Of phablets, Pop Tarts and sweet spots

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What is up with phablets? Everywhere I look I see folks with big-ass phones these days. Phones the size of Pop Tarts, or single-serving styrofoam trays. Phones that make other phones want to buy red sports cars and get trophy phones to make up for a lack of diagonal screen dimension.

First off, phablet? Let's start with a definition. Phablet is an awkward contraction of phone and tablet. Most tech folks say large smartphones or phablets have a screen that's 5.5 inches on the diagonal or bigger. The poster child for phablets is the Galaxy Note, which weighs in at 5.7 inches. When the Note first appeared, it was mocked because you'd look like you were taking calls by putting a box of chocolates on your face. But it wasn't a phone. A phablet isn't so much a phone as a small tablet, the baby brother to a Nexus 7 or an iPad Mini. But, it has all the cellular connectivity of a smartphone. That means it has an almost-always-on connection to the web. In developing markets like Brazil, Russia, India and China, shipments of over 5 inch phones rose 389 per cent from 2013 to 2014.

A report from Opera Mediaworks suggests that phablets, wherever they're purchased, are heavily used around town for map checking, emailing, texting and social media check-in. Then, when users get home, they're opting for a phablet over a tablet for social media couch surfing.

And a recent survey of U.K. mobile device users by Ofcom indicates that 47 per cent of the respondents aged 16-24 would rather give up their computer, laptop, tablet, radio or print publications before they'd let anyone tear their smartphone away from them.

So, why are phablets so hot now? I think it's just taken a few years for the virtuous circle of consumer needs, industrial design and innovation to spiral in on the right size for a mobile computer. The first smartphones were the size they were because big, hi-res screens were expensive. And, they were aping small devices called mobile phones. But, as anyone who uses a smartphone knows, the phone is the least interesting part of a smartphone.

Few people with phablets use the device much as a phone. They're texting or Snapchatting or Instagramming instead. And, sometimes emailing. Users were finding that a sub-five-inch screen wasn't ideal for typing on a virtual keyboard, which is what you do when you have a pocket computer, not a portable phone, in your hand.

Now, even Apple, which has resisted the trend to phablets, is rumoured to be getting on board. We should see an Apple phablet sometime this year.

So, despite the goofy name, phablets may wind up being the ideal mobile computer for a generation that talks with their thumbs.

It's fascinating to me that it's taken a half decade for the smartphone to circle and land on an ideal size. But, as science fiction author William Gibson once wrote in 1982, "the street finds its own uses for things." And, the street also finds the right size for the things it needs.

Listen to an audio version of this column, read by the author, below.

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for rabble.ca on technology and the Internet.

Photo: SamsungTomorrow/flickr

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