Is bigger always better? The rise of the phablet and superphone

Over the last few years manufacturers striving to differentiate their wares in a crowded marketplace have experimented with alternative form factors. The traditional mobile electronics trend of increasing miniaturization has been well and truly bucked when it comes to screen size. As we browse the web for longer, play games, watch movies, and use all manner of apps on our smartphones, we demand more screen real estate to enjoy all that content.

Growing bigger all the time

The best-selling Samsung Galaxy S3 was criticized on release for having a 4.8 inch touchscreen that many reviewers felt made it too big to operate comfortably. Stellar sales proved them wrong and the trend towards larger devices has been well and truly established.

While the iPhone’s screen is still relatively small, and the recently announced BlackBerry Z10 screen is only slightly bigger at 4.2 inches, the so-called Android superphones are routinely boasting 5 inch touchscreens now. There was a flurry of new 5 inch smartphones announced at CES including Sony’s new flagship, the Xperia Z, which will hit UK stores this month, and two offerings from China, the ZTE Grand S and the Huawei Ascend D2 (no word on a UK release for either as yet).

We will also see new flagship Android releases from HTC and Samsung in the near future. The HTC M7 is widely tipped to make its debut this month and the rumour mill is suggesting it will have a 4.7 inch screen. We may have to wait a bit longer for the Galaxy S4, but it won’t be a surprise if it sports a 5 inch touchscreen.

Breaking the 5 inch barrier

Samsung pushed things further by releasing a truly giant smartphone at the end of 2011. The Samsung Galaxy Note had a 5.3 inch touchscreen and it confounded critics by selling well (10 million in 9 months). Bridging the gap between a smartphone and a tablet, the Note helped popularize the term “phablet”.

Huawei Ascend MateThe “phablet” category occupies that space between 5 inch superphones and 7 inch tablets. The Note is considered a hybrid device not just because of the large screen size, but because it combines features traditionally found on a tablet with standard smartphone functionality. There is a stylus, called the S-Pen which comes with the Note and several unique apps that set it apart as a digital notebook and sketch pad.

Any new form factor that garners success is sure to spawn sequels and emulators. Samsung’s Galaxy Note 2 has an even larger 5.55 inch screen and cutting edge hardware which has led to rave reviews and strong sales. LG released the Optimus Vu which belatedly hit the UK towards the end of last year. The Optimus Vu 2 was on show at CES, but we wouldn’t recommend holding your breath for a UK release.

It’s not clear how big people are prepared to go, but Huawei intends to find out with the 6.1 inch Ascend Mate which launches in China this month. We also just got official confirmation about the 5.7 inch ZTE Grand Memo.

Year of the phablet?

Whether the phablet form factor and the idea of a hybrid device will really catch on in the UK is anyone’s guess, but the Note 2 seems to be doing well. Regardless of the success of hybrids there can be little doubt that bigger screens are here to stay.

When the Dell Streak came out in 2010 it was the first phablet and it had a screen size of 5 inches, but the average smartphone had a 3.5 inch touchscreen at that time and people weren’t ready to make the jump. With smartphones now routinely pushing 5 inches, phablets aren’t such a stretch anymore.

Shopping in the UK

If you’re keen to get your hands on a true hybrid device in the UK right now then there’s only one option that makes sense and that’s the Samsung Galaxy Note 2. Unlocked it will set you back between £450 and £500. You can also pick one up from Everything Everywhere (Orange and T-Mobile), O2, Three, and Vodafone. If you want to snag it for nothing upfront then you’ll be looking at a two-year contract for around £45 per month.

Anyone who is happy to content themselves with a superphone right now should check out the Sony Xperia Z, but keep an eye on the horizon for the HTC M7 and the Galaxy S4 from Samsung. It’s also worth remembering that if Huawei and ZTE release their superphones or phablets in the UK they are liable to undercut the competition on price.

Are any of these devices on your shopping list? Post a comment and let us know if you think bigger is always better.

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About Simon Hill

Simon is an experienced tech writer with a background in games development. He has been covering the world of mobile technology for several years now and writes for a variety of popular websites.