Would I Buy A Phablet?

by Tim Bajarin   |   January 18th, 2013

img_img01One of the more unique smartphone designs in the market are ones that sport a 5.3″ to 6.1″ screen and are called Phablets by some in the industry. We call them tweeners as they are a cross between a large smartphone and a small tablet but in a single package. Samsung popularized this form factor with its 5.3″ Galaxy Note that was released last winter and they sold about 10 million in 2012. Some analysts believe that Samsung is on track to sell around 20 million Galaxy Note 2′s in 2013. Up to now, the market for these Phablet’s has mainly been in Korea and other parts of Asia and while available in the US, the market for it over here is quite small compared to its demand in Asia. 

At CES, Huawei upped the ante in phablets with the introduction of their Ascend Phablet that sports a 6.1 inch screen, the largest screen used in products in this category. It seems that Huawei is trotting this out to see what the market response will be to it and once they determine if a smartphone this large might fit in the market. Depending on the market response, they could either back it big time or adjust the screen size downward if the sweet spot for Phablets is with screens more in the 5.3″ to 5.7′ range. Like Samsung, Huawei believes there is a market for Phablets and seems committed to building smartphones in this larger size going forward. 

To date, most smartphones have screens under 5 inches and we don’t see that changing anytime soon. Smartphones with smaller screen sizes will have the lions share of the market for many years to come. What is interesting to me is that when I actually held Huawei’s 6.1 inch smartphone in my hand at the Huawei booth at CES, I could actually see myself using it, but not as Huawei might expect. To me this was a small tablet that just happened to have a cell phone radio in it. I would never hold this up to my ear as a phone and if I had one, I would only use it with a Bluetooth headset (this is how I primarily use the iPhone now, paired with a BT headset).   

Since getting the iPad Mini, with its 7.9″ screen, it has become my go to tablet. While I still use my original iPad, it is with a Bluetooth keyboard and I use it more as a mini-laptop in this configuration. What I have learned though is that the iPad mini, or a smaller tablet, is ideal for content consumption but not as ideal for content creation or productivity. While I do appreciate the 7.9″ screen in my iPad Mini, I was just as comfortable with Huawei’s 6.1 Ascend if I used it mainly as a small tablet. 

Markets Driving Phablet Demand

There are two market dynamics emerging that could actually make these phablets important products in various markets. The first one is emerging markets. We in the west would be fooling ourselves if we think that masses of people in emerging markets could afford both a smartphone and a tablet. Even with grey market tablets going for cheap prices, the issue of carrying two devices with them all of the time is just not reasonable. Apparently, Samsung saw this trend early on and has taken aim at the emerging market with their phablets, hoping that the desire for a single device that serves as a smartphone and tablet resonates with them. Indeed, the reason for a forecast of 20 million Galaxy’s Note II’s in 2013 is that most of them will start finding their way into emerging markets and filling a real need, especially if Samsung gets the prices of this product into price ranges acceptable to this market. In these markets, one is better than two.

The second market developing has broader implications for us in the west. If you sit back and try and visualize our digital future, it is pretty easy to see that most of us will have many screens in our digital lifestyles. We will have a screen in our smartphone, tablets, PC’s, TV’s, Car, appliances, etc. If they are all connected to our digital stuff in the cloud, then the screen that is closest to us at our time of need is the one we will most likely use.

In most cases, the closest screen is our smartphones. However, when desiring to access our digital “stuff” or the Web, many of us who have tablets often to go to our tablets for one major reason, it has a bigger screen and is easier to use especially when surfing the Web or reading docs and email and getting other forms of content.

However, this implies that we now carry with us two devices at the very least, a smarpthone and a tablet. What if we could get both in a single device that is highly portable? It that were the case, perhaps a smartphone even with a 5.3-inch screen would be too small; but one with perhaps a very pocketable one at 6.1″ might be just right. I was easily able to put the Ascend 6.1 in my back pocket as I do now with any spare smartphone I happen to be testing at any given time.

One Size Doesn’t Fit All

One other thing we are learning from our research is that one size does not fit all. Based on individuals needs, they may actually need a larger screen on their smartphone because they would be easier to read due to age, eyesight problems, individual choice, etc. As a small tablet, this larger screen size also works well for the same reasons, along with its ultraportablity. We believe it will start to be pretty clear to all device makers that one size does not fit all and that they may need a range of screen sizes in the smartphone and tablets to meet new user demands in the next 12-18 months.

If both of these market trends play out as I suggest here, and the concept of a two-in-one device catches on in emerging markets and demands increase in mature markets, all smartphone vendors may have to seriously consider doing phablets of their own. As strange as this may seem to us western thinkers, there is a real possibility that a market for phablets could actually emerge and become quite important in multiple markets around the world. Yet if we take a step back and look at the vast array of sizes and forms of our current automobile market, then we understand the role personal preference and they need to have a lineup of products to cover a wide range of uses. So in fact vast variance in smartphones and tablets actually makes sense due to mature market characteristics.

Tim Bajarin

Tim Bajarin is the President of Creative Strategies, Inc. He is recognized as one of the leading industry consultants, analysts and futurists covering the field of personal computers and consumer technology. Mr. Bajarin has been with Creative Strategies since 1981 and has served as a consultant to most of the leading hardware and software vendors in the industry including IBM, Apple, Xerox, Compaq, Dell, AT&T, Microsoft, Polaroid, Lotus, Epson, Toshiba and numerous others.
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  • David K

    Phablet similar to Crossovers from the Auto industry? A compromise that many people would be willing to make to get some of both worlds rather than the best of both worlds.

  • def4

    The argument that phablets are just as portable as iPhones ignores usability.

    The degree of portability and the resulting performance trade-offs matter a lot for laptops because they are never used while moving.
    For smartphones, portability is simply a hygiene factor, a sine qua non, and as such not a competitive factor.

    Apple yet again nailed the argument that also concerns this category.
    My experience confirms what Apple highlighted in the iPhone 5 advertising.
    The differentiating factor is one handed usability.
    Can you browse to this page and write a reply with it while walking around and carrying your briefcase?
    I believe the answer to that question is the dividing line between smartphones and tablets.

    • benbajarin

      Sure, but again keep in mind there are segments who will make tradeoffs due to their primary needs and uses. I agree with you on the one hand front but the Galaxy Note and the Huawei device have a one handed operation mode where the keyboard and number inputs for phone modes are smaller and proportioned to one side making one handed use possible and to be honest quite good. I tried with the Huawai typing a note using the keyboard in one hand mode and it was shockingly good.

      • def4

        That’s quite interesting.
        I’ll try to investigate it again soon.

        If the software can make switching between one handed and two handed modes very seamless and intuitive (like the UI orientation change after rotation) then it could indeed move the size limit to what is comfortable to grip and move in and out of pockets.
        But if it is something buried in a settings area I’m not so sure.

        • benbajarin

          Yeah its a simple setting. Default on the Huawei is one handed mode. Its pretty slick. I took a picture of it and will upload and share the link with you.

          • http://twitter.com/M_Gauche James King

            I would think the inability to stabilize the device with your fingertips would still be an issue with one-handed use even with the software adjustment. Did the device still feel stable in your hand?

    • http://twitter.com/M_Gauche James King

      I wrote a series of tweets re: the subject of one-handed use. Apple was indeed correct re: the ideal dimensions for one-handed use (btw, the upcoming Blackberry Z10 is similarly sized for that reason). However, Samsung managed to sidestep the issue by making the Galaxy Note so big that it prevents any pretense that the device can be used one-handed. For me, it was very liberating to use the Galaxy Note because I could comfortably type two-handed in portrait mode, unlike my current Galaxy Nexus which is too big for comfortable one-handed use and too small for comfortable two-handed use. At a certain size (generally greater than 5″), the ergonomics of a screen actually improves because it naturally limits how the user can interact with it. I’ve found that screen sizes in the 4.3″ to 4.9″ range to be “tweeners” in which the urge to use them one-handed is not discouraged by the actual size. My hand size is about average so I expect most people to have issues in that size range. Obviously, this range increases with the size of one’s hand. Lebron James, basketball star and Samsung pitchman, uses a Galaxy Note as his main phone … ONE HANDED. EASILY. So your mileage may vary.

      • def4

        Double thumb typing in portrait mode Blackberry style does indeed sound quite appealing.
        If it’s physically possible o combine it with one handed usability in a single device it could make for quite a combination.

    • Mhe She

      Good point about one-handed use, but that is something most people are willing to sacrifice for the greater screen real estate and other advantages that it brings.

  • jfutral

    “We in the west would be fooling ourselves if we think that masses of people in emerging markets could afford both a smartphone and a tablet. Even with grey market tablets going for cheap prices, the issue of carrying two devices with them all of the time is just not reasonable.”

    Sure, but wouldn’t this also be contingent on what they believe they need? As mentioned in another article (or two?) here, those emerging markets are also coming into the computer age via phones first, vs. PCs. While that effect on expectations is still TBD, I don’t agree that this indicates an intrinsic predication for a phablet.

    Has Apple finally cut the cord between their iOS devices and needing a PC to start them up? I haven’t really kept up with that and that would seem more important in emerging markets than elsewhere.

    Ultimately what drives me most nuts about my iPhone isn’t the screen size. It is the insistence of developers who do things with their apps and web sites to keep me from either zooming in or turning the screen to landscape mode. They seem to want to impose their definition of what a phone app should do on a mobile device, my needs be damned. Most times I prefer old style web pages to any kind of theoretical “mobile device optimization”. At least there I can still double tap to zoom in and out. Sorry to rant OT.

    Joe

  • Defendor

    I don’t think one size fits all and I do think Apple is leaving a lot of money on the table by not having a large Cellphone (~5″).

    But I do think 6″ is getting quite carried away. IMO that will be a niche of the large phone niche and fairly in consequential.

    • Jurassic

      You may not “think 6″ is getting quite carried away”, but apparently the companies that showed 6.1″ phones at CES don’t agree. And this week a company announced a 7″ phone (no joke!)… so there seems to be no end in sight to how large and heavy phones will get.

      It doesn’t make economic sense to try to cover all the bases with different phones with displays of 3.5″ and 4″ (like the current iPhones), plus ones with 4.5″, 5″, 5.5″, 6″, and 7″ displays.

      That would be spreading their focus, costs, and production too thinly, and it would be for a smaller market than the one that Apple sells to now (according to sales, most people want a compact and light phone).

      • http://twitter.com/M_Gauche James King

        I draw the line when I need two hands to hold it up to my ear :)

        • Rich

          You don’t have to hold the phone up to your ear if you use a Bluetooth headset.

          • http://twitter.com/M_Gauche James King

            It was a joke dude, lighten up.

          • http://www.tumblr.com/blog/his-divine-shadow His Shadow

            Because that’s what we need. More people wearing Bluetooth headsets in public.

          • Yacko

            Maybe we need more people with blue (discolored) teeth?

      • Defendor

        CES is rife with all kinds of strange ideas. Just because someone builds a 7″ phone, doesn’t make it a good idea.

        Also I never suggested Apple build four or five different sizes. Just two, which could hardly be seen as a strain on the worlds most valuable corporation.

        If Apple needs to consolidate anywhere is it in Laptops where they have two Airs, Two Pros and Two Retina Pros. 6 completely different models in a stagnant segment. Consolidate here and expand to two models in phones.

      • Yacko

        Also the supply chain. Fewer different parts leads to manufacturing efficiency.

    • FalKirk

      “I do think Apple is leaving a lot of money on the table by not having a large Cellphone” – Defendor

      There are advantages and disadvantages to each approach. Most companies try many products and see which one works. This is a tried and true method. Apple’s approach has advantages in production, marketing and consistency (platform).

      It’s like licensing vs. integration. They’re strategies, not religions.

      • Defendor

        Correct, it is not religion. So there is nothing sacrosanct about having only one size product, even for Apple. They have two or more sizes of every other computing line products: laptops, iMacs and now iPads.

        I do agree with the approach of having a minimum of well chosen products in each niche, rather than a Samsung like, throw a hundred things against the wall and see what sticks.

        I think Apple would nicely cover the bases with about two sizes of each category. Small/Large iPhone/iPad/iMac/Air/Pro/Retina.

  • eyemahsource

    Perhaps there is another option not being discussed. My preference is to replace my laptop, phone and tablet with a pair of glasses fitted with twin 1080p screens about 1 1/2″ diagonal providing desktop screen real estate. The glasses are worn low enough to see over the top of the frame thus not impeding vision more than my car’s dashboard. If this isn’t workable then neither is driving the car. The frame would be a magnetic rail to fasten corrective lenses (if needed) when looking over the top of the frame. CPU is an existing phone to the glasses via Bluetooth IV. Control via phones touchscreen used as a trackpad in a pocket. There could be many variations of this basic idea. Redundancy avoided thus far less expensive.

    • Yacko

      Biggest problem is battery life. The tech isn’t ready yet, expect 5 or 6 years. If something like Google Glass shows up early, it will be a bit of a compromise on features, until we get to that time frame.

  • pawhite524

    Does anyone else remember the “boom box craze” of the late 1970s and early 1980s? Lunch box sized audiotape then CD players became the size of a pullman suitcase. That phase/craze lasted only a few years and died well before iPods and MP3 players came out.
    I predict this will happen with the phablet . Of all the great things about Western Civilization wretched excess and “too much is never enough” are there, too. Sad but true…

    • Yacko

      Remains to be seen what happens to the stylus. I think it’s another trend that will boomerang back to reality.

      • pawhite524

        Agreed. Thanks for taking the time to reply.

      • jfutral

        “Boomerang back” exactly. I guess a lot of the people thinking the stylus is great don’t know or forget what it was like when that was the main part of smartphones pre-iPhone. You either stocked up styli(?) or gave up and just used your finger nail.

        Joe

        • JenDoll

          Using the S Pen isn’t anything like using the old Palm PDAs though. For many things you don’t even need to touch the screen, it just needs to hover there.

          • jfutral

            That may well be. But I was talking more about how difficult they are to keep up with. That’s one of the reasons Apple skipped on it.

            Joe

    • Mhe She

      Don’t think this is a craze. The demand for such devices in emerging markets is off the charts! The key is lower price point. I think Samsung and others do not introduce cheaper phablets to US consumers because of your higher paying capacity, but this is no craze!

      The phablets are excellent for media viewing, browsing, games etc. A larger screen also indicates better status here.

      A friend other day was telling me that a person with an Iphone (Rs 45,000) feels inferior when someone handles a 5 inch Phablet (Rs 15,000). Note that at 1/3rd the price, you get a status symbol and an excellent functional device (thanks to Google Android).

      • pawhite524

        Thanks for taking the time to reply. I mean no offense when I say people in the US who drive a BMW X5 do not feel inferior to someone who drives a Chevy Suburban.
        This old British expression comes to mind: different cultures, different customs.

        All the best.

    • JenDoll

      I love my Galaxy Note II. It replaced my iPhone 4, and since I got it, I haven’t once touched my Kindle e-Reader or my iPad 3, both of which got quite heavy use when I still had my iPhone. It’s ideal for everything really.

      • pawhite524

        Thanks for taking the time to reply. Sincerely, I’m happy for you this has worked out so well. For me, it would just be too small as a tablet. I like smaller , lighter phones that fit in my shirt pocket. As Sly Stone once wrote, “Difference strokes for different folks.”
        All the best.

  • http://search.websonar.com:8080/ Duane Bemister

    An iPad Mini with the new IGZO display will be the device of choice for both aging boomers and their grand children. They will communicate with FaceTime. The phablets and smartphones are about to be disrupted.

  • Mhe She

    Nice analysis Tim, I can give you some first-hand emerging market perspective. Phablets are a rage in India. So much so that Samsung is worried about Note 1 and 2 sales because of some local manufacturers bringing down the price to Rs 10,000. For comparison, Note 2 costs us almost Rs 40,000.

    The Indian manufacturers are good enough for a lot of value for money Indian consumers and the phablets are an excellent replacement for phones and tablets in a single device! Google android has made it possible for these local manufacturers to complete with a giant like Samsung.

    Samsung is worried and making moves. They brought out a 5 inch Galaxy Grand at Rs 20,000, which might get them more customers, but the hardware for this device is last generation (dual-core processors and low res screens).

  • Janey10101

    I don’t think this is a craze. I live in a Western society and I’m a woman. I never carry a phone in my pocket as most clothes for women don’t have pockets. The phablet would be perfect in my handbag and much easier than lugging a full-sized tablet around. I need something that works well for taking notes, making lists. family organisation (diary), searching the internet AND using a phone function in the one so that I don’t have to carry multiple devices around or remember to charge them all with their different chargers. I find that I don’t take or make many calls on my phone anyway and use it mostly for texting and if I had to hold it up to my ear I really couldn’t care less what someone thought – besides I would invest in a Bluetooth ear piece. I find the current screen size of smartphones annoyingly small for searching the internet on the go – I want a bigger screen but not something as big as my first generation iPad. Bring on the phablet…. I’m waiting for an 8 inch model to be released and going and doing a comparison of the various sizes and then I’m jumping in. Bye-bye normal smartphone, you annoy me with your small size.