If 2011 was supposed to be the “year of the tablet,” with over 100 new models announced at that year’s CES alone, 2012 may be shaping up to be the year of the “phablet,” the phone-tablet hybrid whose widespread usefulness has yet to be proven. While the survivors of the first battles of the tablet war have upgraded their normal-sized offerings, the novelty-generating buzz seems to be emanating from elsewhere. The spotlight currently sits on smaller devices like the Samsung Galaxy Note and LG Optimus Vu, and to a lesser extent, on rumors of devices with larger-than-10″ screens. I’m not sure there’s enough data yet to effectively gauge the marketability of either super-small or oversized tablets, but that hasn’t stopped manufacturers from dipping their toes into unexplored waters in their effort to differentiate themselves in an increasingly-crowded market. Will the next shots in the tablet war be fired by larger or smaller devices, and will they hit their mark? Let’s chat.

Big, Small, Medium

One thing’s pretty clear thus far: barring some outliers like the 12.1″ Eee Slate EP121 from Asus, 10 inches is the upper limit for consumer-level tablets, and that doesn’t look likely to change in a big way. Apple set that mark (9.7″ to be specific) when the first iPad launched the tablet era, and manufacturers don’t seem to be willing to risk going bigger. Rumors of a Samsung-built 11.6″ monster that would feature a Retina-like display resolution have as yet gone unfulfilled. OEMs have instead looked to the space between smartphone and tablet sizes, opting to fill in the gaps with 7- and 8-inch devices whose increased portability serves as a selling point for some.

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Move your gaze even further down the size scale, though, and things start to get a little more blurry- and a lot more exciting. In the land of the smartphone, there have been no blushes whatsoever about exploiting the consumer preoccupation with size. HTC threw down the gauntlet in November 2009 with the HD2, the first widely-available 4.3″ smartphone, and since then we’ve watched the average display size on these devices rise quite quickly. As recently as last spring, the 4.5″ display on the Samsung Infuse seemed absurdly large, but since then the Galaxy Nexus and HTC Titan have brought us steadily upward to 4.65 and 4.7 inches, respectively. Sure, Dell beat everyone to the punch in 2009 with the then-ridiculous Streak 5, but it was never marketed properly and failed to gain much traction. It wasn’t until Samsung essentially said “screw big, we’re going MONSTROUS” and slapped a 5.3″ display on the Galaxy Note that the nascent “phablet” category was propelled into the public consciousness for the first time.

One of the nice things about the creation of the tablet category is that it has helped to validate the existence of the superphone. Unlike the who-can-be-thinnest race that the MOTORAZR engendered in the mid-2000s, the fight for the biggest display has no real upper limit. Make a phone too thin and it becomes unusably fragile or hopelessly uncomfortable. Make its display too big, and you just push it into a different category of device.

That’s the state of the tablet industry today: a hard limit around the 10″ mark, and an accelerating wave of new entrants in the 5-to-7-inch space, where the line between phone and tablet isn’t always clear. Because it’s such an untraveled, bumpy neutral zone between categories, none of the entrants are spectacular. That said, let’s take a look at the okay, the not-great, and the unknown in this odd subcategory.

The Okay: Samsung Galaxy Note 5

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Manufacturers in the mobile industry have a habit of “drawing inspiration” from the designs of others, and Samsung is no exception to this trend. Most recently, this habit has landed them in hot water with Apple, but they’ve been doing it at least as far back as 2005, when their SPH-A900 “Blade” bore close resemblance to a Motorola device with a similarly “sharp-sounding” name. Of course, everyone was doing something similar at the time (Sanyo followed up next year with an even-more-RAZR-like phone shamelessly dubbed the “Katana”), but Samsung tends to be a rather egregious repeat offender.

It’s refreshing, then, to see a product from Samsung that does more than simply ape another popular device. The Galaxy Note sticks to the rather uninspired slate form factor, but explodes the dimensions to an almost comical degree. The Note is a massive device by any measure (5.7″ by 3.2″) and using it as a phone creates an image just shy of absurd. This is less a problem, though, in an era where voice calling has slipped in popularity to such a degree that it’s almost considered passé.

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Of course, the real story about the Note (and what gives the device family its name) is Samsung’s ballsy decision to reinstate the venerable stylus as an input device. While HTC might have beat them to the punch with the stylus-enabled Flyer, the Note kicks it up a notch with a Wacom digitizer that responds more accurately to touch input from the battery-less “S-pen” stylus.

In a landscape dominated by capacitive screens, where poking at a smartphone display with a plastic stick evokes images of antiquated Palm Pilots, reintroducing the stylus is a bold move, worthy of praise just for its audacity. Samsung was careful to give it added features, though, with 256 levels of pressure sensitivity and some custom software that allows scribbling on screenshots and the like. The obvious needs to be said, of course: for most people, this is a solution in search of a problem. Samsung wasn’t responding to a massive outcry from users foaming at the mouth for their chance to take notes on a mini-tablet. They were adding differentiation to a product that needed more than “it’s big” to sell.

What’s nice about being a pioneer in a new product category, though, is you don’t have to blow everyone away, as long as you get there first. Consumers WANT to be wowed. Early-adopters want the new thing, sometimes regardless of its relative lack of usefulness, as long as the implementation is reasonably good. And I think the reviews bear that out. It’s a device that’s neither lauded nor condemned, just ogled like a reasonably-attractive Amazon juggler at a community picnic; It’s big and can do things others can’t. In the emerging “phablet” world, for the moment at least, that’s enough to be crowned the Chief of the Weirdos.

The Not-Great: LG Optimus Vu

Let me say at the outset that the “not-great” declaration is premature. This is a just-announced device that won’t see wide release until later in the year, so my impressions are only as good as the MWC floor demos and press releases I’ve seen.

That said, it doesn’t look good.

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The starting headline for this editorial was “When Is A Tablet Too Small or Too Big?” and I think the Optimus Vu demonstrates that, as countless men will be happy to remind you, it’s not always about size. We’ve seen larger tablets, like the Motorola XOOM, that feel awkward in portrait orientation because of their 16:9 aspect ratios, and the Vu seems to demonstrate the opposite scenario: a 4:3 aspect ratio on a 5-inch display delivers a device that’s squat, square, and … well, let’s just say it: it’s a large plastic Wheat Thin.

The “thin” part of that appellation shouldn’t be discounted; 8.5mm thick is certainly an achievement, and should definitely help save space in the pockets of those who opt to carry this device. And the 4:3 aspect ratio has its benefits; you can see plenty of the internet while browsing on a 5-inch display of that shape.

Also, some commenters have suggested that the aspect ratio combined with the screen size make the Vu an ideal device for note-taking, creating artwork, and the like. But that kind of usage demands a screen capable of pressure sensitivity paired with a precise stylus, neither of which you’ll find here. The Vu doesn’t feature a dockable stylus, and those that can be used with its display are the capacitive type; there’s no pressure-sensitive digitizer here, Wacom or no. The few innovative features, like a button atop the Vu to jump immediately into drawing mode, are already present in similar form on other devices, like the double- and long-tap actions available with the Galaxy Note’s stylus.

What we seem to be seeing with the Optimus Vu is LG’s attempt to replicate Samsung’s relative success with the Galaxy Note, but without any of the features necessary to achieve such success. The Vu seems to rely solely on its odd form factor, and the lack of many other compelling devices in its size range, for the buzz it’s temporarily creating. As with any device that screams “buy me because I’m different!” without a compelling suite of features to back it up, the Optimus Vu is bound to be an also-ran in this space.

The Maybe: Panasonic Eluga Power

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Panasonic may have decided to bail on the ultra-competitive North American market, but that doesn’t mean it’s given up on its pursuits elsewhere. Enter the Eluga Power, a 5-inch device with a svelte profile, sporting respectable specs and Android 4.0. There’s none of the trendy stylus-toting note-taking business discussed above, which has so far relegated this device to the sidelines. If that were the whole story, this would be a milquetoast effort at best, but the Eluga Power does feature some uncommon capabilities.

Panasonic’s Toshiya Matsumura describes these standout features in the product announcement: “In developing the ELUGA power … we’ve managed to deliver the convenience of a 5-inch HD screen and superfast charging, make it water and dustproof, as well as add impressive features like NFC and a 1.5GHz processor. All in a slim, pocket-friendly and stylish smartphone.”

The Eluga’s 1800-mAh battery would seem to place it firmly in the “smartphone” category (as Matsumura’s quote also suggests), but the ability to charge it to 50% within 30 minutes is a standout differentiator that deserves mentioning. While also a feature of the Sony Xperia S, fast-charging technology is still a rarity. Also noteworthy is the IP57 dust- and water-proofing, absent in so many devices even as more and more of them are used in harsh or adverse conditions.

They may not be as trendy or as flashy as creating email signatures in six colors with a stylus, but these unique value-adds give customers of many types incentive to buy 5-inch hybrids of this type. Panasonic, and other OEMs bringing unusual, useful features to this subset of the market should be watched closely as it continues to mature.

Until the Giants Arrive, Keep an Eye on the Small Fries

While there’s no doubt that massive mega-tablets larger than 10 inches are coming at some point, the rumblings of the 11.6″ Samsung beast have subsided for now. Thanks to recent entrants like the Kindle Fire, consumer attention has been drawn to smaller tablets, and as more and more devices like the Galaxy Note and Optimus Vu jostle for position in the space between tablets and smartphones, consumer attention will continue to focus on “phablets.” Whether it’s a lasting trend, or a fad that will fizzle in a flurry of expiring two-year contracts, remains to be seen. Only one thing’s for certain: 2012 will keep bringing us gadgets that prompt passersby to shout, “that’s a huge phone!” or “that’s a tiny tablet!” The only question is whether the shout interrupts us doing something useful, or just messing around doodling on screenshots. We can only wait to find out.

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