Why phablets don't make sense

Wed Nov 19, 2014

Here we are, at the end of 2014, and it is not a good time to buy a new phone. Flagship phones have steadily ballooned in size to the point where they’ve morphed into phablets, effectively killing the small tablet market. This year’s Nexus has a gigantic 6-inch screen. Google discontinued their 7-inch tablets to make room in the market for this beast. Apple hedged their bets by launching both a 4.7-inch iPhone and a 5.5-inch iPhone Plus. Similar to Google, Apple didn’t even grace their iPad Mini with a proper update this year.

So, apparently, people love big phones, but the reasoning behind this trend (fad? niche market?) doesn’t really hold up under scrutiny. Let’s take a look at some oft-cited advantages of behemoth phones and dissect them one by one:

Better battery life

Theoretically, phablets should have amazing battery life. But the truth is, despite sporting enormous batteries, phablets only last marginally longer on a single charge. Phablets have to push all those pixels to a massive high-res display, effectively negating any advantage. With low to moderate use, you could probably eke out two days use. But regardless, what’s easier - habitually plugging in your phone every night or having to remember to charge it every second night?

Easier to type on

Sure, phablets are easier to type on, I’ll give you that….in portrait mode that is. But smaller phones can also increase that keyboard real estate easily enough - just type in landscape mode.

A bigger viewfinder for taking pictures

Really? If you’re a senior citizen with poor eyesight, then maybe lugging around a phablet will work for you. But then again, most people have had no problem framing their pictures on the two-inch screen you get on point-and-shoots until now. And I’ve never heard anyone wishing they could haul around a bigger camera on vacation.

Better for media consumption

You’ll have no argument from me - phablets are better than small phones for gaming, surfing the web, and watching videos on the go. So, since most people have unlimited LTE data, phablets rule, right? Er, no. Your typical $80 plan in Canada will get you around 500 MB of data. I’ve seen plans that offer 25 MB of data, which means you’d pay overage fees just for turning on your phone. So, no Netflix binging on the bus for most people. Even a Youtube video would be pushing it. You can, of course, just connect to WiFi at home. Great! But you’re sitting on the couch at home. And the only thing better than a phablet for media consumption at home is…a tablet. Which brings us to the final point.

Device consolidation - can replace your tablet

If you’re looking to save some money, then sure - sell your computer, sell your tablet, and just use your phone to connect to the internet. But don’t argue for one second that the user experience for watching videos, reading, gaming and productivity is better on a phablet than on a full-sized tablet. Because it just isn’t. Especially when you have tablets like the iPad Air 2 that are freakishly thin and light.

Ultimately, it all comes down to preference, no matter which side you’re on. Bigger is simply better for some people. Some people. But they are in the minority. The latest numbers from Apple show that the 4.7-inch iPhone is outselling the phablet iPhone by three to one.

So, given the small market, why are the major mobile players pushing phablets on us with such enthusiasm?

Well, call me cynical, but I think they’re trying to jumpstart the wearables market. Both Google and Apple are touting their new smartwatches as a way to leave the mothership phone in your bag while you handle notifications on a smaller satellite device. You know the guy who straps his phone to his arm when going for a jog? Why would he strap on that monolithic slab when he could sport a svelte fitness-tracking marvel of a smartwatch? That fashion-conscious woman? Why would she take that hulking phone out of her handbag when she could show off her new sold gold Apple watch to the world instead. It makes sense.

When the wearable honeymoon is over, it probably won’t be as disruptive as people think. When that happens, I hope the pendulum will swing the other way and that 2015 will be the year where smaller is better once again.

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