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Rise of the 'phablet'

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

February 18, 2012 07:00 AM ET

Computerworld - 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.



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