A Tablet for Watching Movies

Tablets are a crowded market. Amazon lists more than 8000 models. Anyone making a new tablet will find it hard to stand out in such a crowded market.

One way out is to target a niche. Like making one optimised for watching movies. Let’s design a tablet for this and only this use case [1]. This starting point lets us make a better tablet for movie-watching than a tablet that tries to balance a number of use cases and so doesn’t end up being ideal for any one.

Don’t worry that people won’t like such a tablet. Even if only 1% of tablet users are avid movie-watchers and would buy our tablet, 1% of a billion is 10 million — a huge market for any upstart. And a market that’s there for the taking, since other manufacturers are trying to make “jack of all trades” tablets that aren’t the best for movie watching.

Why is this a tablet and not a laptop? Because you don’t need a keyboard to watch movies [2]. And getting rid of the keyboard lets you put in a bigger screen for the same weight.

The tablet would have a stand, so that you can prop it up on a table or bed.

Let’s discuss the screen, which is the most important hardware component of any tablet, all the more so for a tablet optimised for watching movies. The screen would have a 2:39:1 aspect ratio, the most common one for movies. The highest rated movies of 2017 all have an aspect ratio of 2.39:1 or 2.35:1 [3]. Using the same aspect ratio for the screen ensures that you don’t lose screen space to letterboxing, which are the black bars at the top and bottom. So you get more space for the movie, leading to an immersive experience, without the added size and weight of a bigger screen.

The screen would have a high dynamic range, preferably using OLED. And, of course, support playback of HDR file formats like HDR10.

We’ll pick a big screen size, like 13–15 inches, for an immersive, cinematic experience.

The screen would refresh at 24 FPS to match [4] the frame rate used in movies [5].

As for resolution, 1920 pixels wide is enough. Higher resolutions aren’t noticeable. I tested on the 15-inch Macbook Pro, and couldn’t tell the difference [6]. Even on a 27-inch iMac with 5K display, anything higher than 2560 pixels wide was unnoticeable. High resolutions are noticeable when reading text, not when watching movies.

A lower resolution screen saves money, which we can use for things that actually matter, like OLED. A low-res screen also consumes less power, which means a smaller battery, to offset the weight of the large screen. Lower-res screens are easier to make brighter. And require smaller files and less GPU and CPU power to decode. Smaller files require less bandwidth to stream, and so are viable for many more people, given the speed of their Internet connection. Very few people have the bandwidth or data cap to stream UltraHD. Further, many services like Netflix charge more for UltraHD streaming, so users can also save money. Making one correct decision can have ripple benefits everywhere else.

Moving on from resolution, the screen would be really bright, at least 500 nits.

There would be front-facing speakers on either side of the screen. These would sound as good as the best laptop speakers. If that means they don’t fit in a tablet, we’ll make the edges of the tablet, where the speakers are housed, thicker. The center — the screen— can be thin. If you’re concerned that won’t look as good, it won’t, but it will work better. Form should follow function. All it takes to convince a buyer is to play a movie clip for a few minutes in a shop.

The tablet would also play all common formats like mp4, mkv and avi. In particular, it would support HEVC and HDR formats. Some of these formats may not be GPU-accelerated, which means we should budget for a bigger battery.

The tablet would come bundled with a number of preinstalled streaming services: Youtube Red, Amazon Video, Netflix, and whichever other services we can strike deals for. Users will also be able to add new ones by installing an app. The tablet would be an open platform, like Windows, macOS and Android, not locked down like iOS. The vendor won’t be able to exclude competitors from the device. In that sense, it will be your device, not the vendor’s. Maybe we’ll use Android, with the Google Play store [7], because it already has apps for all the services we want. Otherwise, it will be hard to convince all these services to work with us.

There will be an open API so that you can search for a movie or TV show and get a single list of results that covers all services, rather than having to search again and again in every app. This list will include a variety of options, including free sources, ad-supported ones, services you’ve already paid for (like Amazon Prime), services that are free since you subscribed to their TV channel, services that decide to give you a free trial in the hope of getting you to pay, renting a movie, and finally buying one.

In countries without net neutrality protections, we can try to strike a deal with ISPs to not throttle our usage even after the data cap is exceeded, thus offering users an additional 100GB data cap for video streaming.

Still, not everyone has reliable, fast connections with no or high data caps, so offline playback should be a first-class citizen. Users would be able to pin movies from the aforementioned streaming services for offline playback, and they’ll also be able to plug in an external hard disc to play content they already have.

The tablet will come with lots of storage, like 128GB on the base model, used to download movies from streaming services, to copy from external hard discs, and download via BitTorrent. The tablet will come preinstalled with a BitTorrent client [8]. Storage doesn’t cost much — a 128GB pen drive costs only $16 in the US. We’ll use the cheapest storage we can get unlike, say, the iPad Pro’s 900MB/s storage. We don’t need that level of performance to play movies. Even 10MB/s will do. Tolerating cheaper storage will give us more storage for the same price, which is the right tradeoff for movies.

The tablet would also connect to a TV using Google Cast or HDMI. We’ll give the tablet three USB-C ports [9] so that users can simultaneously charge the tablet, connect it to an external hard disc, and a TV.

We’ve talked about extra features our tablet as compared to existing ones. But what about the opposite? What would we remove? We’ll use a low-power CPU, since iPad Pro- or iPhone X-level performance isn’t required to play a movie. We’ll use the least power-hungry and cheapest CPU that can play back a 1080p movie in all the formats we want to support without dropping frames. We’ll also have less memory, like 1 or 2GB. And a smaller battery, to reduce weight, since a movie doesn’t last longer than 3 hours. We might skip the back camera, GPS, NFC, etc.

As you can see, designing a device for a particular use case lets us build a much better tablet for certain users than a least-common-denominator product. Better to succeed in a niche than to fail in the bigger market. And, from the point of view of customers, while making another generic copycat product doesn’t benefit customers, building one for niches benefits customers who want such a device.

[1] Secondary use cases include watching TV serials and music videos. Even tertiary use cases like email are also fine; we just won’t design for them. For example, we’re not going to prevent users from browsing the web or checking email on this device, since adding a browser to a movie-watching tablet doesn’t make it any worse for watching movies. But we won’t design for these other use cases. We won’t trade off the movie watching experience for the browsing experience, not even a little. If that means our tablet won’t work for some other use cases, fine.

[2] Which isn’t to say that add-on keyboards shouldn’t be sold.

[3] With the exception of Dunkirk, whose aspect ratio keeps changing from scene to scene.

[4] 60 FPS is not optimised for playing 24 FPS content, since you’ll have to do hacks like displaying one frame twice, and the next thrice. Or try to interpolate missing frames. Neither of which is an optimal solution. Besides, a lower frame rate also saves power, since there are fewer frames to render.

Better than a 24 FPS frame rate is a screen that can adjust its frame rate to match the content being played, whether 24 FPS, 48 FPS or something else, like the latest iPad Pros can.

[5] I don’t know whether matte or glossy works better for watching movies. But whichever is better, we’ll use that.

[6] To make sure I didn’t miss something, I increased the brightness to maximum, replayed the same part of the video multiple times, full screen. I paused at the same position and compared the videos. To rule out a problem with the particular video I was playing, I tried two other videos. No difference.

[7] If Google doesn’t let us, or we want to do something that’s incompatible with Google’s rules, we’ll see if Amazon lets us bundle their app store. If not, we’ll just use the open-source version of Android, without the Google or Amazon apps. This will require streaming services to make their apps available on our platform, but it should be easy since we’ll make no incompatible changes to Android.

We could alternatively run Windows 10, but that will add licensing cost, performance and battery life will probably be worse, and we’ll have to fall back to accessing these streaming services via their web sites, which is a bad user experience for tablets.

[8] … which is perfectly legal. Using one to pirate is illegal. Users will still have to get torrent files from third-party sites— we won’t provide a search box to type in a movie name and pirate it instantly. Neither will we advertise it as “Buy our tablet and watch all movies free!”.

[9] We could alternatively use a HDMI port, but USB-C is more flexible. Maybe users can plug in a keyboard, for example.

On-demand Leader. Earlier: IIT | Google | Solopreneur | Founder | CTO | Advisor