History of the phablet

by: Simon HillOctober 11, 2013

Rise of the Phablet - Galaxy Note 3

Ever since smartphones first appeared on the market there’s been a general trend towards larger screens. At the same time, tablets have been shrinking. Eventually the two met in the middle, and a fusion of “phone” and “tablet” led to the unholy birth of the widely derided term “phablet”. It may have the unpleasant whiff of “Brangelina”, and people generally agree it’s a word we should never use, but it does serve a purpose.

What is a phablet?

sony xperia z ultra aa design in hand

Phablets are recognized as devices with a screen between 5 inches and 7 inches in size. A lot of smartphones are heading into this territory now, take the Galaxy S4 for example. But there’s more to phablets than the inches that define them. A true phablet combines phone and tablet features and can serve as a replacement for both devices. HTC was at pains to point this out when it released the 5-inch screen-toting Droid DNA last year. Still, design director Jonah Becker made a point of of saying, “Don’t call it a phablet, it’s a smartphone.”

Who is to blame?

Cast your eye over the chart above, taken from Google Trends, and you’ll see the search term “phablet” began to gain real interest in January 2012. It has generally been associated with the surprise success of Samsung’s original Galaxy Note, first unveiled in September 2011. But references to the term go further back than that. Tech journalist Ian Scales used the word phablet to describe the Dell Streak in a Telecom TV article back in 2010. But on Twitter, Dan Warren of GSMA claims that it was him who first coined the term. Regardless of who said it first, it definitely came after the form factor.

Phablets through the ages

EO_Communicator_440-880Let’s go back in tech-time, to 1993, when the world was introduced to the hilariously ugly EO Personal Communicator. It did, strictly speaking, combine some tablet and phone functions. A prehistoric smartphone of sorts, at at time when everyone was listening to Whitney Houston’s ‘I Will Always Love You’.

Fast forward to 2007, and the HTC Advantage hit the scene. The device, running on Windows Mobile, could probably lay claim to being the first proper phablet. But at $900, it was a heavy purchase, and we mean that literally and figuratively, it weighed almost a pound.

The 2010 Dell Streak was probably the first device to actually be called a phablet, but it failed miserably on every count. It was laggy, with its 1GHz processor, and the OS was out of date (Android 1.6 when it should have been 2.2). Thus, Dell proved that expertise in the computing market doesn’t necessarily translate to the smartphone market.

Not long after, the first truly successful phablet was introduced. The Samsung Galaxy Note came storming through the gates in October 2011. So successful, it has already spawned two successors, and it’s not done yet. Just last month Samsung president, J.K. Shin revealed Samsung has sold over 38 million Galaxy Note devices in the last two years. Shin says he expects the newly released Galaxy Note 3 to sell at least 10 million.

Anything you can do, we can do better

Dell Streak

So why did the Note succeed while the Streak failed? Samsung did it bigger and better with a 5.3-inch Super AMOLED display, a dual-core 1.4GHz processor, and Android 2.3 (later updated to 4.0 and then 4.1). Samsung also took the unfashionable stylus and gave it a spin with the S Pen, which really enabled the Note to live up to its name.

In the aftermath of the Galaxy Note, LG has been the only other major player to tackle this form factor with the incredibly square LG Optimus Vu (called the Intuition on Verizon). Released in August 2012, it was a total flop, but that didn’t stop the company from following up with the Vu 2, and now the Vu 3.

Other providers are also trying to get in on the action. This year we’ve seen Sony and Huawei come out with the Xperia Z Ultra and the Ascend Mate. Of course, Samsung’s biggest competitor is probably Samsung, as the South Korean giant adopts its usual blunderbuss approach to the market, trying to hit every possible form factor with two versions of the Galaxy Mega.


Conquering a skeptical press

The Galaxy Note sold pretty steadily from the start, shifting over a million units in the first couple months. But the tech press was not won over. Criticism was plentiful, with most of it focusing on the fact that it was embarrassing to hold a giant phone up to your face to make a call.

Walt Mossberg at AllThingsD said, “You look like you’re talking into a piece of toast.” BGR‘s headline read, “Samsung’s Galaxy Note is the most useless phone I’ve used.” Even Wired described it as “Comically huge to the point of shame.”

Even the Note’s stylus was ridiculed. Isaacson’s biography of Jobs quotes him as saying, “God gave us 10 styluses—let’s not invent another.”

Overall, the early consensus was, the Galaxy Note would be a niche device with limited appeal.

As it became clear that the Galaxy Note actually had quite a wide appeal, that people were prepared to use Bluetooth headsets for calls, and that the sequel was going to be even more popular, the tech press surrendered its skepticism and accepted that the form factor is here to stay.

The about-face was nicely summed in an updated review by Tech Radar. “Let’s just say we were more than just a little wrong. This device went on to ship by the truckload for Samsung – adopted by both serious geeks (the people we originally expected to take it to their hearts) and your average punter.”

Can you do any better?

samsung galaxy note 3 xperia z ultra aa 2

There’s little doubt the form factor has caught on, but sadly the word has too. ‘Phablet’ is regularly used across the press and has even forced its way into the online Oxford Dictionaries. Other recent inductees include “twerk” and “selfie”. So what does that mean for you? It is officially possible to use your phablet, to take a selfie while twerking, and the grammar police cannot stop you.

If you’ve finished being sick, put forth your own replacement word for phablet in the comments below. ‘Small tablet’ or ‘big smartphone’ isn’t going to cut it. What nails this device bracket for you? Here are a few suggestions to get you started… tablone, smarblet, jumbocell, megaphone…ah forget it.

[poll id=”390″]

  • nick n

    I am certain the S4 is not a phablet.
    Meh- yes, phablet- no.

  • kaushik ray

    how about tab-hone..?? ;) :P

    • Tuấn Ankh

      That sounds bad. But I just came up with something worse: the tablone. XD

      • Tuấn Ankh

        I just read the article now and found that the writer already mentioned “tablone”. I feel stupid now, lol.
        Anyway, I just wanna say tablone sounds weird and funny, much worse than tab-hone.

  • Charles Chambers


  • Balraj

    Phonabalet !!!!!!!!

  • Fernando Fernandez

    I don’t get what is wrong with the word phablet. It’s a device that can fill the need of both a phone and tablet, what is wrong with that?

    • JosephHindy

      This is my thoughts on it as well. I’ve always liked the word “phablet”. When you describe something with that word, people know what you’re talking about.

    • adam evans

      Better than someone creating yet another dull acronym for it !

    • Gilles LeBlanc

      Cause it rymes with fabbot and if you put a few G’s in there you know what im saying. Just a stupid damn name, Ur a fabbet Fernando lol :-)

      • NeedName

        one of the worst comments I’ve read in a while. . .

        hey, let’s stop using language as words will ultimately rhyme with a negative slang word. . . . /s

    • APai

      AWFULly catchy. no wonder it caught up rather quick! :)

  • Lloydblaze


  • Raaj

    Pholet.. Ta-one.. Ta-phone

  • abazigal

    I think it’s interesting to note how the popularity of the phablet came about.

    And I think we have the iphone to thank (or blame) for that. From what I can see, OEMs realised (or at least, believed) they could not hope to match the simplicity and elegance of iOS, so they tried to compensate by cramming all manner of features into their phones. This in turn led to phones with very short battery life (especially in tandem with power-hungry features like LTE), which mandated larger batteries. And the only way you could fit in a bigger battery, is with a bigger case, which in turn led to larger screens.

    Likewise, larger phones gave OEMs one more selling point to boast about over the iphone (which at the time, was still using a 3.5″ screen). As it turned out, a larger form factor also meant OEMs could fit in more parts without needing to invest in miniaturisation or battery-saving tech.

    Then came simple spec bloat (you have 1gb ram, I will include 2. You have a 720p display, let me one up that to 1080p and so on). And the rest, as we know it, is simply history.

    • Balraj

      Let’s put it the other way
      Apple wanted ppl to buy what they make
      Android oem are giving ppl choice?
      You want small compact phone buy HTC one or s4 or g2
      You want big phones buy HTC max, note 3
      Simple lol..

      • APai

        yeah. why should one size fit everyone, apple is just arrogant dictating what’s best for everyone. how wrong they were!

        • Balraj

          Apple are not dictating lol
          Just look back in history..most of the time,Apple was first to clear out old tech n bring in New tech..also apple were the one’s who applied new technology to their devices..(ofc that was during Steve era)..now these guys have a serious EGO PROBLEM
          one of the reason ppl are still into iPhone is bcuz they hav invested a lot into apps..
          Now..don’t tell bad things bout Steve,I like him a lot
          Apple market share Wil reduce to mac share..ifaapple doesn’t do something…but now I think Apple has lost its passion…
          Big ego…jealous

          • APai

            3.5inch display is plenty for everyone is what they figured is right for anyone buying an iphone. they had their heads so far up steve’s rear, that they really missed the bus (a lot of sales) because of that thinking. when they wised up, android had already made the move (of course, they had a lot of other things going for them, but I do feel that larger screens made a huge impact, it still does as the niche note series has proved. again it’s not only the large screen format – but a lot of others things, but clearly large screen helped.)

            “Apple was first to clear out old tech n bring in New tech”
            yes, apple did it. but so did a lot of other companies from time to time. on the software side – google has been doing it and apple is stuck with lead foot.

            “one of the reason ppl are still into iPhone is bcuz they hav invested a lot into apps..”
            I think it’s much more than that. that’s one of a small reasons possibly – and the same can be true with android too! apple ecosystem is quite nice, it gets al lthe new apps first, a lot of the app makers dont have their version for android as yet. but people like the comfort zone with apple (it’s the same with samsung on the android side of things. once you get used to something shifting over takes a bit more effort)

            “Now..don’t tell bad things bout Steve”
            I do like him, I’ve read his biography and i do like apple product design. but I do not like steve/ apple’s hubris, and routine dissing of anything else than apple. they themselves have been “inspired” by a load of designs, but they pretend to have dibs over anything that qualifies as “innovation”.

          • Balraj

            Wow..that was big…
            Ya Apple thought3.5 inch was better..as iI said Apple has ego problem..
            Now sammy made iPhone look alike before n then many ppl are in tablet business, both of which Apple started..
            Now Apple wants to enter into phablet business but doesn’t want to look like it’s copyingsSamsung..
            So it’s just pure ego….

          • APai

            “So it’s just pure ego”
            no, it’s pure business. business houses don’t care a damn about ego. if they did apple wouldnt release a 4 inch phone. nor an 8 inch tablet (ipad mini). they will go where the money is to be made.

            “sammy made iPhone ”
            again , you are insinuating that only apple can innovate, which is utterly ludicrously laughable. remember that ipad is a large iphone by YOUR definition.

          • Balraj

            With business comes ego…
            Ya apple most of d time does it right..ofc business is busines
            Im not saying only apple can innovate..wheni mentioned sammy copyingapple
            I also mentioned, sammy note series which apple will eventually copy…
            Ego means not hate…

      • abazigal

        So basically, what you are saying is that the entire Android OEM industry is *gasp* offering more choice than Apple, a single company, who is well within its right to decide what kind of products they want to create and sell.

        Oh, the inhumanity!

        • Balraj

          All I’m saying is Apple is taking its customers for granted.. you might say oneaApple vs many android oem.. now nobody is stopping Apple to go open source..
          Apple was good before, it bad now…

          • TechDevil

            First you say iOS is “elegant” and “simplistic” and that we can thank/blame Apple for the entire phabet. Then you go on to say Apple used to be good, but aren’t anymore. I’m not exactly following your line of thought here.

          • Balraj

            Are you referring to my comments from this article or some other article..
            My comments are purely based on article written..
            Apple was simple before ios7 came out….
            But I strongly believe apple is angry over android..
            Instead of treating android as competition, it’s treating Google as enemy n messing they own ecosystem n customers
            I think right now apple just wants to beat android..it’s focus is just android n not customer satisfaction
            I liked Apple before,after 5s & especially 5c crap
            I have lost hope…

        • Ivan Budiutama

          you understand nothing do you? this was just history repeat by itself. In the day of Apple making Personal Computer, everyone thought it was a bad idea like: “why would anyone need a Computer?”, “What kind of Computing required in a personal mater?”. Those days were the day where IBM is the biggest Computer manufacture and history (book, movie about SJ) shown how SJ hated IBM so much. Now? at least 30% (probably more and increasing as we talk) of world population have access to PC thanks to Apple as initiator.

          Phablet story was just another extremely similar story. Ironically, Apple was put in the position where IBM was. See the similarity? Samsung was a laughing stock when they announced the first Note, “Why would anyone want such a big profile on the mobile device?”, “what in sane mind anyone will buy the phone of that size?” but then history proved itself again, there are market for them, as for idea of PC the day Computer used only by big company for complicated Computing processing. Or the fact that IBM ridiculed the idea of PC and Xerox dismissed the idea of GUI and mouse? similarly to how Phablet worked well with Stylus as in the Note series and how people skeptic about it? Ring a bell?

          I can keep going about 7″ tablet (which Apple or SJ in this case keep going on and on how it would be a failure, I wouldn’t be surprise if Apple already planned their own Phablet) but I leave to your own open mind to think about it.

  • rickneworleansla

    I like “note”. Some other manufacturers are alreading starting to use that in their naming. I’m not sure how samsung will feel about that though. Plus note could be thought of as needing a pen. A phablet is the size of a small notepad. I hear a lot of people ask me if my phone is a “note”. It could eventually become synonomous with a larger phone. Like coke, xerox, bandaid, kleenex, and tylenol brand names are used by most to identify the product line.

    • APai

      actually – that sounds like a good alternative.

  • jjordan

    I hate the word phablet. All a large screen device is really is just that a larger screen device. Whether you buy a moto x or a galaxy note 3 your productivity is basically the same. The only real difference being the viewing size in which to be productive.

    • TechDevil

      Your logic of phablets being an unnecessary large screen device could be used about computers, smartphones and pretty much all other technology. And it’s wrong what you say about productivity. Hardware may be the same, but software can have a huge effect on productivity, so productivity can actually be hugely different depending on device.

      • jjordan

        I never said unnecessary…I love large screen devices

        • TechDevil

          My apologies, I misread.

  • Roberto Tomás

    the whole thing with phablets reminds me of chef knives. A chef knife is in between a slicing knife and a paring knife, and because it is convenient for both tasks, people tend not to use either of the two knives — but those knives are each superior to the chef’s knife at their tasks. The slicing knife is big and heavy, and that weight matters. But a paring knife is small and light, and the weight matters. The chef knife has neither the weight and size of a the one, or the light-weight and small-size of the other.

    It makes sense if you are a foodie to completely skip buying the chef’s knife, and get both tools that are meant for their tasks in the kitchen.

    anyway, the name sucks. tabphone would have been better. :P

    and the sizes are wrong. To me, it breaks up like: <4.25" a mini, 4.25-5.5" a mobile phone, 5.5"-7.2" a tablet-phone. (and 7.2"-9" a small tablet!)

    • TechDevil

      Tabphone just sounds bad, phablet is much better and rolls much easier on the tongue.

      • Roberto Tomás

        okay, you’re right I guess

        • TechDevil

          Haha :)

  • APai

    “Thus, Dell proved that expertise in the computing market doesn’t necessarily translate to the smartphone market.”
    I think they did not advertize a new form factor, they did not give the best specs & the latest software needed to launch a niche segment. In the PC world it would mean slotting an expensive PC with a celeron, and running Windows Vista when everyone else was selling with 7. so clearly, they did not apply the lessons from selling PC. it’s not necessarily their past success – they simply launched a lemon.

  • NeedName

    Guess this shows us all just how clueless “tech writers” really are.


  • Tom Clowes-Whitby

    i’ve always thought of it as a tablet with telefony cabalities.

  • Groud Frank

    I was never one to care what people thought of me and how I looked using something. I own a phablet(Huawei Ascend Mate) and I always end up having the last laugh when they see me watching YouTube videos and reading news articles without squinting, in total comfort for hours because my battery is bigger than their entire phone. I am so pleased with it that I will be getting the Ascend Mate 2 or at least another device that is not below 5.7 inches like the Oppo N1. On the plus side you always get looks and people asking what kind of phone is that. One you use a phablet it will be extremely hard to go back to a smaller device.

  • raj

    The best phablet i have used in the Sony Xperia Z Ultra

  • rebirthofcool

    ‘phablet’ is just irritating
    with all due respect to Asus, ‘phonepad’ (phone-pad not fonepad) seems more appropriate given a smartphone screen size advantage vs its pad (smaller than a proper ‘tablet’ display less than 8inch) like utility

  • nishantsirohi123

    Reason for its success was simply because as big it was it had a beastly hardware
    The note line has always been the most powerful devices in the market

    • TechDevil

      Not necessarily. The Galaxy line, both phones, tablets and phablets, are very powerful, but Xperia is offering unmatched water- and dustproof devices.

      • nishantsirohi123

        when the original Galaxy Note came out, there were no waterproof xperias that time
        the Note had the highest resolution screen in the market that time
        not to mention one of the biggest (Droid RAZR maxx had bigger) battery and top of the line processor.

        • itzvarma

          there is one non-phablet water resistant xperia “Active” in 2011

  • Ben Jacobs

    Two of my brothers and my best friend own a Galaxy Note 2 and whenever they pull it out everyone calls it a ‘Flat Screen TV’

    “Hey lemme call my buddy and see if he wants to come to the party”
    “Sure, here use my Note 2”
    “What the heck man!?! You’ve got a flat screen TV in your pocket!”