Bonnie Cha

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Phablets the New Hotness in Mobile Devices? Not So Fast.

It looks like something that belongs in a “Saturday Night Live” skit. A phone the size of steno notebook that you can barely wrap your hand around (unless you’re a basketball player) and looks ridiculous when used to make calls or jammed into a pants pocket.

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I’m talking about phablets, of course — the smartphone-tablet hybrids featuring screens five inches or larger. The big displays make them great for viewing videos, Web sites and documents, but it comes at the price of comfort and ergonomics.

Yet, they’re making a big splash at International CES.

On Monday, Huawei introduced the “world’s largest touchscreen smartphone,” the Mate, an Android Jelly Bean device with a 6.1-inch touchscreen. ZTE debuted the Grands S, the “world’s thinnest” smartphone with a 5-inch display. Meanwhile, Sony offered up the Xperia Z with a five-inch full-HD screen. And the list is only expected to grow as the year goes on.

The emerging category largely began when Samsung released its Galaxy Note smartphone and, more recently, the Galaxy Note II. The latter has a 5.5-inch, 1,280 by 720-pixel touchscreen, an integrated stylus and features like multi-window support that takes advantage of the large display. But it’s also 5.95 inches tall by 3.17 inches wide. For comparison, the iPhone 5 measures 4.87 inches tall by 2.31 inches wide.

“People have a preconception that it’s too big,” said Younghee Lee, executive vice president of Samsung’s mobile communications sales and marketing team. “People were making fun of it, but as multimedia, ebooks, Web browsing on phones become more popular, a bigger screen is a natural evolution.”

Clearly, there is some demand for that. Samsung said it sold more than 5 million Galaxy Note II’s worldwide in the first two months after it was released. Of course, such numbers raised the eyebrows of competitors. LG followed suit with the poorly executed Intuition, and now we have all these newcomers.

It’s gotten to the point where some are going so far as to call 2013 the year of the phablet. Barclays predicts that the market for these devices will quadruple in value to $135 billion in three years. ABI Research estimates that more than 208 million phablets will ship worldwide in 2015.

“We definitely see the phablet growing significantly over the coming years,” said Joshua Flood, senior analyst at ABI Research. “More and more consumers wish to engage in activities other than calling or texting on the smartphones. A big driver for phablets is watching videos, Internet browsing and video calling on their mobile device.”

Sony Experia Z

But before we go claiming phablets as the next big thing, it’s important to ask the question: For whom?

For device manufacturers? Sure. But for consumers? Not so much.

“We certainly see more vendors going after it, but I still believe the opportunity is small because of the compromise the device delivers. It’s too big for a phone, too small for a tablet,” said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at Gartner.

Ross Rubin, principal analyst at Reticle Research, added, “Companies can continue to push the boundaries. But at some point with today’s display technology, there’s going to be a point of diminishing return in terms of the size of the device and there continues to be a challenge to manage ergonomics. That’s not to say we won’t see more phones in the upper five- or six-inch range, but clearly at some point, you’re no longer designing for one-handed operation.”

And that’s the thing to remember. As much as there is demand for consuming more multimedia content on mobile phones, the importance of design and usability cannot be overlooked. I’d love to consolidate my smartphone and tablet into a single gadget, but I’m not willing do so at the expense of design.

I don’t doubt that phablets will appeal to a certain segment of consumers, and I do believe they’re here to stay. But as far as mass consumption and this being the year of the phablet? Well, call me skeptical.

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