tabletphoneWhat’s the difference between a smartphone and a tablet? If you consider how similar the operating systems are and how many applications are available for both devices, you might not think there is so much—but as ClickTale web psychologist Liraz Margalit, PhD., writes in a guest column on ReadWrite, the difference in use cases is actually considerable.

Dr. Margalit explains:

When you own a smartphone and add a tablet to the mix, you don’t end up using your smartphone any less. If both of the devices filled the same purpose, usage time with one would cut into that of the other. But they don’t compete, because users come to their tablets and smartphones for entirely different purposes.

For all that tablets are supposed to be almost as “mobile” as smartphones, only 14% of consumers consider the word “mobile” to apply to tablets and e-readers. People tend to use tablets in much the same way they use desktop computers—for passive purposes, like browsing and consuming media. Our phones are almost always with us, and are used more commonly for doing things. (It’s not surprising that smartphone data consumption eclipsed tablet data consumption in 2013.)

The way consumers shop on devices is different, too. Desktops are used for functional, non-luxury items. Smartphones are used for impulse buys. Tablets fall somewhere in the middle.

Dr. Margalit only mentions e-readers once—when she refers to people not considering them or tablets “mobile”—but given that tablets fall into the same sort of media consumption category, which includes reading, and e-readers have a similar form factor to tablets, that’s probably where they would fall.

It also makes me wonder just how big smartphone screens can get before they edge into “tablet” territory from a psychological use case standpoint. A story I saw elsewhere notes that Lenovo is introducing a couple of “phones” with 7” screens—the same size as my Nexus 7 tablet’s! If a “phone” is something you carry with you all the time, how are you supposed to fit that into a pocket?

It’s an interesting article, and causes me to consider my own device use cases. As she suggests, I do always have my phone on my person. I do tend to carry my tablet with me when I go out, in a shoulder bag that includes a battery pack, but I generally only use it when I’m spending a long time in one place, like riding a bus across town or eating at a restaurant. I may do some web browsing and reading, but I might also bring out my Bluetooth mouse and keyboard and write via Google Docs.

I rarely ever use my tablet for taking photos, because the camera simply isn’t that good, nor do I use it for things like checking in at locations via Swarm or Yelp. I’ll instant-message with it if I have it out, but usually I just use my phone for that.

So what does it mean that people are choosing to read more frequently from their smartphones rather than tablets? Do they consider reading to be a goal-oriented activity? Or perhaps just that it’s something more deeply personal?


  1. I tend to see digital devices as having spheres of usefulness. I wouldn’t want to carry my Mac mini and two large displays about with me. I wouldn’t want to layout books on my iPhone. That sort of thing.

    My iPad 3 has meant that I have little reason to replace my 8-year-old MacBook. I only use the latter to write book drafts with Scrivener. When Scrivener for iOS comes out, I’ll probably shift to writing with my iPad since the screen is much better. So for me, a tablet is replacing my need for a laptop.

    Apple is helping to drive that decision. Their MacBook Airs are now so stripped down (few ports) and difficult to upgrade that they’re not that different from a less expensive iPad with a keyboard. As more and more OS X apps get ported to iOS, the need for a laptop fades.

    Smartphone screen size is a personal preference. The way I carry my iPhone 5, attached to my belt, means that one with a screen larger that an iPhone 6 would be a nuisance. However, if I were a woman or a student who always carried my smartphone in a purse or pack, I might feel differently, particularly if a larger screen smartphone meant I didn’t need a tablet.

    My greatest joy with ereading came when my only ereading device was an iPod touch. Now that I have an abundance of ways to eread—iPhone, iPad, Kindle 3—I actually find I’m using all three combined less than I once used that iPod touch.

    It may be a case of too much choice leading to no choice, but another major factor is that I’ve moved in a different direction. For recreational fiction, I listen to audiobooks, typically public domain ones from Librivox. For serious reading, I buy printed versions used. Watch the prices online and you can pick most books up for under $7, shipping included. I like the ‘solidity’ of a printed version over the ephemeral nature of an ebook. That printed copy will always be around. If I buy digital, even if I can download it again, I may not remember who I bought it from.

    That leaves me feeling that I don’t really own that ebook. And besides, the way I buy used, that printed copy costs me less than most digital versions.

  2. It all depends on how a device or devices actually match your needs and intentions. This is in constant flux, especially for people who update early and often. Some people use an iPad and some add’l gear to film things formerly only possible with gear costing 100X as much. Skype over WiFi continues to amaze me. Authors are slowly coming to grips with their richer digital palette. It’s just not as simple a paper was.

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