Ridiculed early on, the first “phablet” has given rise to a new class of smartphone: One that still maintains portability but offers a tablet experience. Why the big change from folly to growing market? More capabilities that excel on a large screen.

HTC One Max size comparison
photo: Alex Colon

It wasn’t that long ago when a 4-inch phone was considered big. These days, however, 5-inch handsets are approaching the norm for many and most the latest and greatest pieces of mobile hardware have even larger screens, with some crossing the 6-inch mark. Considering the first “phablet” — Samsung’s original Galaxy Note — arrived in 2011 and created a class of phones that has often been ridiculed, what’s causing handset makers to create more large smartphones now?

The signs were there a few years ago

There are a few reasons for this change; I’ve touched upon them before and throughout the large-screened phone movement. In August of 2012, I boldly proclaimed that tablets will replace smartphones. I understandably caught a fair amount of grief and skepticism back then, but this current trend is exactly what I was thinking: Larger screened devices in the form of small tablets — or big phones, if you prefer — would become the norm. What was the first, main driver for that thought? More mobile content consumption.

Mobile content consumption is on the rise; according to Ericsson’s November 2013 mobility report (PDF), mobile video already accounts for roughly 35 percent of all mobile data, compared to 10 percent of data used for web browsing on mobile devices. That figure is poised to keep growing as well: By 2019, mobile video will use up half of all mobile data.

ericsson mobility report video 2013

Data traffic aside, watching video on a mobile device is generally a better experience on a larger, but still portable display. Obviously screen resolution has much to do with this as well. All things being equal, however, I’d rather watch TV shows, movies, and other videos on a 5-inch phone compared to one with a 4-inch screen.

How big are these phones getting?

When you think of tablets, you likely picture a device with at least a 7-inch display although this can range all the way up to 10.1-inches or so. Maybe even 12.2-inches if Samsung has a say. Clearly, many of these sizes are a bit big for carrying everywhere; that’s where the smartphone comes in because you can generally tote it in a pocket. Therein lies the dilemma between screen size and portability. So “shrinking down” a tablet hasn’t been the approach.

Galaxy Mega

Building up the size of a smartphone, however, is viable, and that’s exactly what’s been going on, first with the Galaxy Note, followed by its successors and a number of other comparable devices to hit this market. Here are a literal handful of examples:

  • 5.2-inch LG G2
  • 5.7-inch Samsung Galaxy Note 3
  • 5.9-inch HTC One Max
  • 6.3-inch Samsung Galaxy Mega
  • 6.44-inch Sony Xperia Z Ultra

Each of these smartphones offers the tablet-like experience of a large screened device, yet they all also include cellular voice capabilities. So they get the phone features that a smartphone offers and also provide a larger, more immersive screen to use apps, just like a tablet.

Getting more done without the traditional PC

There’s more to the growth of larger phones than the content-consumption trend and addition of voice communications however. Look at PC sales falling as tablet sales continue to rise. This is the “post-PC” effect in action and as both hardware and mobile apps continue to improve, our handsets are becoming more capable than ever. Effectively, the tablet has shown the way for handsets to become even more powerful computers.

Think back to 2008 for a second; that’s the year the iPhone gained its App Store and the floodgates opened to eventually hundreds of thousands of mobile app titles. The first batch of software was enough to create a new app economy as it added more things we could actually do with our phones. App stores on other platforms offered similar opportunities.


Now consider what you can actually do on a phone from 2013 as compared to that 2008 iPhone — or any other handset from that year. Everyone’s usage pattern is different, of course, but I’m betting you’ll realize you can do so much more today on the handset. Gaming is a perfect example if you look at what mobile games looked like five years ago as compared to now. Check Infinity Blade 3, Asphalt 8 or even the port of Star Wars: KOTOR for some examples.

Infinity Blade6

Part of that comes from the added hardware capabilities: faster mobile broadband, vastly improved cameras and new low-powered sensors. The other part comes from more mature mobile apps and cloud services.

As a result, this will push even more people away from traditional PCs, or at the very least, reduce their reliance upon them. The main difference here is that smartphones and tablets are more like consumer electronics, while computers simply aren’t. Legacy computing still includes aspects such as daily virus protection updates, meaningless error codes, and device drivers. Consumer electronics devices either hide those things or have been engineered to not even deal with them in the first place. These smartphones and tablets offer the simplicity of a consumer electronics device with the power of a traditional computer.

Granted the power of such mobile devices may not rival a tricked out gaming PC or even a desktop from 2010. The performance gap is closing however. That gaming rig also could cost thousands of dollars but with few exceptions, most top-end smartphones and tablets all cost under a grand. For a much smaller investment, you get portability and power without the PC.

It all adds up to phones with bigger displays

While tablet sales are still on the rise, not everyone owns one. Far from it in fact. The smartphone market still dwarfs that of the tablet — and the PC, for that matter. Why? It’s the voice feature for one; we all need a way to keep in touch with work, family, our children and more. As we start to move voice calls to LTE and VoIP technologies, that will change, of course. For now, however, more people need a phone than they need a tablet.

Calling on a phone, 911, Location Labs

But we love those high-resolution large screens on tablets, whether they’re 7-inch slates or nearly the size of a laptop monitor. For now then, the idea of a tablet-like phone that’s still relatively portable and useful for a multitude of online activities is gaining momentum.

As this shift continues, it becomes really interesting in light of Apple’s device sizes. The company is rumored to be working on a larger iPad and already has the 7.9-inch iPad mini. I anticipate the company does boost the screen size of its iPhone — currently at 4-inches — for reasons stated above, but not to the epic proportions of some competing products.

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  1. Nicholas Paredes Thursday, January 2, 2014

    Having been one of the Dell Streak fans, I like a larger screen. It falling out of my coat pocket was less than appealing, and yes a smaller device would have fared better. My iPhone could be a touch larger, but I doubt that I will go 6″ again.

    Having recently returned to the full-sized iPad, I find the device good for work and easy on my aging eyes. The iPad Mini was awesome in size. And, I would buy a 17″ iPad. Confusing work with a personal device is a mistake. We want to get our work done in the way that suits us. 10 years younger, I would still have a Mini.

    The casualty is going to be the laptop. I will return to a home desktop with the Pro, and carry my iPad everywhere. I just don’t do much work that an iPad couldn’t perform outside of the office. I would also rather have a life.

  2. I think in future people will have a feature phone for calls and texts and a phablet for everything else.

    1. that is what I am debating right now as my cell contract nears completion. I seldom use my phone for anything but maps. the screen is much too small and I am near wifi most of the the time. the only thing is that most plans with when you have multiple fones include data. And when u compare a flip fone price vs a Moto g .. might as well spring for the moto g.

  3. Nokia Lumia 1520 is also a 6″ screen.

  4. I think as tablets become faster, with better displays (Nexus 7 for example) I could see phones shrinking some what. A Nexus 7 is $199, if you got one with a data plan do you really need a 5″ phone? Or even a smart phone for that matter?

  5. How can you not mention UMPCs? I remember about 7 years ago when MS announced Project Origami (for that matter, I remember you covering that niche). It seems that pushing PCs down to 5 to 7 inches was too soon, given the hardware (as I can attest to as the owner of a 5 inch OQO 02).

    Thanks to Moore’s Law, the hardware if finally catching up with the concept of a computer in your pocket. With Samsung’s new patent for a foldable screen and the continued improvement in CPU power and power consumption, I have high hopes. The only thing I wish for is a better OS than iOS, Android, or WinPhone. I’d like to see OSx, Linux, and Windows (and MS talking of unifying the three flavors of Windows is interesting).

    1. Oh, I definitely remember UMPCs — I still have one in the closet! ;) But I don’t consider them post-PC devices, just like I don’t consider netbooks in this category either. Both were traditional PCs in different form factors. The idea was halfway there but still carries legacy PC baggage that would keep them from being consumer electronics IMO.

      1. I hear you Kevin, but the home PC’s can do so much that it will hit maximum shrinkage and there it will stay as tablets dont meet the needs of us who like the more traditional form factor. Tablets for me are really a wortheless device for an unreasonable expense.
        They will always be marginal.

        1. Kevin C. Tofel Ric Friday, January 3, 2014

          Ric, for some — like yourself — tablets or large phones will never be a primary computing device. Nothing wrong with that!

          I’m not sold on your logic though, although I understand how it applies to your needs. Saying “home PC’s can do so much” so there’s no replacement that’s feasible is like saying “SUVs can do so much so there’s no need for sports cars or motorcycles.”

          Again, not everyone can or will abandon PCs; that’s not what I’m saying. Instead, many people are finding tablets and smartphones to provide many or all of the needs their PC used to meet. There will always be exceptions and edge cases, of course.

  6. Great article Kevin and great comments as well. Hereon is the dilemma I’m currently using an iPhone 5 and increasingly find myself longing for a larger screen (something akin to the Note 3), there has been a good deal of talk lately saying Apple will be coming out with a larger screen iPhone later this year,

    Well they have better since even though I would like to continue in the Apple ecosystem if Apple were not to come out with larger screen iPhones i would be forced to look elsewhere.

    As to the comment about carrying a tablet and a small phone that something I’ve spent a good amount of time thinking about and ultimately decided against it. Reasons being the charging of two separate devices along with carrying both since only having one at a time would mean missing all of the features of the other.

    At the end of the day I’d say the phablet will win, it’s going to be an interesting year for sure…

  7. If it doesn’t fit in my pants pocket, it’s not very portable, is it?
    I think 5-inches is the optimal size for a phone – any bigger than that and it’s a hassle to carry around.

  8. I think the reason people are often wrong about whether consumers will use new new form factors is because we don’t account for the chance that people will adapt their own usage patterns if they think the new functionality is worth it.

    Instead, we often look at the way we used the old form factor and extrapolate. For example, the comment about “if it doesn’t fit in my pocket” may be true for some consumers, but others may decide that a bigger device is worth storing in a bag, purse, back pocket etc.

    Personally, I use the Samsung S3 because its large screen size makes it more useful for me since I use it for everything but its phone capability.

  9. I don’t think it has to do with Post PC or even consumer demand. Anytime you have a bunch of companies flogging the same OS they engage in a battle of features and that causes unnatural inflation of certain features.

    Kind of touched upon here

    When the industry decides you want something pretty soon you don’t have the choice of certain anymore.

  10. I use a Note 2 and have two Note 1’s and a 5″ Samsung Galaxy Player still lying around. None of them come close to the experience of a 7″ tablet. For now I’m sticking with the Note 2 on me and my 4g Samsung 7.0+ for home, and occasional traveling, use. I’m still not happy with that setup and have strongly considered a voice enabled 7″ tablet as my default with a reasonably priced, similarly set up 4″ phone to swap the sim into when I really need a compact device. None of the 7″ phone-tablets available have everything I need (hdmi capabilities, full T-Mobile support, decent camera are the big issues).

    1. Bob, you might take a look at Asus Padfone 7″ (or 8″?) I forgot

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