Should You Buy a Phablet?

What's the best screen size for a smartphone: 4-inch, 5-inch or 6-inch?

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Over the last few weeks I’ve been carrying with me a 4-inch, 5-inch and 6-inch smartphone. The 4-inch is an Apple iPhone 5s, the 5-inch is a Samsung Galaxy S4 and the 6-inch is the new Samsung Galaxy Note 3. I decided to carry these three smartphones and use them on a daily basis to try and get my head around the question of optimal screen size for a smartphone: The iPhone 5s and the Galaxy S4 are both characterized as true smartphones, while the 6-inch Note 3 falls into a new category the industry’s taken to calling “phablets” — smartphones that can double as small tablets.

Smaller-screen smartphones dominate the smartphone market today: over 90% of smartphones shipped have screens under five inches. In the U.S., smartphones with screens above 5-inches, such as the Samsung Galaxy Note 3, and a few others that fit the phablet tag have been slow to take off. While they haven’t caught the fancy of a U.S. audience, there’s real opportunity for them, especially in other parts of the world. Indeed, our research shows that about 40 million phablets have been sold worldwide, with upwards of 20 million sold in the Korean market alone.

Why the interest in Korea and other Asian markets for phablets? There are several reasons: First, for some the phablet serves the role of a smartphone as well as a tablet, which means that this sort of user can carry one device instead of two. Second, many people living in this region of the world have long commutes to work by train, bus or subway, and love to watch TV shows, play games, etc. during this trip. A larger screen makes this much more tolerable than trying to do these things on a smaller-screen smartphone.

The first thing I found using three different-sized smartphones, is that big is not always better. While the iPhone 4 and the Galaxy S4 both fit in my pockets, the Galaxy Note 3 did not. On the other hand, having a big screen to use for reading, games and just about anything else you do on a smartphone does make a difference. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the Note 3 became more of a small tablet for me and less a phone. In fact just the idea of holding a 6-inch smartphone to my ear seemed ridiculous, so with this device I always used a Bluetooth headset when making calls. I’d thought, going into this experiment, that I wouldn’t really use the stylus on the Galaxy Note 3, but I actually ended up using it a lot to jot down notes and for more precise navigation within apps, especially games. (My older, tired eyes appreciated the larger screen too.)

The other obvious upside if you go with a phablet and use it as both a smartphone and mini-tablet, is that it knock out the expense of buying a standalone tablet to complement your smartphone. Research confirms this is one of the reasons phablets have gained traction in some Asian countries: it’s cheaper to buy one device than two. That said, having a dedicated tablet (if you’re a heavy tablet user) with a bigger screen is usually the best option if you can afford it.

The basic question you have to ask yourself when thinking about smartphones with larger screens is this: How does something that’s really two slightly compromised things, but with that key all-in-one benefit, fit your lifestyle?

One of the reasons Apple hasn’t created a large screen iPhone is that they’ve concluded from lots of user feedback that using a smartphone with one hand is strongly preferred. Indeed, when using a phablet, it’s a two-hand operation — one hand holds the device, while the other’s used for input and navigation (it’s impossible to use a 6-inch screen one-handed unless you’re Lebron James). People take their phones out of their pockets or purses on average at least 15 times a day, and for many the number’s higher still. These people want quick access to their smartphones for answering calls, checking messages and email, and for using apps of all types.

While many do use two hands with their smartphones for playing games, most use one hand to type out quick messages, email responses and answer the phone, so one-handed operation is the norm. Samsung’s 5-inch Galaxy S4 can be used with one hand, and after cycling between these three devices, I think five inches is the largest screen most would find acceptable for one-handed operation.

There are lots of rumors floating around that Apple’s next iPhone will have a bigger screen, but I doubt it’ll happen, given those customer surveys — certainly not a 6-inch screen, anyway. More likely, we might see a 4.7-inch or 4.8-inch iPhone, to ensure it can still be used with one hand. Also, given the popularity of the 7.9-inch iPad mini, it’s doubtful Apple would shrink their tablet.

The adoption of phablets, especially in Asia, suggests that smartphones with 6-inch screens do have a place in the market. However, I doubt that place will ever amount to more than 5-7% of smartphones shipped. That, and I suspect they’ll never be a big hit in the U.S. market. Unless you really want or need a smartphone and tablet that’s one device, I believe a 4-inch or 5-inch smartphone is the optimal screen size for just about anyone.

Bajarin is the president of Creative Strategies Inc., a technology industry analysis and market-intelligence firm in Silicon Valley. He contributes to Big Picture, an opinion column that appears every Monday on TIME Tech.

7 comments
SanMan
SanMan

I don't get it - it wasn't that long ago that mobile cellphones were literally the size of bricks, and yet people used to use them without any worries of looking foolish, etc. So why is it that phablets which are now just a small fraction of that size would make anyone feel awkward?

mcohen1717
mcohen1717

Okay where to start, first off Tim, please post a picture of you having trouble fitting the Note 3 in your pockets. I have a Note 3 and the original Note before that, and I have yet to find a pocket I couldn't fit the phone into. Believe me I've tried with all kinds of pockets, because one of the first things people tell me when they see my phablet is that it won't fit into their pockets. Guess what? I have yet to find a person who I didn't prove wrong. If we met in person I'd prove you wrong too.

You also mentioned the idea of holding a six inch smartphone to your ear is ridiculous, but what I think is more ridiculous is the fact that you actually care. Seriously when I talk on the phone, I am more focused on the person I am talking to then what random people passing by me think about my phone. Tim, I am not sure if you're a journalist for Time Magazine or a High school Cheerleader in the running for Homecoming Queen, "Like oh my God! I totally have to look like cute while talking on the phone."

My gripes with your article Tim, is that I honestly clicked on the link in the anticipation of reading new and informative comparison, but what I read is the same old misleading BS that has been recycled from journalist to journalist when talking about phablets. Just sad Tim, but I guess this what I should have expected when Time magazine starts having high school cheerleaders type articles for them. I actually doubt you even had the phones to compare them, and yes that sounds exactly like what I am saying, Tim you are a fraud.

agoroman
agoroman

Here are the advantages of phablets: 1) Great web browsing experience with larger text, the phablets often works with the PC version of web pages due to larger 1080p screens rather than the dumbed-down mobile version. 2) Excellent Media Viewing experience. 3) Most are very fast with powerful processors. Here are the drawbacks to Phablets: 1) less pocketable 2) can be more difficult to hold to your ear for calls 3) more difficult to handle - 2 handed operation most of the time and it takes longer to get the thing out of your pocket or purse or whatever to view texts and notifications. Here's how you counter the drawbacks: 1) Get  a good bluetooth headset. The LG HBS-700 and HBS-730 rest on your neck and allow you to answer the phone, talk hands-free, as well as adjust the volume level. Now your large phone can stay in your pocket or purse and you don't have to hold it to your ear. 2) Get a smartwatch. Think of it as simply a remote and 2nd screen for your phone. When someone texts me, my watch vibrates and I tilt the watch to be viewable and read the message without having to look at the phone. The same is true of appointment reminders, facebook messages and invites, basically anything that would be a notification on my phone. If this makes sense to you, look at the Xperia Z Ultra. Note 3 is large, but Xperia Z Ultra gives you another 3/4 of an inch in size and is thinner than note 3. It also have 6 rows and 6 columns of icons as well as the quick launch section also so that's really 42 icons instead only 20 on the Note 3 or other galaxy phones. Thus you're really getting a more complete tablet experience and you don't need a second device. 

JDJones
JDJones

The wife wanted a "big screen" phone.  Looking into it, I found the Galaxy Note 3.  We bought two of them.  Power and performance is excellent.  The "big screen" is great fun and easy on the eyes.  The size is no problem as it easily fits in various pockets (not too heavy for a shirt pocket).  Haven't used the stylus much, but intend to.  Apps are plentiful in the Google Play store.  This is a big upgrade for us from our old pair of iPhone 4's.  I still don't like the terms "phablet" and "smartphone."  Just call it a "phone," abandon the affectations.  Anyway, vote with your dollars and buy a "phone" that fits your life.

AcidRed
AcidRed

BTW, No iPhone compares and the only other contender is the Sony Xperia Z Ultra LTE. There are upsides to the Sony (LARGER display, water resistance, sophisticated design) as well as a downside(COST @ almost 3X) and only 2Gb RAM vs. the Note 3's 3Gb RAM. If your a PC geek, as I am, you KNOW what RAM means to a system's performance. Also, as a final note, pardon the pun, many people are using their phone as well as "phablets" for head end use in their vehicles. With the advent of Google cloud music services, I've uploaded all my music to the "cloud" and it is available on my phone via USB from S4 to the USB input on my Sony deck. If you have questions, just ask, I'll do my best to answer.

AcidRed
AcidRed

The S4 is sweet and the Note 3 is even sweeter. Why? Check the specs on the Note 3 and you will soon forget it's larger size as ANY sort of a detriment, especially when you need to use it as more than a phone, (and who doesn't?), but they don't mention THAT (specs), do they? It's a very impressive device, especially when you DON'T want to buy a MUCH more expensive device that still doesn't have the specs of the Note 3 or can make calls. Do the research and think about it. For $250, @ sprint, you get soooo much more than you get with even the BEST 7" tablet. CPU is a Snapdragon 800 and is the best available, RAM is 3Gb and these two things ALONE make for a better user experience not to mention a 13 megapixel camera or stylus. Nothing is ever perfect so check it out for yourself at a brick and mortar joint. You WILL be impressed, trust me, I was and will be getting it on my next upgrade, seriously.