What counts as a “phablet” anymore?

It all started so simply; we’d seen smartphone after smartphone arrive with displays in the three or four-inch ranges, and larger tablets were clearly a different breed of device entirely. But then that middle ground, previously a no-phone’s-land, started to see some activity. Maybe the first model to really get people talking about this form factor was the 5.3-inch first Galaxy Note, but since then we’ve seen dozens more arrive. Those haven’t all been like the Note, which might be best described as a large phone, but have also come as models in the six-inch realm that felt more like small tablets.

Taken all together, this hybrid phone/tablet world needed a name for itself. Just as society cooked up portmanteaus like turducken or sharknado when the occasion called, we squeezed “phone” and “tablet” together to come up with “phablet.”

But in the years that have followed since the Galaxy Note launched, this phablet space has seen the mainstream creep up on its territory; just look at all the flagship Androids with five-inch displays, a size that very well might have been considered “phablet” just a couple years ago.

z-ultra-review-4Now we have new devices on the horizon like the Nokia Lumia 1520, Lumia 929, or even the HTC One Max. Are these all of these phablets, solely by virtue of their sizes? We’ve already seen Nokia pick the minds of its user base, wondering just how they might want to talk about models in this size range, and seemed to be itching for something, anything to call the 1520 other than a phablet.

That has me wondering, is it time to really sit down and think about just what makes a phablet a “phablet?”

I think there are three things we’d want to look at when evaluating that question: the shift in the market towards larger phones in general, the arrival of voice capabilities for devices we might have previously pegged as straight-up tablets, and the way stylus support has yet to catch on as a key feature.

Let’s start with that last one, since I’ve already mentioned the first Galaxy Note. Samsung did two interesting things with that handset, both making it significantly larger than the phones we were used to, and giving the device a stylus. That S Pen has returned in every Note phone since, and later graduated to start appearing in a limited number of Samsung’s tablets.

It would have been so easy if the stylus became the hallmark feature of a phablet, but other manufacturers never came up with their own systems to match the Wacom digitizer Samsung employs, leaving us with the odd capacitive stylus now and then, like on the LG Vu 3. As such, while the presence of a stylus certainly means something (you’d be hard-pressed to argue that a larger-phone-sized handset with a stylus shouldn’t at least be considered for “phablet” designation), it’s hardly a defining accessory.

For a while, we could use “support for voice calls” as an upper phablet cut-off, separating big phablets from full-on tablets. More recently, that’s become complicated by devices that seem to very clearly be tablets yet support such communication, like the ASUS Fonepad or Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0.

Sure, most users probably won’t be using such devices for calls an awful lot, but just having that ability there makes differentiating between small tablets and big phablets wildly more difficult.

Call-on-8-inch-tabletAnd then, there’s been this slow move with regular old no-one’s-calling-them-phablet phones to have larger and larger displays. Look at the Galaxy S series, going from 4.0, to 4.3, to 4.8, and now a 5.0-inch screen. While I wouldn’t be surprised to see Samsung cool that progression and deliver a GS5 without a physically larger display, we’ve definitely pushed the idea of a flagship smartphone right up against the outer border of this phablet zone.

Does that mean that the five-inch space is the new four-inch zone, and that these are just bigger-than-normal phones, but maybe not phone/tablet hybrids? I could easily buy the argument that maybe the idea of a phablet should be constrained to handsets even larger still – up in the six-to-seven-inch range.

Probably more than any other factor, I believe this trend of bigger non-phablet smartphones is forcing us to rethink how we describe such hardware. And clearly, companies like Nokia have been thinking along the same lines.

That said, while the word “phablet” may have lost a bit of its meaning, and the borders of its domain are more nebulous than ever, I really can’t see it going away anytime soon, nor significantly changing its general meaning. The smartphone/tablet spectrum isn’t neatly compartmentalized, and instead we have a gradual progression of options from small to large, and everything in between. Remember – the six-inch space was practically vacant just a year or so ago. In this new world, with more options than ever, convenient descriptions that try to sum up dozens of models from different manufacturers just aren’t always going to cut it.

“Phablet” will continue to name these in-the-middle models that we’re – well – just unsure about how else to describe. It’s a catch-all (or catch-some, at least), and its convenience is bound to outweigh its imprecision.

So just what is a phablet these days? To quote a famous SCOTUS opinion, “I know it when I see it.”

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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!