Does Apple really need an iPhone phablet?


We’re just a few hours away from Apple’s big event, where the company will almost surely announce the iPhone 5S and probably the iPhone 5C. Following these, we expect to see the company follow-up with another announcement before the year’s out, revealing both a new iPad and an updated iPad mini. Compared to the very early days of the iOS lineup, Apple’s selection of offerings is well on its way to maturity, hitting new sizes and price points along the way.

As we look forward to the release of those four models, I’m wondering about some rumors that sprung back up earlier this month about another iPhone handset, and this one measuring well into phablet territory. Based on the dimensions being talked about, pushing up towards the six-inch range, this may be an entirely different device from the iPhone Math/+ that was being buzzed-about towards the start of the year, as that was said to only have a 4.8-inch screen.

From the sound of these newer reports, Apple may still be feeling-out the best size for a phablet, and if we ever do see the company release such a model, it might end up splitting the difference, coming in more towards a 5.5-inch model. Whether it’s 5.3, 5.5, or even 6 inches, I can’t get over the notion that this device isn’t one there’s a particularly solid demand for, I’m worried about technical issues its development may pose, and I’m not sure an ever-expanding Apple device lineup is in the company’s best interest.

For years now, Apple’s been training its user base to expect iPhones to be small. Or at least, ever since those early models Apple’s refused to align itself with the rest of the industry in pushing device sizes larger and larger.

The iPhone 5 bucked the trend to an extent, and inched that display up ever so slightly, but that was far from an admission that iOS users wanted devices with displays like those that are so popular in Android-land, up in the 4.7-to-5-inch range. In fact, I could even see an argument that the iPhone 5’s display was less about simply making it bigger, and more about moving to a more mainstream aspect ratio.

note-iii-renderMy point is that Apple has been consistently delivering the iPhone experience on these little screens, in little devices that fit anywhere. By contrast, it’s Android OEMs who have been putting out hardware in all sizes under the sun, and you don’t have to look too hard before you start running into devices rightfully described as “ungainly.”

Now, a lot of you who visit our site are pretty open-minded when it comes to smartphones, have owned devices from plenty of manufacturers, and maybe even experimented with multiple platforms. I bet a lot of you would jump at the chance to buy an iPhone phablet. But when it comes to your average iPhone user, I would not be surprised if “large” phones, even those like the Galaxy Note 3 that have managed to hold back the reigns and keep their dimensions relatively in check, are viewed with disdain for being inelegant. They’re the “other,” and in the iOS world, stuff like this has been for years. Changing that perception could be much more difficult than Apple realizes.

Then there are those technical issues I mentioned. Say we do have a six-inch iPhone. What would its display be like? The most straightforward option might to be to scale-up the iPhone 5’s display – same aspect ratio, same resolution. Problem is, I can’t see Apple doing that, as a screen with a 217ppi density is only going to make it harder to sell the phone as a quality product. Granted, that didn’t stop Apple from giving the iPad mini an even lower density panel, but then there’s the whole issue of how you use a tablet versus a phablet, holding distance and all, to consider. And to be fair, there was also a good amount of backlash in that case.

ipadmini-mainYou could scale down the iPad mini, releasing a six-inch iPhablet with a 4:3 1024 x 768 display, which would save developers a lot of headaches, but isn’t much of a better solution. Ultimately, Apple would almost certainly have to introduce support for a new resolution, which means lots of developers needing to create new resources for their apps, at least if they want to keep their apps looking sharp.

Apple’s never been a company to celebrate giving its users a huge variety of hardware options. It’s not so much a take-it-or-leave-it mentality, so much as “we know what you want, maybe even better than you do.” Maybe when the time comes, and Apple says “you like phablets now,” its users will respond favorably, but I’m skeptical. These devices are already part of a niche market, and the overlap between phablet fans and iOS fans may not be large enough to warrant development.

And you know, maybe that’s why we’re hearing about all these sizes, and Apple playing around to find what – if anything – works. I’ve just got a feeling that Apple’s going to come away from this experiment deciding that the phablet space is better left to other OEMs.

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About The Author
Stephen Schenck
Stephen has been writing about electronics since 2008, which only serves to frustrate him that he waited so long to combine his love of gadgets and his degree in writing. In his spare time, he collects console and arcade game hardware, is a motorcycle enthusiast, and enjoys trapping blue crabs. Stephen's first mobile device was a 624 MHz Dell Axim X30, which he's convinced is still a viable platform. Stephen longs for a market where phones are sold independently of service, and bandwidth is cheap and plentiful; he's not holding his breath. In the meantime, he devours smartphone news and tries to sort out the juicy bits Read more about Stephen Schenck!