While television manufacturers are competing to produce ever larger and smarter screens with thinner bezels at even thinner margins, another competition is taking place to put even better screens in the hands of consumers. The tablet is fast becoming a more personal screen on which to view video, television programmes and movies. Conventional wisdom is that people want to watch such things on the biggest screen possible. An alternative view is that people will prefer the most convenient screen available to them. With the increasing popularity of touch screen tablets, new form factors and price points emerging, and resolutions improving by the day, a screen in the hand may sometimes be worth more than one on the wall.
The new Apple iPad Mini is an iPad that can be held in one hand a little more comfortably. It has a screen that is 7.9 inches across the diagonal, with the same 1024×768 resolution as the original iPad. Disappointingly that is still not high-definition in resolution or aspect ratio, but that will no doubt come in future versions.
The iPad 3 has a 10 inch display with a resolution of 2048×1536, which comfortably exceeds that of full high-definition television. The latest iPhone now has a 16:9 screen with an even higher pixel density, so a handheld full high-definition screen with a diagonal of say 6.75 inches is technically possible.
Microsoft has created its own tablet, in an attempt to compete with Apple and others. The newly launched Microsoft Surface has a much larger 10.6-inch display, with a resolution of 1366×768 pixels, allowing 16:9 playback of high-definition material at 1280×720 resolution. The Microsoft Surface Pro will have a resolution of 1920×1080, a perfect match for native display of full high-definition video.
The Amazon Kindle Fire HD, released in the United Kingdom in the same week, at much lower cost, has a 1280×800 7-inch display, also capable of high-definition 16:9 playback at 1280×720 resolution.
The Google Nexus 7 also has a 1280×800 resolution 7-inch display, able to deliver high-definition video at 1280×720 resolution in 16:9 aspect ratio. Google is reportedly planning to announce a new tablet product with a 2560×1600 resolution display, higher than anything else on the market. At around 300 pixels per inch, that is comparable to the resolution of conventional printing.
Such resolutions can deliver full high-definition video with pixels to spare. In reality some types of display have actually have half the number of red and blue sub pixels, so comparisons of resolution can be somewhat confusing. The point is, hand held displays capable of displaying full 1080p high-definition video will become increasingly commonplace.
A relatively small high definition display held at arms length, at say six times picture height, offers a comparable view to a much larger screen across the room.
Television, we are repeatedly reminded, is a shared screen and a shared viewing experience, but for better or worse that is less and less the case.
Industry imagery still aims to portray families sat around a screen enthusiastically engaged in an unseen programme that has them gripped with excitement. The reality we may recognise as a rather less social activity.
The television is generally on in the corner and someone may be watching it and anyone else in the room may be tolerating it to a greater or lesser extent. In some cases it may be a genuinely shared experience but that represents a minority of total viewing time for many people.
Of course a large screen in the corner or on the wall is ideal if you are doing something else that requires hands free viewing, like cleaning, cooking, eating, reading, working, or any of the other things that people are prepared to admit doing while watching television.
If, on the other hand, you are actively engaged in watching something individually, a handheld screen may be preferable, a more personal pleasure like reading like a book or a magazine.
We have seen this before, with radio. The radio set was once the focal point of family entertainment that television became.
Then as recorded music became more popular entertainment systems became a tower of separate boxes, power amplifiers and massive speakers aimed at delivering high-fidelity reproduction that was largely incompatible with the homes in which most people lived.
More recently, with a proliferation of channels and listening options, radio has become much more of a personal experience, an individual companion that is less likely to be shared with others in the household.
So it may also be with television. The average American home already has more televisions than people living in it. The number of screens is rising rapidly with a proliferation of other viewing devices that are highly portable.
The BBC iPlayer received nearly 200 million requests in September 2012. Over a fifth of them were from tablets and mobile devices and over half were from personal computers.
Despite being available on countless connected television devices and displays, from games consoles to smart televisions, requests from tablets and mobile screens have consistently risen as a proportion of total usage over the year.
The reason for this may be that while there are almost unlimited competing viewing options on a television display, there are currently relatively fewer legitimate options on personal screens.
The real benefit of iPlayer may not so much be the ability to catch up on programmes that you may have missed on television as to see programmes in other viewing contexts that you might not otherwise have watched or had the time to see.
The attraction of being able to hold a television programme in your hand and interact with it directly should not be underestimated. For those reading this on a tablet, the future of television may already be in your hands.