Learning to live with a phablet

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Samsung Galaxy Note II ReviewImage Source: The Tech Block

I was not shy when I first reviewed Samsung’s (005930) Galaxy Note “phablet” early last year. In a piece titled “The smartphone that ‘Samsunged’ Samsung,” I said the Note had taken things way too far and I called for the death of the smartphone-tablet hybrid category. It did not die. Later in 2012, I reviewed the Galaxy Note II and even though it was a top performer, I still had no idea who would want to buy such a massive cell phone. Then Samsung sold 5 million of them in 60 days. Apparently, it’s time for me to get on board.

In early January, I decided to give phablets another go. With the slate wiped clean, I popped a SIM card in a Galaxy Note II review unit and I have carried it with me nearly every day since then.

My timing couldn’t have been better. Following the unveiling of HTC’s latest flagship smartphone and the Mobile World Congress trade show last month, it is now painfully obvious that phablets aren’t going anywhere any time soon. According to rumors that just won’t die, even Apple may jump on the phablet bandwagon sometime this year or in 2014. In other words, every single major smartphone vendor on the planet may soon have a phablet in its lineup.

Like it or not, the era of phablets is upon us.

I wouldn’t call myself a phablet hater, but I have repeatedly and clearly stated that these hybrid devices are not for me personally. Instead, I have regularly said that handsets with displays measuring about 4.3 inches diagonally are good for me and I often use the HTC One S as an example of my ideal phone size. From screen size to thickness and overall footprint, the One S is perfect for me.

Apple’s iPhone 5 is also a great size for me, though I wish the display was a bit wider. I have written a number of times that Apple’s larger 4-inch display does precious little to improve the user experience compared to the old 3.5-inch panel.

With my ideal handset size in mind, it’s fairly easy to see why phablets give me pause. Phones like the Galaxy Note II absolutely dwarf the One S and iPhone 5.

But I still bit the bullet.

For some quick background, I always carry more than one phone at a time. My main handset is an iPhone 5, which I carry for work and personal use. Then I carry a second handset, which is often whatever device I am reviewing at the time. Since early January, however, the Note II has been my second smartphone.

With that, here are a few thoughts after spending more than two months carrying a phablet and using it regularly:

The Good

The display. Forgetting for a moment that the display on Samsung’s Galaxy Note II is absolutely gorgeous, having more screen real estate in general is awesome. Objects are larger and clearer, and that obviously carries over to touch targets, which means fewer failed pokes.

More content can also fit on the screen comfortably and larger text means less strain on the eyes. The Note II is a fantastic eReader.

Watching videos is a much better experience on a phablet than it is on smaller smartphones. I never watch movies or TV shows to my iPhone because too much is lost on its tiny display. With the Note II, I actually found myself streaming HBO GO — and enjoying it — on more than one occasion.

I really enjoy having a larger screen and I found myself reaching for the Note II much more often than I thought I would.

Stylus support. Smartphone styluses are not for everyone, and I hardly use Samsung’s S Pen to its fullest extent. Samsung has done a wonderful job with the S Pen though, and I have had a great experiences on the occasions that I have pulled out the Note II’s stylus.

I am not what one might call a skilled artist, so I do not use the S Pen to draw. I do use it from time to time when browsing the Web or checking my email, however, as Samsung’s touch-free scrolling and email preview features definitely enhance those experiences.

Not all phablets ship with enhanced stylus support like Samsung’s Note lineup, but it really is an added benefit that has been implemented quite well in Note series devices.

Multiple apps on one screen. This is a feature I scoffed at when it was first introduced on phablets, but I have come around.

The benefits of squeezing multiple apps onto one smartphone screen are somewhat limited for the time being, but I found that I appreciated the functionality a number of times. Having my Google Reader app or the Chrome browser open next to a note-taking app or an open email is quite useful (it might be more useful if the native Note II keyboard supported auto-correct, considering the tiny keyboard that appears in split-screen mode) and the feature will only get better as more apps are updated to support split-screen mode.

The Bad

Size. There’s just no way around it. Phablets are too big.

Despite all the benefits phablets might afford, they still aren’t comfortable to hold for many users. I fall into this category. One-handed operation is completely out of the question and even two-handed use can be uncomfortable compared to phones with smaller displays.

And I cannot stress this enough: I hate, hate, hate using the Note II and similar devices for voice calling.

I personally don’t like using Bluetooth headsets or corded headsets for voice calls. I have no interest in carrying yet another device that needs to be charged or having to fumble with an accessory every time my phone starts to ring. It’s just not convenient. When I talk on the phone, I like to talk on the phone.

I’m not a small man, but holding a giant smartphone like the Note II up to my face makes me feel ridiculous. Not this ridiculous, but ridiculous nonetheless. It’s also uncomfortable. Sometimes I feel like I’m holding a paperback book up to my head.

Once technology advances and we begin to see handsets emerge with true edge-to-edge displays, things will become much more manageable. Some phablets will still be too huge since vendors will continue to push the boundaries of comfort and taste, but a smartphone with a nearly borderless 5-inch display could very well hit the sweet spot that phones with 4.3-inch panels now occupy.

So, what have I learned in the end? Phablets aren’t the worst thing in the world.

Now, it’s important to note that I’m talking not talking about ridiculous monstrosities like the Galaxy Note 8.0. The new Note 8.0 is a fine tablet but the inclusion of an ear speaker for voice calling is nothing short of trolling. No, I’m talking about smartphone-tablet hybrids that can still be used somewhat comfortably.

Though phablets clearly have a place in the smartphone market, I do think we’ll see most of the larger sizes die off over the next few years. Remember, miniscule cell phones with buttons that couldn’t possibly be punched accurately by human fingers were all the rage at one point in time. Then, once the novelty wore off, the smallest sizes faded away while more manageable phones proliferated.

In the meantime, prepare for things to get worse before they start to get better.

Gulliver survived Brobdingnag and I will survive the era of phablets. But I’ll probably let most calls go to voicemail.

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