An Apple iPhone (left) and a Samsung Galaxy Note are displayed at a shop in Tokyo. File photo by Reuters.
Call it phablet, phonelet, tweener or super smartphone, but
the clunky mobile phone - closer in size to a tablet than the
smartphone of a couple of years back - is here to stay.
A surprise hit of 2012, it is drawing in more users, more
handset makers and is shaping the way we consume content.
"We expect 2013 to be the year of the phablet," said Neil
Mawston, UK-based executive director of Strategy Analytics'
global wireless practice.
While Samsung Electronics has blazed a trail with its
once-mocked Galaxy Note devices, now other manufacturers are
scurrying to catch up.
At this week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas,
Chinese telecommunications giants ZTE and Huawei Technologies
will launch their own.
ZTE, which collaborated with Italy's designer Stefano
Giovannoni for the Nubia phablet, is scheduled to launch its
5-inch Grand S, while Huawei brings out the Ascend Mate,
sporting a whopping 6.1-inch screen, making it only slightly
smaller than Amazon's Kindle Fire tablet.
"Users have realised that a nearly 5-inch screen smartphone
isn't such a cumbersome device," said Joshua Flood, senior
analyst at ABI Research in Britain.
Driving the phablet's shift to the mainstream is a confluence
of trends. Users prefer larger screens because they are
consuming more visual content on mobile devices than before,
and using them less for voice calls - the phablet's weak
And as WiFi-only tablets become more popular, so has interest
among commuters in devices that combine the best of both,
while on the move.
According to the latest Ericsson Mobility Report, the monthly
data traffic for every smartphone will rise fourfold between
now and 2018 to 1900 megabytes.
The upshot is a market for phablets that will quadruple in
value to $US135 billion in three years, according to
Barclays. Shipments of gadgets that are 5 inches or bigger in
screen size will surge by nearly nine-fold to 228 million
during the same period, though estimates vary because no one
can agree on where smartphones stop and phablets start.
But that's the point, some say.
"I think phone size was a preconceived notion based on voice
usage," said John Berns, a Singapore-based executive who
works in the information technology industry.
He recently upgraded his Note for the newer Note 2 and bought
another for his girlfriend for Christmas.
"Smaller was better until phones got smart, became visual."
Samsung has been both the engine and beneficiary. While other
players shipped devices with larger screens earlier, it was
only when the Korean behemoth launched the Galaxy Note in
late 2011, with its 5.3-inch screen, that users took an
"The Streak was launched at a time when 3-inch smartphones
were standard and the leap to a 5-inch Streak was a jump too
far for consumers," says Strategy Analytics' Mawston.
"The Galaxy Note was launched when 4-inch smartphones had
become commonplace, and the leap to 5-inch was no longer such
The bigger, the better
Since then Samsung has bet big on bigger: its updated Note
has a 5.5-inch screen and its flagship Galaxy S3 - the
best-selling smartphone in the third quarter of 2012 - has a
4.8-inch screen that puts it in the phablet category for some
Samsung accounted for around three quarters of all phablets
shipped last year, according to Barclays' Taipei-based
analyst Dale Gai.
HTC Corp's 5-inch Butterfly - called the Droid DNA in the
United States - has been selling well in places where Samsung
is less dominant, according to Taipei-based Yuanta Securities
analyst Dennis Chan. The first batch sold out soon after its
December launch in Taiwan.
"I don't think we can say that Samsung invented phablets,"
said Lv Qianhao, head of handset strategy at ZTE. "But it did
do a lot to promote this product category, which helped
create tremendous demand."
Phablets are also proving popular in emerging markets.
A poll of nearly 5000 readers of Yahoo's Indonesian website
chose Samsung's Galaxy Note 2 as their favourite mobile phone
of 2012, ahead of the iPhone 5.
Kristian Tjahjono, a technology journalist who posted the
poll, said phablets were a natural fit for Indonesians who
liked tablets but also liked making phone calls.
But while those in such markets who can afford them are going
for the high-end devices, the door is opening for cheaper
models. Tjahjono pointed to Lenovo's 5-inch S880, which has a
lower resolution screen and sells for about $250, which is
around a third of the price of Galaxy Note 2.
Falling component prices will add to demand. The total cost
of an upper-end phablet, its bill of materials, will likely
fall to 2000 yuan ($US323) this year, says Gai from Barclays,
and will halve within two years.
"One thousand yuan is a very sweet spot for China," he said.
India is also a fan.
Vivek Deshpande, who manages global strategy for
Shenzhen-based mobile phone maker Zopo, says that while the
Indian and Chinese markets are different, they share a common
appetite for aspirational devices: phones big enough for
their owners to show off. This is changing the direction of
lower end players.
"Zopo's primary focus is now on phablets," said Deshpande.
Even Samsung is pushing its own creation downmarket: In Las
Vegas it will unveil the Galaxy Grand, a 5-inch device that
lacks some of the resolution and muscle of its bigger
brethren but will be aimed at markets like India. There is a
version offering a dual SIM slot, a popular feature for those
wanting to arbitrage cheaper call and data plans.
As phablets slide into the mainstream, handset makers are
trying to find ways of differentiating.
As well as hiring Italian designer Giovannoni better known
for his minimalist, sleek bathrooms, ZTE also came up with an
onscreen keypad that inclines to one side of the screen,
depending on whether the user is left- or right-handed.
Samsung, however, not only has first mover advantage, it can
also build on its expertise in display.
Barclay's Gai says Samsung is expected to introduce a
thinner, unbreakable AMOLED screen which will leave room for
"That will put Samsung in good stead to still dominate the
market," he said.
Horace Dediu, a Finnish analyst who runs a technology blog
asymco.com said the rise of the phablet is part of a wider
march of computing power into wherever we reside - the living
room, the train, bed or work.
"It makes sense that we're moving towards a time where we are
served not by a computer or a netbook or a phone, but rather
that we have these screens scattered around and available for
us to play with," he said.
"In a way the phablet is not a bulky phone but a very