Huawei Ascend Mate

Killer feature: 6.1-inch display
Due: Chinese markets in February, elsewhere in March
Price: Unknown

Alcatel One Touch Scribe HD

Killer feature: Powerful quad-core processor
Due: China this month, U.S. and elsewhere in second quarter 2013
Price: $397 before taxes, carrier subsidies

Sony Xperia Z

Killer feature: Waterproof enough to be dropped in the bath
Due: As soon as February/March with some global carriers
Price: Somewhere around $800, pre-subsidies

LG Optimus Vu 2

Killer feature: Screen ratio of 4:3, like traditional TV and photo sizes
Due: Unknown
Price: Equivalent of $864 in Korea, U.S. pricing unknown

ZTE Grand S

Killer features: Skinny, but sporting a rear 13-megapixel camera
Due: First quarter 2013 in China, later elsewhere
Price: Unknown

Why Everyone Suddenly Loves The Phablet

Half-smartphone, half-tablet—an unfortunate name does nothing to stop this hot tech trend. Even Apple is rumored to be considering its own phabulous phablet. Can the romance last?

Big screens equal big bucks. That's what Samsung realized with its first—and still quite popular—Galaxy Note mobile device, which was a whopping 5.3-inch screen pseudo-tablet that only folks like Andre The Giant (and perhaps certain members of his posse) could hold like a traditional cell phone. It fit between the 3.5-inch size of early iPhones, and the smaller 7-inch size of the typical Android tablet.

The Phablet-y Phuture Is Now

Now other manufacturers are betting the phablet, as Samsung has, unfortunately, christened it, presents a new market to conquer. Chinese maker Huawei, for example, has turned up at CES to promote its 6.1-inch screened Ascend Mate device, which is impressively thin, but dwarfs nearly every other smartphone and phablet in terms of screen size. And Sony's Xperia Z, with a 5-inch display, is distinguished in the marketplace by being impressively waterproof.

So what's happening here? For one thing, it's a question of scale. Smartphones, in the modern iPhone-esque sense, are usually small, pocketable devices and tablets are typically larger machines that you need to hold in two hands and often live in a bag. Each device has its niche, with smartphones being more portable and offering limited capabilities thanks to their smaller screens, and tablets being more powerful but usually lacking the ability to make "phone" calls over 3G or 4G (assuming they're not a Wi-Fi-only version). This bipolar market situation of course means there's room for a device that's halfway in between.

Phinding A Niche

In developed markets, where the smartphone saturation point is rapidly approaching, phablets offer a slightly more powerful user experience than typical smartphones because their larger screen is a bit better for tasks like reading an e-book, watching a movie, or tinkering with a spreadsheet.

In developing markets the phablet may be a more important tool for web access and mobile computer access. Developing nations have already seized upon the feature phone and the smartphone as powerful tools. But where tablets offer mobile Net access and a plethora of useful apps, a phablet could radically improve accessibility to banking, computing, health and other services in ways that more expensive tablets can't do (because they can't make phone calls, and are more breakable). And phablets could also outstrip cheaper, smaller smartphones because of their greater screen real estate—useful for reading books, and in educational scenarios—plus their greater power.

Is Apple's Phablet A Phantasy?

The rise of the phablet means there's even a rumor that Apple is going to join the party, and that this year's iPhone release will see Apple targeting emerging markets and launching phones with different screen sizes, including a bigger phablet edition.

Whether or not the Apple rumor is true, the usual consumer electronic war cry of "bigger, better, faster, more!" has now given us a long list of phablets. We're all getting used to smartphones and tablets now, and the phablet hybrid stands out as unusual. Since many smartphones are very similar in looks and specs, it's nice to be able to distinguish your own phone from a friend's by showing off what it can do. And a giant screen is a huge geeky boasting point...perhaps harking back to the old days of "my Pentium is faster than yours."

But the rise of Bluetooth Smart technology and the associated de-dorkification of Bluetooth accessories means a smartphone can stay safely stowed in a bag and still be used to make calls or listen to music while commuting. In the near future, as "invisible" interfaces like Apple's Siri become more commonplace, we'll be able to more usefully command mobile devices to perform tasks without having to touch them. With alternative solutions like Google Glass coming along, we may even find we interact still less with our smartphones by touch...if at all. Which makes the screen size ironically less important, and portability more critical.

So despite what Samsung thinks, the world may soon move on from this tech trend du jour (which one Fast Company editor compares to the great mutton chop facial hair craze of 2010) to phind the next phantastic device to replace the phablet.

Chat about this news with Kit Eaton on Twitter[/url] and Fast Company too.

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23 Comments

  • MANthrax

    The carriers tried to get us to buy 2 data plans with a phone and a tablet and I'm so grateful nobody took the bait.  7" phone please with true "ALL DAY" battery life.  I have a SIM card that  I  can put into my 4.3" phone if i'm going out to dinner.  

  • Shander Maxwhite

    I love my Note 2 .. it easily fits in one hand, the key board is more easy for me to use than my past iphone (which wasn't half bad) because of the slightly bigger keys. It easily fits in my jeans pocket or shirt pocket or inside pocket on a jacket but "easily" is only a matter of a 1/4 to 1/2 an inch tolerance.  If it were a little bigger I could not put it in a shirt pocket and it would be more difficult to get through the opening of other pockets.

    It is just big enough for me to read PDF's at the park or waiting at a doctors office or waiting for a child to come out to the car after soccer practice.   It is big enough for me to access true web pages instead of mobile versions which I find show far information at a glance and greatly prefer.

    Until the size of shirt and pants pockets change from what they have been for decades (a decidedly non-tech limitation) the size of a pocket device for men will be capped.  

    People with smaller hands that find the note2  cumbersome are limited and will have a different web experience using their phone than I do if they don't opt for it.  As you've said, blue tooth and siris are allowing more and more functions to be practically accessed without removing a device from a bag so those with vanity issues of how they look talking to a big device at their ear won't have issues and they'll have a even better mobile web experience with their phone merged with their tablet. 

    Interesting possible devide between and average men with larger hands and women who are far more likely to carry a bag going out to lunch or into a store etc.

  • MANthrax

    I agree with you up to your "pocket" and hand size theory.  Small hands will use 2 and will still enjoy the larger screen size.  All the men I know, and I'm one of them favor function over looks.  I'm thinking 7" will be perfect for me.  So maybe I'll be getting more cargo pants.

  • Jenn

    My current mobile and the one before that have/had a 4.3 inch screen, I refuse to have a smaller screen that that. By the time my next upgrade is due in 18 months there should be a nice range of bigger options for me, at the minute I like the SIII, Note and Note II. I agree with everyone who has said to stop calling the device a 'Phablet'.

  • Revolution Solutions

    screens are getting bigger ,so instead of setting a limit to their size maybe we can make our ears and hands bigger?...:):)

  • orthorim

    I see a Sony niche market product (for people who keep dropping their phone in the toilet); some also-rans no one will talk about anymore 6 months from now. And the Huawei which could be interesting if it's very cheap. 
    Oh, and an overuse of the ph = f joke which really isn't all that funny the first time, but really wears thin towards the end.

    The large screen phone trend is definitely real though, and, surprisingly, Apple did not invent it.

  • Denny Royal

    Agreed. No one says Phablet. And it remains to be seen if the buying public will be as enamored with them as some manufactures are. ANd yes, please stop saying Phablet 

  • orthorim

    I think that 6" device is just kind of exploring the boundaries. People went for 4" phones when everyone though that's way too big. Then they went for 4.5" phones. Then 5". Then 5.2. Will they go for 6". Who knows, all we know is it will certainly stop *somewhere*.

  • Alex Murphy

    Don't know how you can have a phablet discussion without a picture of the Note 2 (even if it's already come out). It has like 90% of the "phablet" market haha. 

  • Greg McGinniss

    I stopped reading the article after the second Ph=f joke. Then saw about 12 more on my way to the comments. 

  • Amber King

    I think Phablet will be the in thing this year. I like the idea of combining the tablet and the phone. This will make our work more convenient.

  • A_Ware

    Until something like Google Glass and a related input device (Google Glove anybody?) are available I will continue to want bigger and faster.  I love my Galaxy S3 but I do envy the screen size and CPU speed of the Note 2.  If I can maintain my sanity until the 2013 holiday season I wonder what new wonders will be available.

  • auramae

    On my 4th phone with a 5" screen. Can't go back to small and I could use bigger. I hardly use a phone for voice anymore, but I still need to have incoming voice capabilities (or I would use a 7" tablet as my only portable device.)

  • Blank Ballot

    Get a Samsung Galaxy GT-P6800. It is the biggest thing available that will fit in a cargo pants or a suit pocket.

    Samsung also makes 7 in, 8.9 and 10.1 that work as phones.

  • orthorim

    Yes - I think this is the main reason for the trend. Nobody is using voice anymore so the "holding a huge brick to your ear" problem is fading away.

    Large screen sizes were Samsung's rather clever solution to the battery life problems of Android - a large screen phone can fit a humongous battery! And you're also offering a large screen which can be sold as a feature. I think it's a good example of how constraints drive innovation.

    The main thing holding me back right now from getting one is that I can't live with cheap plasticky phones anymore. Sorry that just doesn't cut it for a device that's constantly on me and with me, I am now spoiled by steel, glass, and aluminum. 

    But even with my iPhone 5, I rarely use it for calls, and I don't like when people call me. Send me a text! I use text messages, Kik, Line (another messaging app), Skype, email, and some other communications tools much more than voice calls.

    Here's a prediction: Since our mobile phones have become little internet connected computers, we are going to use them like computers too. We're going to use them for voice as frequently as we use our computers to make Skype calls.