Rise of the 'phablet'

Why giant phones will rule. (But not yet.)

The Samsung Galaxy Note smartphone goes on sale in the U.S. on Sunday. And it should be one of the biggest phone launches ever.

I'm not just talking about sales and popularity. The phone itself is big.

The Galaxy Note is essentially a giant Galaxy S II: Its screen is 5.3 in. diagonally, with a resolution of 1280 by 800. (Contrast this with an iPhone screen, which is just 3.5 in.)

The Android-powered phone has other notable features, including a stylus called an S Pen that has a button and supports a range of pen-specific gestures. For example, pressing the button and drawing a line down brings you to the home screen. Samsung is taking this pen business seriously -- it has released an SDK for developers to build pen-specific apps.

The real attraction of this and other so-called phablet devices, though, isn't pens but screen size.

A phablet is a phone with a screen so big that it can be used as a tablet.

The Samsung Galaxy Note isn't the first phablet to be sold in the United States. Dell two years ago launched its clunky Dell Streak, a 5-in. smartphone the company killed shortly after launching it.

And the Galaxy Note won't be the last.

LG plans to release another Android phone called the Optimus Vu, which will have a screen that's about the same size as the Galaxy Note, but wider -- making it a little more tablet-looking and less phone-like. Its screen resolution will be lower: 1024 by 768.

And many other phablets will follow.

Why have phablets failed so far?

Past phablets haven't succeeded in the market for one very simple reason: The idea was ahead of its time.

In the past, hardware technology wasn't ready. The Streak's screen resolution was 800 by 480. And the phone itself was too big and bulky.

Software wasn't ready, either. The Dell Streak ran a version of Android that wasn't well suited for a large-screen phone, launching initially on the "Donut" version of the OS built for iPhone-size devices.

And users weren't ready. Back then, the touch tablet and e-book markets were still niche phenomena, and people hadn't acclimated themselves to the idea of using bigger-screen devices without mice or keyboards.

Why phablets of the phuture will succeed

Future Android phablets will run Android Ice Cream Sandwich, which is designed for arbitrary screen sizes.

The Galaxy Note will get the Ice Cream Sandwich version of Android within a few months. The LG Optimus Vu will get it from the start.

Although they'll thrill plenty of power users, even these devices won't become mainstream hits. They're still too big and too low-res.

You'll note that each generation of smartphone tends to involve reductions in the bezel -- the hardware that surrounds the screen around the edges of the device. We're very close to being able to mass-produce phones with screens that go right to the edge.

A five-in. device with no bezel or very little bezel will bring the width of phablets down to a tolerable holding size, while still allowing for maximum screen real estate.

But wait, you might say. People use tablets like the Apple iPad with no trouble. Why would the size of a large phone be a problem?

The reason is that the size and weight of a larger tablet actually helps you hold it. When you hold a tablet with one hand, you jam the bottom corner into your palm, with your fingers holding the tablet up near the center. The weight of a tablet pulls the corner opposite from your hand down, which pushes the corner in your hand up. Your thumb and folded palm hold it down. The force of the tablet's corner pushing up substitutes for grip. The tablet's weight and size makes this kind of holding natural.

Phablet-size devices will be neither big enough nor heavy enough to be held like tablets.

People will want to hold phablets with the thumb on one edge and the fingers on the other in a proper grip, while the device rests in the up-facing palm. A 5-in. screen without bezel is just about right for this kind of holding. But with a bezel, it would be just a little too big for most people.

Meanwhile, Moore's Law and the increasing improvement and miniaturization of electronics in general will make phablets video powerhouses.

When 5-in. devices are as small as possible, come equipped with screens that have better resolution than iPhone's Retina display, and boast more powerful graphics processing, phablets will become a major, mainstream device category.

Super-high-res screens will enable users to dispense with the horrible mobile versions of websites and instead see desktop-PC-optimized versions. Games, videos and photos will look absolutely incredible. Third-party accessory makers will create keyboards, enabling business travelers to leave their laptops and tablets at home.

As the touch-tablet and e-book categories become more popular, demand will rise for larger-screen phones. We'll want better Web browsing, better image- and video-viewing, better games and better e-book reading.

In a nutshell, the era of the phablet is almost here. And it's going to be huge.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. You can contact Mike and learn more about him at Elgan.com, or subscribe to his free e-mail newsletter, Mike's List.

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