New wave of tablet devices could accelerate news-reading trend

The class of semi-portable, two-hands-required, touch-screen devices we generically refer to as “tablets” really contains two distinct species.

There are the 10-inch screens, where the $499-and-up iPad dominates and has reigned all tablets as best-in-class.

And then there is the insurgent class of 7-inch screens led by the Amazon Kindle Fire. Are they as good as the iPad? No. But they’re more than half as good for less than half the price — and so they offer a compelling value to the budget-conscious consumer.

Google's Nexus 7 tablet goes on sale this month.

In the next month or two, expect to see a new wave of impressive innovation in this smaller class of tablets.

Amazon is expected to debut the Kindle Fire 2 by August. This month Google will launch its own Nexus 7, which critics say is “the best 7-inch tablet yet” and “Applesque in its fluid touch response.” And if you believe the less-certain rumors from Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal, Apple may launch its own “iPad mini” later this year.

These cheaper, lighter 7-inch devices have the potential to accelerate the tablet market to critical mass much more quickly than the iPad alone. The introduction of the first 7-inch Kindle Fire late last year contributed to total tablet ownership among U.S. adults nearly doubling in one month.

These trends are notable for the long-term future of journalism. A new study by Gartner finds about seven in 10 tablet owners use them for news consumption, and most “prefer to read news, magazines and books on screen, rather than on paper.” Some of the shift shows up in the times of day people use different devices, with tablet use peaking in the evenings.

Night owls prefer to read on tablets; Earlier in the day, computer use is more common.

This study seems more credible than many other recent ones, because participants kept a week-long diary of their device usage rather than just answer survey questions about how they think they use them.

Earlier: Steve Jobs hated the idea of a 7-inch tablet | Tablet users more likely to buy magazines, e-books than news, newspapers | Tablet owners use them to keep up with the news | Night owls read news on tablets as mobile overtakes computer for at-home browsing

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