Phablets will grow in 2013, but just how big can they get?
31st Jan 2013 | 17:00
Manufacturers stretch the definition of a phone and the limits of your pocket
There was a time when things were simple: phones were supposed to be small, and the smaller they were, the more we wanted them.
Then smartphones taught us to tolerate a heftier handful, tablets raised our expectations of screen size, and now a new genre of device - the awkwardly named phablet - has emerged to fill the space between, putting pocket stitches to task and starting a conversation about the ideal display size.
"It's not a huge market, but it's doing pretty damn good," said Scott Steinberg, a tech analyst who runs TechSavvy Global, a strategic market and research firm.
But what's behind the great screen expansion, and just how far are consumers willing to stretch for these handsets?
Big and beautiful
Many of the plusses larger screen phones bring are inherent in the design: more real estate to view media, watch movies, take notes and read.
While some commentators were baffled by the Mate's expansiveness, Huawei Device, the company's electronic communications branch, said it had solid evidence that there is a market for the monster machine.
"Based on our extensive consumer research, we have found that a 6.1-inch smartphone display is the sweet spot for the moment," Huawei Device told TechRadar via email, explaining that this is "the optimal size" to provide "the functionality of a tablet with the portability and convenience of a smartphone." (However, this doesn't mean Huawei is abandoning other screen sizes.)
The Ascend Mate hasn't gone on sale yet - that won't happen until next month and only in China to start with - but its reception will set the pace and decide whether more manufacturers make a push towards voluminous screens.
Although the Mate is a bulky outlier, Steinberg sees that there's a perceptible trend for screen sizes to inch upward. "We're definitely seeing manufacturers push [towards larger screens]," he said. "The 5-to-6-inch range is where manufacturers want to play. It's only natural for a market that is maturing to develop into this space."
Birth of the Galaxy
Often referred to as "phablets," there's no formal definition of these phone-tablet hybrids, though it tends to mean "anything big enough to make you stare when someone pulls it out their pocket."
Joshua Flood, senior analyst for devices, applications and content at tech research firm ABI Research, offered a definition in a January 22 post on the firm's website: phablets, he wrote, are phones with screens measuring between 4.6 inches and 6.5 inches diagonally across.
The first Galaxy Note is considered by many to have reignited interest in a phone with a palm-sized screen, measuring 5.3 inches. The Galaxy Note II followed, with a display that advanced on its predecessor's by 0.2 inches.
"The Note was really one of the first phablets to grab a toehold in the space," Steinberg said.
Sony's CES-revealed Xperia Z owns a 5-inch Full HD Reality Display, while the HTC Butterfly - China's version of the DNA - is massive enough to warrant its own NFC-connected helper handset, the HTC Mini.
According to ABI projections published by Flood, close to 83 million phablets were shipped in 2012, up by 4,504 percent from 2011.
The 4.8-inch screened Galaxy S3, which (by Samsung's estimates) sold over 40 million units between May 2012 and January 14, 2013, is credited with making up a large portion of that 83 million figure.
Phablet sales haven't gone meteoric, Steinberg noted, but consumers are buying enough to keep the market afloat if not growing.
Because we can, should we?
"It's sort of like science friction - just because we can do things, doesn't actually mean it adds benefit," Steinberg mused about screen size. "We're experimenting right now. There's not really a rhyme or reason as to why a phone has to be a certain size, why it goes from 4 inches to 5.5 to 6.1.
"It's largely a manufacturer consideration, but you are seeing a category do well for itself and emerge."
Growing awareness of larger phones is helping move sales upward, he explained, while at the same time manufacturers are taking an experimental approach, throwing phones of varying sizes on the market to see what sticks.
Combine that with a perfect storm of chipmakers piling on CPUs with greater graphics performance for phones - chips that were once only imaginable in tablets - and the move to bigger screens starts to make sense.
Carving out a niche is a major driving factor in creating new screen dimensions as well, though Steinberg doesn't see size as the primary growth driver for phones.
"You're going to see phones in the current range do well," he said. "But what you are going to see grow are screen sizes as an aggregate start to creep up."
There is, however, that whole awkward factor with larger phones.
"Five inches is still a little awkward," Steinberg said. "If you have a Note, you still get stares from people when you pull it out, but phones like the S3 have started to train people to get used to the phones."
Smaller tablets are also helping with the acceptance if not adoption of larger phones.
"The idea of being an outlier with large screen phones is voided by the fact that you have the Note, the Nexus 7 and the mini. It's not such a crazy idea after all."
Too big to swallow
But 5 inches (or even just above 4 inches) can be a hard display size to swallow for many people.
"I haven't met a single consumer who said, 'Man, I wish my phone was bulkier,'" Steinberg said.
Whatever the upsides of a larger screen can be wiped out by sacrificed portability, particularly for consumers who tend to favor practicality (can it fit comfortably in my back jeans pocket?) over most other physical factors.
Price can be another negative consideration - with more phone, the cost of materials has to go somewhere.
From an app and user experience perspective, phablets present an relatively uncharted world of issues.
"Some people may design differently for a phablet than they would a smaller phone," said Josh Ellinger, a software engineer who specializes in user experience.
"Your buttons are going to be bigger, there's more area so you start playing with more content on a single page, and developing a different interface perhaps."
Responsive web design - which, simply put, can target multiple devices thanks to a single HTML code base - has helped developers and engineers who want to design for phablets do so without creating an entirely new set of code.
The process is by no means universal, Ellinger noted, but it does provide the ability to design for an increasingly fragmented mobile market.
However, development for phablet is still tentative.
"A lot of people are still catching up with mobile in general, so I haven't seen much development for a phablet yet, aside from the fact that you could see responsive design add a break point for it," he said.
"I just don't see the wider web community targeting phablets yet. It's still too early."
What is the ideal screen size?
Whatever the drawbacks , consumers are buying phablets, though Steinberg sees the form grabbing more "enthusiast" users than casual ones, Asian markets aside.
But phablets present at least one definite benefit for a consumer looking to cut the clutter out their life - a phone and tablet in one that eliminates the need for both.
For its part, Huawei said that as global economic pressures mount, it's found consumers are receptive to the benefits of one device combining the functions of a couple.
Though display size is largely a question of user preference, Steinberg sees the industry trying to hit on the "magic silver bullet" device that gives those users just what they want - all the function of a phone with the size benefits of a tablet.
So, how big would that silver bullet be? Not above half a foot, as far as Steinberg's concerned.
"Above 6 inches gets awkward - you get into a no mans land," he said.
The right screen size for the larger phone set, in Steinberg's estimation, lies between 5.5 inches and 5.8 inches.
It may take manufacturers several years to hammer out the optimal big display, but until then the space should continue to grow.
ABI estimated that more than 150 million phablets will ship this year, making up 18 percent of all smartphones sold. The majority of those phones, Flood wrote in his post, will house screens between 4.6 inches and 5 inches, with four out of every five phablets shipped landing in this area.
What's more, Flood wrote that "we will probably see all major mobile OEMs introducing a phablet model" in 2013.
After this initial expansion, Flood predicts that growth will slow gradually from 2014 onward, and expects phablets to comprise around 25 percent of smartphone shipments in 2018.
Steady, not breakneck, adoption could simply be the nature of these beastly machines.
"Phablets turn heads," Steinberg said, "but whether they win hearts and minds, that's the question."