How HTC Could Make a Worthy Galaxy Note Competitor

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HTC has been busy.

The company, working hard to get its groove back and compete with supersized rival Samsung, is pressing forward on several fronts. It’s working on an upgrade to its flagship One line with something we’ve been calling the One X+, it’s prepping a device code-named “DIX” for Verizon Wireless, and it’s investing in the Windows Phone ecosystem like never before with its phalanx of “Signature Edition” WP8 Devices.

One thing HTC is missing, though, is any presence whatsoever in the tablet space since the abortive Flyer. And that includes anything in the sub-tablet category. Yes, we’re talking phablets, those category-blending middle-ground straddlers Samsung took a chance on with its original Galaxy Note, and which paid off for the company in a big way. The Galaxy Note’s success has recently sprouted a successor in the Galaxy Note II, and it’s also prompted the release of competing products from other manufacturers, like LG’s Optimus Vu and its recently unveiled sequel.

If HTC wants to compete in this niche space, it’s going to need to unleash a phablet of its own. Sure, the One X is large enough for most, with its gorgeous 4.7-inch display. But that’s a smartphone, not a crossover.

Phablets: the only category absurd enough to call a 4.7-inch device too small.

If HTC is indeed serious about a 5-inch-and-larger offering, it needs to do something different. Samsung didn’t just blow up a Galaxy S II‘s dimensions and call it a new device; it incorporated improvements that were both unique and useful (even if it took a while for some of us to acknowledge that fact). The integration of a Wacom-sourced pressure-sensitive element into the Note’s display -and an even more-sensitive variant on the newer Note II- allowed Samsung to corner the market on specialized phablet display technology. When it augmented the hardware with software built to take advantage of the S Pen’s input, Samsung created a product for a pen-based market everyone else thought was dead. And in doing so, it cemented its position as the leader of that niche category.

So at this juncture, HTC isn’t going to do better than Samsung at the whole “stylus thing.” The company can incorporate a pointing device into its phablet if it wants, but it’s going to need a lot more than that to differentiate itself effectively. In a comment on the DIX article referenced above, reader “ausnote” lays out a list of requirements needed to consider an oversized HTC device over a Galaxy Note II:

In my opinion, that’s a pretty straightforward and accurate rundown of some of the top features HTC needs to focus on if it brings a Galaxy Note competitor to the market. While I don’t think it’s always necessary to out-do every feature boasted by the competition, small bumps sometimes do make a big difference, if only for spec-sheet attention-grabbing. So the 5.6″ screen is probably a good idea, and with the release of the quad-core Snapdragon family, that kind of processing power is pretty much a requirement at this point, especially for the graphically-intensive operations that phablets are often marketed as excelling at.

I’ve already touched on my feelings regarding removable batteries and removable memory, so I want to skip ahead to what I think is also crucial for a competing phablet from HTC: build quality.

We won’t know for sure until our official review goes up, but it’s pretty safe to say, given our hands-on time with the device at IFA, the Galaxy Note II is probably going to be a hit. We also already know something else about the device, though: it feels like the Galaxy S III in the hand, because it’s built of almost exactly the same material. That is to say, it feels decidedly less than premium, as I went into at length in my Sprint Galaxy S III review. Sure, it’s nice and light, especially for its size, and that hyperglaze coating definitely looks great in photos, but the device doesn’t feel durable, or substantial in any significant way. In fact, considering its abilities and its positioning, it feels a little cheap.

Contrast that with the HTC One series: the polycarbonate body of the One X, with its rugged, matte, space-age feel, and the ceramic finish on the One S, feel enormously more advanced. HTC knows a thing or two about building quality devices with a premium feel, and this is an area it could really bring its guns to bear on Samsung; for all its prowess, the latter company could learn a thing or two about making hardware that feels solid.

On the software side, though, Samsung has HTC beat, and not just insofar as stylus support is concerned. The new versions of Samsung’s TouchWiz UI layer for Android may lack the visual polish of HTC’s own Sense skin, but as I pointed out quite some time ago in an edition of the Brutally Honest Question Corner, TouchWiz often runs better. Today, there’s much less lag and slightly more utility in TouchWiz than Sense, and that’s a deficiency HTC will have to correct before going head to head with Samsung in the phablet space.

Of course, there’s always the possibility that HTC could burst into the crossover-phone-and-tablet scene with something more than just a marginal improvement; something that really surprises us. Frankly, I’ve recently wondered what a phablet running Windows Phone 8 might look like. If HTC’s recent moves relating to Microsoft are any indication, maybe such a bold move isn’t quite as unlikely as it once was. It would certainly stand a solid chance of advancing both HTC and Windows Phone, if done correctly.

Even if it’s not such an earth-shattering move as a platform shift, though, whatever HTC decides to bring to the phablet space needs to be big. This is a sector of the landscape begging to be tamed; it’s got a reigning ruler dominating everyone else called the Galaxy Note family, and the aforementioned oddball Optimus Vu devices aren’t going to be the ones to unseat it. The opportunity exists for another company to roll up and try its hand at stealing the phablet crown, and HTC has the perfect combination of scale, hunger, and tenacity to do it. But they’d better move quickly, lest other ambitious and nimble companies beat them to the punch.

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Title image via Soft-Gets

Galaxy Note II image via Engadget

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About The Author
Michael Fisher
Michael Fisher has followed the world of mobile technology for over ten years as hobbyist, retailer, and reviewer. A lengthy stint as a Sprint Nextel employee and a long-time devotion to webOS have cemented his love for the underdog platforms of the world. In addition to serving as Pocketnow's Reviews Editor, Michael is a stage, screen, and voice actor, as well as co-founder of a profitable YouTube-based business. He lives in Boston, MA.Read more about Michael Fisher!