Are phablets truly the perfect form factor and if so are tablets just another fad?

by: ŠtefanNovember 12, 2012

It used to be that you were living on the bleeding edge of technology if you owned a desktop computer that was connected to the internet. Then laptops started becoming popular, and while they proved useful for road warriors, they were a bit underpowered and expensive in the beginning, which made them impossible to use as your primary machine. Admittedly there was a short gap in history when all the cool kids had a desktop computer and a laptop, but today, thanks to the never ending march of progress, most people just own the latter.

Half a decade ago, the smartphone became the new “it” thing, and if you’re reading this site then chances are you have one. Smartphone penetration in the United States has now exceeded 50%, and this is also the case in many other developed markets. But then Apple introduced the iPad in 2010, and their message was that there was room in your life for a third device. One that wasn’t as small as a mobile phone, but also one that wasn’t as complicated to use as a laptop computer.

It’s a seductive message, one that I almost fell for, but the logical part of my brain made me say no and keep my wallet shut. I’ve since taken a wait and see approach on the whole tablet thing. You see, buying “stuff” is something I’m not a fan of, whether it be gadgets, kitchen appliances, or clothes. The less crap I own, the “lighter” I feel. Read Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” to get a better idea of what I’m talking about.

Putting existential philosophy aside for a second and returning back to technology, Samsung has always been company who I never really considered to be all that innovative. But during the summer of 2011 they released a product that made me question a lot of my beliefs about computing. That product was called the Galaxy Note. My initial response to that thing was complete denial. Who in their right mind would buy such an incredibly massive phone? But one by one, many of the journalists who I respect said there was something special about the Note that they couldn’t quite explain.

One year later, like clockwork, Samsung announced the Note’s successor. They decided it should have an even larger screen, measuring 5.5 inches diagonal. Did the internet make fun of it as much as they did the first Note? No, in fact the opposite happened. Again, many of the people who I talk to in the mobile industry said the new Note was easily the best smartphone on the market.

Which brings up a question: If people love a 5.5 inch smartphone, then what role, if any, do tablets have? Kevin Tofel, who writes for GigaOM, said in a podcast that after he purchased the Note II, he almost forgot that he even owned a Nexus 7. He also said that as much as he loves the new iPad mini, it still doesn’t go everywhere he goes, whereas the Note II fits in his pocket.

HTC is going to launch a 5 inch 1080p smartphone this year. Samsung’s next Galaxy S will probably also have a 5 inch 1080p panel. Many iPad mini reviews say the new 7.9 inch form factor is what the iPad should have been all along. So again, I have to ask myself, with the rising popularity of large phones, and Samsung’s massive success of the new Note, is Apple’s original message about the need for a device that sits between a phone and a laptop just plain wrong?

Will we look back at these years when we thought tablets were useful and laugh?

  • philnolan3d

    I was really excited for the original Note but it was only on AT&T and I had just switch away from them to Verizon a couple of years prior, I wasn’t about to switch again.

    • I’m in the opposite camp. When AT&T launched its 4G LTE here in Austin, I switched. i’m not sure any of the argument of “that or this” is valid until you talk about usage. i’m a hair stylist, and my clients use the Web to browse for styles, then to show me what they want. I need speed to talk or surf between appointments. So, e-mail, phone and speed of browsing: critical. Size of screen, not so much.

  • As usual, everyone will come to their own opinion. It’s good because it’s sign of progress. I don’t think there’s a set type or form factor to rule them all. People just need to recognize what they need and want and choose accordingly. No one could have guessed that tablets and smart phones would be where they are now, where it goes next is mystery. In the mean time, consumers have many options, which is good.

    • Stefan Constantinescu

      110% in full agreement.

      • JosephHindy

        Yeah this is pretty much what I would’ve said. Some people like having the smaller phone for texts and calls while keeping a tablet for web surfing and gaming. Others prefer having a large phone that does well in all those areas. Personally, I’m one of the “phablet” people. I like carrying around one device for everything but that doesn’t make it perfect.

  • Vyrlokar

    I own an original Note, and a Nexus 7, and I’m selling the note. I’m sorry, but the Nexus 7 does all the note does, save for calling and having a 3g connection, in a handier form factor. In fact, I think that the 4/7/10 screen sizes of the new Nexus family is just about perfect.

  • le_lutin

    My parents have pretty much stopped using their desktop and almost exclusively do all their web stuff on the ipad. So i’d say in a lot of cases, a tablet has replaced the laptop/desktop.

  • MasterMuffin

    Phablets are like hybrid cars, they’re in the middle and not so many people will buy them

    • rossdundee

      The sales of the original note and the fact that over 3million international note II’s have been sold would seem to contradict your statement. Now that the Note II has been released in the US I can imagine an ever higher number of sales.

      • MasterMuffin

        No, as i said, not so many will buy them. Sure, it has sold 3 million but Samsung alone sells about 100,000,000 smartphones in a quarter so as I said earlier, not so many will buy them (and YES, some people buy them), but NOT SO MANY :)

  • rossdundee

    I’m the the opposite @Vyrlokar. I bought the note II and have since given my Nexus 7 to my parents. I just stopped using it. The main thing I used the nexus for was movies/gaming/reading. The note II does all this for me without feeling like I’m getting a inferior experience as the screen feels big enough.

    • Vyrlokar

      No problem with that. Again, I own a smartphone, a 7″ tablet and a 10″ tablet. The 7″ tablet is the one that gets more use (I tether my phone to it so I get mobile data on it). I have crappy artistic skills, so the s-pen isn’t very useful to me.

      That’s the beauty of the current market, everyone’s needs are different, and no manufacturer can dictate what you should need, instead of what you actually need.

  • As an owner of the GNote, I have no interest in 7 inches tablets. However I still see a use for 10 inches tablet at home.

    • Leigh HUNTE

      I also have a note2 and tablet but now I either use my laptop or my note2 and almost never my tablet.

  • Lean6

    I wouldn’t own an Android phone and an Android tablet. I’ve always thought that it was more redundancy than complimentary. I DO however go with an Android phone and ipad in combination. There are apps that ios has that justifies owning both. Once you have both devices for their essential functions, you start assigning overall function them based on the strengths of the devices. I don’t understand the complex the writer has…you either are a tech consumer or you are not. It makes little sense to work in tech if you can’t even appreciate the nature of tech milestones. Tech life is a journey, not a destination.

    • philnolan3d

      As an owner of an Android tablet and a phone I find the big benefit is that you only have to buy the apps once, then you have it for both devices.

      • Marvin Nakajima

        And it especially helps when the same app has optimized UI for both Smartphone and Tablet formats. Something iOS has not been built to do.

    • I do own both nexus 7 and the galaxy nexus. First of all i see the apple products a rip off, because there is really nothing that is innovative enough to impress me. Secondly, the whole of two product of android is greater than the sum of them, which they create synergy.

  • I Don’t say that I never will use a Phablet, or a Tablet, but for now they don’t atract me. But if I have to Choose between a Phablet or a Tablet, today, I would choose the Phablet…

    I realy don’t see me carrying nothing that I can’t put in my pockets. I don’t even carry a laptop!

    At home and at work, desktop. In any other places, a Smartphone fulfills my needs. I have some prejudice with Phablets, but maybe some day, if i give it a try,I can start getting comfortable with their sizes… But for now they just too expensive. And spending so much money to be sorry, is not an option.

  • Tatsuya

    While we don’t have those fold-able OLED screens that can convert a 4″ phone to a 10″ tablet as you wish, there will be no winner.

    • Peterson Silva

      That would be awesome.

  • Peterson Silva

    I think it’s all about lifestyle. If you’re not much a content producer, you could theoretically ditch the lap/desktop thing and stick to a 10-inch, heck, maybe even 7-inch a tablet. I’m not like that. I still need LaTeX and I write a _lot_. I do, however, want to use my laptop/desktop less. I considered a tablet (for trivial tasks at home and college), but then I thought… I would still need to have a phone. So why not both? I totally get you, I think we have similar preferences. Unless I could have a full keyboard with a tablet (like the Transformer Pad Infinity – that’s not available in Brazil, anyway) I think tablets are too gimmicky. But not everybody thinks alike, I guess :)

  • I still prefer a feature phone and a 10″ tablet combo over my original Note Phablet. The Note is too small to do anything decent with and too bulky to use for calls, with terrible battery life. Anyone want to buy a Note with less than 20 hours call time on it?

  • Actually my 10″ Android Tablet with blue tooth keyboard has almost totally replaced my PC, love it

  • webOSfanforever

    “Are phablets truly the perfect form factor…?” Short answer… Not for this guy they’re not. Not by a long shot.

    I don’t even need to have played with one to know. Just from owning the GS3 (which is bigger than I’m comfortable handling) I can conclude that anything larger would be too preposterously large for making phone calls on and too small for enjoying multi-media in any setting other than on an airplane or on the porcelain throne.

  • Joshhud

    I was tempted to get the transformer to replace my broken laptop but decided to hold off when i heard about the Note 2. Since i would use the tab for mostly internet browsing, gaming, and AV reasons i thought a more portable version( the Note 2) would be a better fit. Well see in December when my contract is up.

  • arcwindz

    Nope, maybe for tablets, yes, but phone will always be there. At least i won’t buy something that is bigger than SGS3 (which is already big)

  • Htown

    I have a laptop when I first got it I thought it was wonderful and then I realized its so heavy and I was using my smartphone more and more but I just couldn’t see it well enough I wanted a device that could do everything including make calls Samsung answered my prayers the note2 is simply amazing

  • DroidDoes17All

    It depends. Where do we draw the line? The standard size for smartphones is increasing every year. So when will a phablet be 7″ and a ‘normal’ sized smartphone be 5.5″? My GS3 isn’t considered a phablet at 4.8″ but the GN2 is at 5.5″. Eventually people will be holding Nexus 7’s and iPad Minis to their ears. :)

    • Cole Raney

      I think that the average smartphone won’t increase in size very much anymore. Once you get near the 5 inch mark, many people don’t want it because of its sheer size. I don’t think “phablets” will get much bigger anyway. I could see them going to be about 6 inches. After that it’s too close to a tablet to be a phone.

  • I have a 7″ tablet that is really neglected since I got my Galaxy Note in July. For me the note is perfect for just about everything.The tablet isn’t ideal because there are so many places that I can’t get wifi.

  • Chris Quin

    I recently watched my young nephew playing Raging Thunder on a 4.7 in phone and happened to have my Galaxy Tab 8.9 with me. A few minutes later, after a trip to the Play Store I had said Raging installed and gave it a whirl. I showed the game running on the tablet to my nephew and never saw it again. It had to be prized from his hands when it was time to leave. Do tablets have a future – just ask a 6 yr old. Another of my young relatives (4 yrs old) describes her mum’s iPad as her ‘My Pad’

  • B3

    The reality is that by 2016, everyone will realize that android is perfect for devices 7 inches and smaller, while windows is perfect for devices 10 inches and bigger, and there is no room for awkward devices such as ipad minis

  • Peggy