, the rest should follow, honestly. I’m disappointed in the Tegra2 and I’m disappointed in the Galaxy Tab 10.1. I wish so bad that the Galaxy Tab 10.1 had been 4:3 and portrait. That’d be hot sauce.

  10. Jeol Mark

    09/20/2011 at 6:46 am

    I found a lot of info about android tabs here http://techworld-today.com/2011/09/cheap-android-tablets-arnova-coming/

  11. theConstruct

    12/17/2011 at 7:58 am

    I agree 100% with Bray and I will not buy myself a tablet until I can get a well spec’d one with an 8″ 4:3. The larger ones are just too big.

  12. Eva

    10/29/2012 at 1:15 am

    Hi agree 100%, I actually need a tablet that shows an A4 page at its normal ratio, because I mainly want it as a music sheet reader. I’m looking for maybe a 12″ screen tablet that naturally holds an a4 and that responds to finger touch. Any ideas?

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