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

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