The rise of the phablet. Cell phone, meet tablet. That's phabulous (with video)

By Molly Wood
Copyright 2014 New York Times News Service

NEW YORK — The tablet and the phone are fast becoming the same device, and I for one can't wait.

Bigger phones have been a big trend over the last couple of years, and despite a somewhat mocking moniker, the “phablet” (phone plus tablet) is here to stay. I predict that within a few years, seven- and eight-inch tablets, like the iPad mini, will begin to disappear, replaced by phones that are nearly equal in size.

VIDEO: The Rise of the Phablet:http://www.nytimes.com/video/technology/personaltech/100000002736020/the-rise-of-the-phablet.html?smid=fb-share

Tablets were a revolution in consumer electronics, mainly because they made us realize how much more we could do with our portable touch screens.

The first tablets, like the original iPad and the Google Nexus 10, were 10 inches, great for watching movies and TV shows.

But despite rocketing sales growth at first, most people found that a laptop with a keyboard is still better for getting work done. And at 1.5 to 2 pounds, those early tablets were slightly big and heavy to hold for reading, or to carry around day to day.

Thus, the smaller tablet was born — the Google Nexus 7, the Amazon Kindle and Apple's reluctantly birthed iPad Mini.

At 7 inches (or 7.9 inches, in the case of the iPad Mini), those tablets are lightweight, easy to toss in a purse or backpack, and better for use as a multimedia-enabled e-reader because they are more comfortable to hold. For a brief halcyon period, sales of smaller tablet sales began to crush sales of 10-inch devices.

Now, even those tablet sales have slowed.

The research firm IDC predicts that tablet sales growth, though still expanding, will slow to the single digits by 2017, with sales of smaller tablets falling the fastest. It seems that many of us come to the conclusion I've reached of late: I don't want a smaller tablet. I want a bigger phone.

Big phones may take some getting used to — they're less pocketable and a little comical when used for actual talking — but they're much more useful than small tablets for unifying your communications on one device.

They're always connected and more portable than a tablet, and the phone is already the device you're using for texting, taking pictures and browsing the web. Why not a bigger screen for watching videos and reading email?

At the moment, the industry is still trying to figure out exactly what size phone makes sense, but the new norm in screen size keeps creeping up.

Some phones are clearly considered or labeled “phablets,” like the LG Optimus G Pro 2, announced this week at the Mobile World Congress trade show in Barcelona, Spain. Its screen is 5.9 inches, or just about an inch smaller than the Nexus 7.

The Chinese manufacturer ZTE announced its Grand Memo II phablet, with a 6-inch display; China's Huawei dropped all pretense with the 7-inch MediaPad X1, with 4G LTE connectivity built into a device that is almost all tablet, hardly any phone.

But even phones that aren't strictly phablets are getting bigger.

Samsung announced its Galaxy S5 this week in Barcelona, and its screen measures in at 5.1 inches.

LG has been successful with the 4.7-inch LG G2; 4.6-inch displays are almost the new minimum. When Samsung introduced a Galaxy S4 Mini, its screen was 4.3 inches — 0.3 inches larger than the iPhone.

Apple now stands as the last holdout against the big phone trend.

The iPhone 5S screen is stubbornly stuck at four inches, which seems tiny when stacked up against current Android phones.

The iPhone 4S has an eye-squinting 3.5-inch screen. Analysts, consumers and even Donald Trump have begged Apple to make a bigger phone.

Rumors abound that one or even two new bigger-screen iPhones could be in development for September. Apple declined to comment on whether a bigger iPhone is in the works.

But while you're waiting for Apple, there are other good options to consider.

I've spent the last couple of weeks with the Samsung Galaxy Note 3, which has a 5.7-inch screen and includes a stylus, and I think it's the best of the bunch. I also love the LG Optimus G Pro; I expect its successor, the LG Optimus G Pro 2, to be excellent, although it may not be picked up by United States carriers.

That leaves us the Note 3. The original Galaxy Note really kicked off the phablet craze. It was introduced in 2011, and had a then-astonishing 5.3-inch screen. Despite the mockery from a lot of circles, the Note became a cult hit. It sold 10 million units and broke new ground on screen-size acceptance.

The Note 3 has been a success, as well; Samsung said it sold 10 million Note 3 devices in just 60 days after its introduction in September. I can see why; the Note 3's screen is absolutely luxurious for reading email, scrolling through Twitter, looking at photos and, most of all, for playing Candy Crush. Try it: You'll never play on an iPhone again.

The Note 3 is lightweight, with a faux-leather back that makes it feel refined in a vegetarian sort of way.

It weighs about six ounces to the iPhone 5S's four, which is not significantly heavier to hold and type on. And the typing itself is comfortable and natural; the screen is big enough that there's room for a row of numbers above the qwerty keys, so no switching between the letters and symbols menu when you need to add numbers.

There's even room for a period key. What a concept, right?

The stylus is a big differentiator between the Note 3 and other phablets. I could take it or lose it. It adds functionality, like the ability to quickly and easily take a screenshot that you can then draw on and share, or a quick way to scribble a memo or scrapbook a page for later.

But the LG Optimus G Pro lacks the stylus, and I find it just as usable.

I'm happiest when I'm using the Note 3 just as I'd use a tablet: playing games, browsing the web, checking Facebook, watching video, reading books and magazines, and sending email.

But what makes the phone better than the tablet is one-stop shopping for all my communications. I can also text, Instagram and even make a call, without switching devices.

Our smartphones remain the center of our connected lives; bigger screens make them that much more useful and immersive, even if they may also require bigger pockets, purses and man purses.

Embrace the phablet — and use Bluetooth for making calls. You'll feel much less silly that way.

Last modified: February 27. 2014 1:28AM
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