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Tablets and Phablets and Digital Comics


Mobile Device Sizes Changing Rapidly

by Bruce Lidl

While the landscape for digital comics continues to develop in the post-Amazon takeover of comiXology era, the devices upon which those comics will be consumed are evolving as well. New announcements and new devices appear almost daily, with a number of eagerly-awaited devices rumored to hit in the next few weeks, most notably new, larger iPhones. Trends seem to be shifting towards ever bigger mobile phone devices, while tablets begin to cool. Taken together both indications may actually point to a brighter future for digital comics.

The iPad, of course, popularized the tablet category and has remained the segment leader since its launch in April 2010, with almost unheard of sales figures, even while maintaining relatively high price points. Competing devices have flooded the market in the iPad’s wake, but the generally cheaper Android powered devices have mostly filled market niches, while providing a large diversity in size, performance, appearance and media tie-in. Newer models with improved screens continue to appear from Amazon (Fire HDX), Samsung, Sony, Lenovo, Asus, Toshiba and many more in the $175-299 price range, while sales and refurbished older models can bring the prices of modest but name-brand Android tablets down under $100. This wave of tablets, especially those from Amazon and Barnes & Noble, have also had the effect of weakening interest in traditional black and white eReaders, a category that limps along at this point.

In a surprise to many, however, the tablet boom is beginning to slow down considerably in recent months. In Apple’s last financial releases, iPad sales numbers have declined both quarterly and in year-to-year figures. Tablet sales from other manufacturers also seem to be declining, raising the question of where tablets fit into the mobile device ecosystem and why tablet owners are not replacing them as fast as smartphones. Is it a lack of innovation in new tablets? A lack of new use-cases or new applications, that might spur sales? Are older models still capable of doing everything that users want from their tablets (primarily media consumption, web browsing and light email)?

On the other end of the mobile device spectrum, sales continue to climb for smart phones, and will likely only jump further with the release of new iPhones, possibly as early as next week. Tellingly, the major innovation that is expected from the iPhone 6 is screen size: according to the most reliable of Apple watchers, the new phones will continue to increase screen real estate. The original iPhone had a 3.5 inch screen with a 480×320 resolution, while the latest 5S has a 4 inch 1136×640 pixel resolution. The expectations for the iPhone 6 is 4.7 inches with a 1334 × 750 resolution, and an even larger iPhone 6L at 5.5 inches and 2208 × 1242, pushing the latter device firmly into the hybrid category sometimes called “phablet.” Samsung has been the leader in the bigger is better smartphone segment with it’s Android Galaxy Note devices, which have had screens as big as 5.3 inches since 2011, and the latest model, the Note 4 just announced yesterday, is 5.7 inches at 2560 x 1440 resolution. Other highly anticipated upcoming devices include rumored Motorola Nexus devices (“Shamu”) at 5.2 and possibly 5.9 inches. And just to show how expectations of smartphone size has changed, a recently announced device from Chinese manufacturer ZTE, the Nubia 5S, with a screen of 4.7 inches, 1280×720 pixels, is called the “Mini.”

Is there a link between the slowing in tablet sales and the ever increasing phone screen size phenomenon? Does owning a device like the Samsung Galaxy Note make also carrying a tablet superfluous? Could larger iPhones cannibalize iPad sales, at least of the iPad Mini (7.9 inches, 1024×768 or 2048×1536)? Evidence at this point is very sketchy, and it’s also quite possible that larger phones will just drive tablet manufacturers to increase screen size as well, and in fact there are rumors of a new, larger iPad in the works with a 12.9 inch screen. The next few months, leading into the holiday buying season will clearly indicate the direction the mobile device trends are going in, and whether or not we will have to start looking for pants with larger pockets to hold our monster sized phones.

From a digital comics perspective, the evolution of mobile screens could have a very large impact, particularly as they remain the primary consumption device for such comics. The rise of comiXology matches in many ways the growth of the iPad, and it’s not a coincidence that Amazon wanted to purchase a key digital content distributor to integrate with its hardware offerings. While a weakening tablet market may be somewhat worrisome to digital comics sellers, the explosion of interest in larger sized phones may be a far more beneficial development. Reading comics on smaller phones, even with Guided View type applications, can be very frustrating, but as those screens get bigger and better, smart phones may indeed become more suitable for comics consumption. Reading comics on a 5.7 inch Samsung Note 4 phablet is actually a pretty decent experience and not that far off of 7 inch Kindle Fire in any case. And even more so, if Apple does, indeed, embrace this size trend wholeheartedly with a 5.5 inch iPhone, a device with the prospect of true mass acceptance, the landscape of digital comics friendly devices could grow explosively in the near future.


  1. Apple tablets are kind of terrible devices for most sorts of content consumption. They have, for some utterly inexplicable reason, a 4:3 screen that really doesn’t align to modern video content and certainly doesn’t match the formatting of comic books. They’re also expensive compared to flagship Google and Amazon devices and don’t handle data that comes from outside Apple’s ecosystem very well at all. Yes, they have fairly nice screens, but between the odd shape and the number of pixels per inch, there are now a good number of devices that are quantitatively superior options.
    Above all, I think most of the people who wanted an Apple tablet already have one. I think that most of those people use them as internet terminals and game machines, and the benefits of upgrading to a newer model are for those people dubious at best.

    With regard to phablets, nobody is there yet. An LG phone with a 4k display is still treated as a “not-extra-large-screen” device by Android software so that user interface elements are scaled progressively larger, even though the device in and of itself has four times the pixels of most of the TVs in my house. I’m not sure how Apple does things (and I am sure that I don’t care), but I’d be willing to bet that it, too, will use a combination of screen surface area and pixel density to calculate how large screen elements should be, meaning that there probably won’t be much of a change in comics-reading experience even on an ultra high pixel density device.

    And that’s a good compromise anyway. Nobody over 30 is really going to be in to the idea of zooming in and out on a screen that’s smaller than a paperback book.

    I do think it won’t be too much longer before someone releases a 7″
    something with LTE/GSM/CDMA support. Smartwatches are coming. Bluetooth has gotten a lot better for that actual talking. Having a phone that’s purse size isn’t that far from where we are now. Plenty of people already whine that their smartphones don’t fit in their pockets as it is.

  2. The iPad is the best comic reader I’ve used, I must say. None of the other Android tabs work quite as well (although in-app purchasing is a huge loss. I read less comics as a result).

    The smallest size for full page viewing is 9″ IMO. The 7″ Nexus was my first real attempt at digital comics and the guided view was essential – but you lose a lot that way too.

    It’ll be interesting if Amazon make a bigger push for a comixology branded Kindle.

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