Dell’s potential 18-inch tablet hit and remembering the 5” Streak

It is with some irony I’m looking forward to the Samsung Galaxy S4 this week because it boasts a huge 5-inch screen and is expected to outsell the iPhone. 

As some of you may recall, a few years back Dell released a 5” Android phone dubbed the Streak 5 and many were pretty outspoken about how stupid a 5” device was. Well, it doesn’t seem like such a stupid idea now. 

Let’s talk about timing and then the Dell XPS 18 which once again may anticipate where the large tablet market is likely to go. 

A Little History

There is a repeating pattern in tech. A company comes out with something before the market is ready for it, folks call it stupid, and a few years later someone else launches the same damn thing and suddenly it is a success. We, as a race, seem to look in on a particular design and then attack anything that doesn’t conform to it. For much of the last decade Apple played this to their advantage and it looks like, this decade, Samsung is moving aggressively to convince us they are the standard and everyone else is stupid. It is fun to look back, though.

Phillips showcased an iPhone like concept in the late 1990s – long before there was an iPhone and that product never even made it to market. Apparently in the 1990s (in fact up till the iPhone), only stupid people bought screen phones. Apple itself had a PDA first in the Newton and became a laughing stock, but it was Palm that made the PDA a big deal (Apple did get even with the iPhone), and Bill Gates pushed tablets first, had Steve Jobs call the idea stupid, then Jobs brought out the not so stupid iPad. 

Finally with 7” tablets, while a number of companies, including Dell, made them they were thought to be unsellable until Amazon broke through with the Kindle Fire and Google followed up with the Nexus 7. Apple did try to call them stupid but, without Steve Jobs, no one listened and now Cupertino is second in a market it dominated just a few short months ago. 

Why an 18” Tablet Makes Sense

We got hooked on 10” because Apple, who still had our ear, brought it out first.  But up till then anything smaller than 12” really didn’t sell well in a computing device and netbooks, which offered performance similar to an iPad, albeit with a keyboard rather than a touchscreen, didn’t sell well at all either.  10” remains too small to do work and we are quickly learning that a 7″ tablet can do most things a 10″ tablet can do. To be sure, the 10″ class is substantially cheaper, lighter, and more likely to get handset features as smartphones break the 5” barrier.  

When it comes to laptops, we live in a 13.3” world, currently the most popular size, but compared to the monitors we work from even 13.3” is too small, with significantly less screen space than the 15” monitors that ramped to high volume first in the desktop PC sector.   

As we get used to putting a 10” tablet on a stand and using it with a keyboard and even a mouse at times (Surface Pro offers a very nice custom mouse accessory), thinking about going bigger for those of us more interested in getting work done should be a natural progression. Granted, we will likely go through intermediate steps before we get to 18” in volume but we have had 17” and 18” laptops in the performance gaming and portable workstation space for some time showcasing that, at least for some, size matters.  

An interesting side note is that on a plane, particularly now that so many have power at the seats, this could provide a much more superior entertainment experience and potentially more comfortable work setting than a big laptop, simply because the keyboard is optional.   And just think of the screen envy from your neighbors.  

Dell XPS 18

The design goal for the XPS 18 isn’t the general use tablet/laptop replacement that I’ve highlighted above, the market just isn’t ready for that leap, although I’ll bet some of us make it early. It is the idea of a living room/kitchen PC that can move with you through the house and onto the couch or on the coffee table.  

Less of a big tablet and more tied to a new use case, the table top screen, this tablet will explore things like digital board games, entertainment center management, and cooking while attempting to eclipse the use case for all-in-ones with a far more useful form factor.  

Price is in line with other all-in-ones giving you portability at a slight premium. But if you want or need to move the thing around the house, simply unplug the power or pull it off the optional stand and go (it has a kickstand back). At 5 pounds, it is within a pound of the weight of the most popular thin and light laptop of all time, the ThinkPad T Series and substantially lighter than most of the notebooks sold to businesses in the early part of last decade.  

The nice thing about the 18” form over the larger 22” and 24” products in or coming to market with this same portability is that this will likely mark the limit for tablet use, allowing you to do things with this tablet – like take it on the road – you’d never even consider doing with one of the larger products.  

Wrapping Up: 

Dell is once again pushing the envelope with an interesting new product positioning it as a portable all-in-one, but I think it likely that this will break the ice for bigger tablets suggesting that in the future that 10” tablets may give way to 7” tablets/phones, and more products that exceed 15” as people rediscover that bigger is indeed better, and without a keyboard, you can get a lot bigger in a portable product.  

I guess we’ll see. Personally, I’m looking forward to whipping one of these out on a plane and watching the face of the folks sitting next to me. When it comes to screens, bigger is always better, although I will keep my 7” for reading.