Why Android Tablets are Finally Moving to 4:3 Screen Aspect Ratios

By Ryan Whitwam

It's not just iPad envy.

The very first true Android tablet was the original 7-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab, which was announced more than four years ago. Samsung actually sneaked that one in under Google's radar as the search giant wasn't technically prepared for non-phone Android devices. Still, the form factor stuck, and most of the Android slates we've seen over the years have looked very much like that device--they've all been widescreen. Well, until now.

The Nexus 9 is the first mainstream Android tablet that has come with a 4:3 screen ratio (like the iPad) instead of 16:9 (like a TV). So, why'd it take so long?

Supply and Demand

Android tablets started to pop up in Asia a few months before the Galaxy Tab was official. These were not "real" Android tablets in the sense that there were no Google services built in. In fact, many of them weren't even referred to as tablets, but as MIDs (mobile internet devices) or PMPs (personal media players). These too were widescreen devices because that's what was available.

Apple has long had a stranglehold on its supply chain. Hardware manufacturers happily line up to build whatever part Apple wants because they know Apple's going to want a zillion of them. That means steady business and an improved reputation in the industry. It was no problem finding suppliers for the iPad's 4:3 screen, but an Android OEM that only needed a few thousand panels wouldn't have such an easy time at a point when almost all LCDs were widescreen.

As tablets were starting to take off, another product category was dying a long overdue death. Of course I'm referring to Netbooks. These machines were the hot new thing only a few years before, but the abysmal performance and razor-thin profit margins caused OEMs and users to collaboratively call it quits. That left plenty of 7-10-inch Netbook panels sitting around that could be repurposed for cheap tablets. That's what a lot of these early devices were using, which served to solidify the idea that Android tablets were wide.

The Imitators Dilemma

So the battle lines were drawn early, though perhaps quite by accident. On one side was the iPad with its 4:3 screen and on the other were Android tablets at 16:9. Is either one a better way to use a tablet? It depends on what you're using it for, but Apple's approach has some compelling aspects that weren't clear in those early days.

A 4:3 tablet is not much bigger in one dimension that the other. So you can comfortably hold it in landscape or portrait orientation, even if we're talking about a 10-inch slate. A widescreen device, by contrast, is ungainly and awkwardly tall in portrait mode. The additional width in portrait also allows for more spacious app UIs on 4:3. The one place where 16:9 truly shines is with video. With most content being widescreen, there's less wasted space. I'd also put forward the 7-inch form factor as a great argument for 16:9. It's a super comfortable size.

So let's say an OEM is going to make a larger tablet running Android. Designers could source a 4:3 panel, and Android would understand it just fine, but would you want to be the first mainstream OEM to make a device that looks like an iPad? That's a lot of pressure, and no one wants to look like they're trying to copy Apple's success--at least not overtly. When the Nexus 9 was announced, the catcalls started right away. "iPad killer," they yelled with mock enthusiasm.

There is actually a place where aping Apple is big business, and that's China. 4:3 tablets, most of which don't get Google certification, pop up in China all the time. These devices are supposed to look like the iPad. It's the same with phones too. A ton of flagship Chinese handsets look a whole hell of a lot like the iPhone.

That's just not a game a respected Android OEM wants to play. Google and HTC can get away with it on the Nexus 9 because Nexus devices have always been forward looking Skunkworks projects. Google gets to do bizarre things, like sell phones for $300 and make 4:3 tablets. HTC just didn't really have much to lose. It hasn't made a tablet since the catastrophic failure that was the Jetstream back in the Honeycomb days.

App-solutely Not

Why is now the time for mainstream Android to go 4:3? Why not two or three years ago? Frankly, it's because Android won. The war is over and the sides have signed an uneasy peace accord. Android gets the lion's share of the mobile market, and Apple gets to keep selling extremely high-margin devices to a comparatively small number of people. To help take the sting out, Apple also gets to take shots at Android during keynote announcements.

This clout has finally put Android's app ecosystem in a place that it can handle a mainstream 4:3 tablet. Android has always supported app scaling with less ugly than iOS, but Android has its own related issues to deal with--specifically, Android apps are less tablet-focused, but why? For starters, some developers have clung to non-standard layouts on Android, where it has traditionally been easier to get away with. The more arduous app development tools are also a factor here. Finally, Android has always scaled apps, as mentioned above. That has resulted in developers simply being a little lazy at times. The app works on phones and tablets, and it might not look great on the latter, but it's not worth redesigning.

Dropbox, Solid Explorer, and Yelp

Things are better now that the holo design language has had time to sink in, and now material design is beginning to show up in apps. There are actually a fair number of apps that render well on a large tablet, but 4:3 is more troublesome. A widescreen tablet in portrait is roughly phone shaped, so a poorly optimized app doesn't look completely dumb. However, the additional width of a 4:3 device really makes it obvious when something is not suited for tablets (see above). It's not ideal now, but at any point in the past 4:3 Android tablets were a real mess when it came to apps.

So the time is now--if 4:3 Android slates are going to work, the Nexus 9 has to make the case. For apps that actually take advantage of the space, Android on 4:3 can be even more comfortable and easy to use than iOS. Developers will have to get on board with modern design guidelines, but stranger things have happened. At least Android doesn't require separate phone and tablet UIs. A well-designed app should render correctly on devices of all sizes, even a funny little square tablet.