Speculation and guesswork aside, if Apple's got a tablet, we need to know how to handle it, physically. So, with two pieces of cardboard, scotch tape, some Photoshop and a superficial intern papercut, we mocked up one. It was... unusual.
Tablet PCs have been around for years, but they've got keyboard, ball-jointed necks and all manner of extraneous fixture and features. Smartphones are sort of like this new slate-like variety of tablet, only their too tiny. Buttonless, slick, slab-like tablets do currently exist, but they're rare, and no one has found the right software pairing to make them particularly versatile. A 10-to-11-inch tablet wouldn't be totally new, but since none of us are really clear on how you're supposed to handle it in real-world situations, we built our own.
Here now, in the darkest, dingiest corner of the tech world's favourite rabbit hole, we've performed a hands-on with our cardboard version of Steve Jobs' mythical product. So, before it exists anywhere outside of our collective imagination, step into Tablet Sutra, the at-times-awkward position-by-position walkthrough of tablet handling:
The hurdles for a tablet like this aren't just technological. This is a device that's going to have to convert its usership to a whole new kind of physical experience. We're used to laptops and smartphones, and we take the things they're good and bad at for granted. The tablet's software may be a wonderful mystery box with massive potential, but the tablet form factor, like any other, won't be for everyone.
Based on the general rumour consensus of a screen size around 10 or 11 inches, our mockup elicited the same reaction from pretty much everyone who saw it, including Giz staff: "Is it really this small?" I don't know why we were so surprised, since the LCD size rumours came in the middle of last year. It just feels a bit more phone-like than we expected, I guess. Nevertheless, typing on a standard onscreen keyboard at this size would still be iffy; even the longest thumbs strained to reach the middle, at least in landscape mode. Speaking of which...
Portrait mode! If this thing is anything like the iPhone, it'll work in both vertical and horizontal modes, at least some of the time. But I assume there'll be a primary mode, and I'm torn between which it will be. To put it another way, how will the Apple decal be oriented? THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT QUESTION IN THE WORLD, RIGHT NOW. So here's a poll. Anyway, to the positions.
The Magazine Holding this thing straight out is the first thing you want to do with it, but in reality, something you wouldn't do much with a tablet. Our mockup weighs almost nothing, but this is no way to use a tablet for any extended period of time.
And why would you, anyway? Walking with a tablet seems like a terrible idea, and if you're not standing or moving, you'll probably want to rest it on something. Holding it like this is like reading a magazine at a newstand, or playing a PSP without any support - fine for a few minutes, then tiresome.
The Clipboard If you've got to use a tablet while standing, this is by far the best way. Your input options are limited, but everything's much more comfortable. This works great with existing tablet PCs, the ones that take a stylus, so there's no reason it wouldn't work with finger-based tablets either. Plus, you feel less like you're perusing the back of a cereal box, and more like you're actually using something.
The Standup Convertible tablets let you prop their screens up, so you could drop them on any surface and just go. A flat tablet is kind of awkward in this sense, because when you put it down, it faces straight up. This is actually fine if you're standing, because you hunch over the tablet naturally. In this shot, I happen to be leaning on a high table - turns out, this is an ideal position. So, er, great news, for people who spend most of their productive hours at cocktail parties, sports bars and food courts.
The Deuce When you're sitting - be it on a toilet, or on a bench, or on your plushest loveseat - you want to handle a tablet like you'd handle a book, and this generally converts well enough. But still, it's a bit more work than just setting a laptop on your lap. Laptops have a screen you can tilt towards your head; with a tablet, you have hold it in place! This is the core issue with keyboardless tablets: They're just slabs. And slabs, it turns out, aren't that optimised for human use.
Note: Chance Steve Jobs will christen this product the "iSlab"? 0.0 per cent.
The Hunch You can read books with good posture, but more temptingly, you can read books with bad posture. Instead of tilting the tablet towards you, as shown in "The Deuce", you might set it flat on your lap, triggering an ensuing hunch. Oh you'll want to set down your tablet at least as frequently as you'd set down your paperback, but it will cause just as much pain when you do.
The Desk This problem is exacerbated when you think about desktop scenarios. You can hold it up as shown here, but gravity is not on your side. After a while, you'll probably want to just set it down, leaving you slumped over your desk, like you're repairing a watch or something. Not comfortable, and definitely not sustainable. Counter to your laptop-bred habits, a tablet demands you stay engaged at all times, at the very least to keep it upright. I'm guessing people will quickly develop propping habits of various levels of improvisation.
The Lounger Again with the book comparison! If you read like this, you'll tablet like this. But the need for input will again restrict the variety of your hand positions. This captivating pose can be augmented with a bent knee, raising one foot skyward. For this photo shoot, I elected for a traditional profile, so as not to risk ruining a shot of me testing a fake version of a thing that we don't even know exists.
Note: Did you know "tablet" was now a verb? If you read the previous paragraph without noticing it, you have implicitly ratified this amendment to the English language.
The Rollover I am a side-viewing aficionado, and I fully expect to use any tablet devices in this manner. Cracking open a laptop feels too much like you're about to start work. Clicking on a screen and swiping through your email? That's a little better.
I read books like this, and I read my smartphone like this. Hell, I used to have a keyboard shortcut mapped to 90-degree screen rotation on my old Inspiron, just so I could watch video on my laptop like this. Physically, a tablet is perfect for lazy bed use, but this kind of thing has to be anticipated in the software. Can you lock the orientation if you want to? The iPhone's native apps don't support that, so you can't really read in Safari unless you're upright.
The Phoney When we handed this mockup to Gawker.TV head/general office fixture Richard Blakeley, the first thing he did was put it to his ear. You will not use the Apple tablet, or any tablet, like this, but I firmly believe that Richard has presaged an entire category of terrible tablet jokes, at which nearly every casual Apple Store visitor and/or goofy dad will arrive at independently, and which will never be funny after this one time.
More Issues: How Do You Carry It? This is an obvious one, but it's not pocketable, nor is it really even purse-able. Along with phone jokes, expect a lot of photos like this. (Look how many mini-memes we're pre-empting! Or starting?) It's an awkward size; it yearns to be pocketable, but winds up somewhere between a netbook and a Kindle in terms of tote-ability.
More Issues: The One-Handed Dilemma You can mouse with one hand, you can type with one hand, but it's tough to hold a tablet and manage any kind of input with one hand. When someone ends up writing the "IS THE APPLE TABLET THE ULTIMATE PORN MACHINE?" essay, I'm just saying he might be in for a surprise. Unless this person is me, which it will be.
More Issues: How About a Kickstand? Will the tablet have one? Jesus swears up and down that it won't, and swears at me when I ask the question. It'd be hard to pull off elegantly, to be sure. But as you've seen in the above demonstrations, it'd make life a lot easier for anyone who wanted to use it somewhere other than the loo.
If you think we left out any key tablet positions, feel free to mention it in the comments.