The iPad has generated a lot of fans. Perhaps coincidentally, many of those fans reside on the boards of other companies. Since its inception it has been copied ad nauseum. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing as that’s how innovation becomes mainstream. However, I think that for all the competition has tried, they have yet to copy the most important aspect of the machine.

When the iPad was announced, it was received well, but among the few criticisms of it was the decision to go with a 4:3 aspect ratio. Why, in an era when widescreen HD content is readily available, would Apple make a display that forced little black bars onto the screen? Given the trend that most devices are optimized for HD viewing, it seemed to make little sense.

It’s also something that seems obvious to the competition. Two major challengers to the iPad, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 and the Asus Transformer both sport similar 10.1-inch screens with 16:10 aspect ratios. They’re both excellent for media optimized for the widescreen such as videos and photos, so why didn’t Apple go the same route? After all, the majority of screens we look at do conform to similar 16:9 or 16:10 aspect ratios. In fact, Apple’s own entire MacBook and iMac lines have those aspect ratios as well.

iPad 2 vs Transformer Prime Home Screens

The key to why Apple decided to do this is use. It’s important to recognize that this is not a simple discussion of x and y axis pixel-packing. If it were, the Galaxy Tab 10.1 and Transformer screens would have the advantage, as their 1280×800 display is both longer and wider in pixels than Apple’s 1024×768 display. To be clear, this is a discussion of portrait vs. landscape and how they relate to the physical dimensions of a tablet. While tablets are generally viewed as media consumption devices, the truth is that the overwhelming amount of time they are powered on they are being used for reading. As a machine that deals primarily with text, I think it would be wise to look to a medium on which most text has been printed for the past few thousand years: paper.

Very few of us grew up reading on tablets. In fact, I would bet the majority of us still come into contact with a sheet of paper far more often than we do a tablet screen. The most typical sheet of paper we use is likely either the Letter format, for those in the USA, and the ISO (International Order for Standardization) A4 for those outside of the United States. Letter paper measures 216mm x 279mm (8.5″ x 11″), and A4 is 210mm x 297mm. If we convert them into simplified aspect ratios and compare them to similarly simplified aspect ratios for the aforementioned tablets, this is what we get:

  • 1.29:1 Letter Format (USA)
  • 1.33:1 iPad
  • 1.41:1 A4 Standard
  • 1.60:1 Galaxy Tab 10.1/Transformer

While a comparison to print paper serves as a good introduction, we can take this metaphor little further. Many websites designs today are merely the offspring of tried and true magazine formats. Generally, magazines are printed in quarto to accomodate images and text. While the term has become indistinct, it generally refers to a size that is 23cm x 30cm, which corresponds to an aspect ratio of 1.30:1. Apparently, that range between 1.25:1 and 1.45:1 seems to define the dimensions of of most reading material.

Apple was not the first to recognize this. Before the iPad, a simpler kind of tablet was developed that had a singular task: the e-reader. Today, there are three main offerings: the Amazon Kindle, the Barnes and Noble Nook, and Kobo e-reader. All three of these companies have a great deal of experience in dealing with books. The resolution they went with for their dedicated e-readers? 600×800. That’s a 4:3Amazon Kindle 2011 aspect ratio.

Apple knew that despite being a more portable computer, the main use would fall under reading. Perhaps this is why the first capability Jobs demoed was web browsing. There was a realization that once a tablet reaches 10″, widescreen form factors start to affect usability. Simply put, 4:3 allows the tablet more pleasing dimensions that are more conducive to reading than 16:10, which feels far too wide for pure reading in landscape, and too narrow in portrait.

Unless the focus on tablets ever shifts away from text-oriented content, 4:3 is going to be more usable and natural than the widescreen aspect ratios. How long will it take the competition to see this?