With their size being somewhere between the smallest tablets and the biggest smartphones, so-called “phablets” have found their way to many purchasers. These mobile devices typically have screens with a diagonal greater than 5 and smaller than 7 inches, providing the functionality of a tablet and a smartphone at the same time.
At first glance, it may seem unnatural to many to use a device with a 5.5-inch display — or even greater — especially for making calls, thus initial attempts of producing such gadgets were not welcomed by the market at first. Then, things changed precisely two years ago, when Samsung premiered its first Galaxy Note at IFA in Berlin. With a 5.3-inch display, this device seemed enormous at the time, meaning unpractical. However, the exceptionally practical S Pen that was delivered with it gave it functionality no other smartphone or tablet has had before, regardless of its size, and the Galaxy Note succeeded astonishingly, selling over 10 million units in just several months.
A year later, Samsung presented the even more successful Galaxy Note II (at IFA again), which had an even bigger diagonal of 5.5 inches. IFA will be held in a few weeks’ time in Berlin and Samsung has already announced its new spectacular premier, at which it will, no doubt, present the Galaxy Note III. Still, this time Samsung’s phablet will arrive on the market with serious competition gathering, surely stimulated by the success of the previous two Note models, surprising everyone (probably including Samsung).
Over the last few months, Samsung’s biggest rivals have revealed phablets, usually using stages and garnering signficant media coverage. Huawei presented the 6.1-inch Ascend Mate at CES, LG revealed its flagship device, the 5.5-inch Optimus G Pro, at MWC in Barcelona, and Asus stole the Computex show with its 6-inch Fonepad Note FHD 6. Meanwhile, riding the success of its own Xperia Z and Xperia Tablet Z, Sony has since hosted an event in London presenting the 6.4-inch Xperia Z Ultra and Samsung has decided to improve its phablet offer with Galaxy Mega models, available with 5.8 and 6.3-inch displays.
There is a whole lot more of phablets, but the mentioned models drew the most attention of potential users over the past few months and those who are already on the market have scored. I had the opportunity of trying all these devices and I’m now bringing you my impressions. The general conclusion is quite clear: phablets are a category of devices which, despite looking “funny”, have plenty of potential that grows by the day. According to their specifications, all phablets can be compared to a higher smartphone and tablet category and quite often match up to flagship models; there are simply no cheaper, entry-level phablets. It is clear that the most demanding users go for phablets.
It is those users who love the fact that they get two devices for the price of one and this has made mobile gadget manufacturers raise the bar pretty high for each other before the upcoming IFA — Samsung above all. The Samsung Galaxy Note III (if it will be named that) will surely be the most powerful mobile device this fall, hardware-wise, but it is equally likely that we will not have to wait long for an similarly impressive response from the competition.
With a 6.1-inch display, the Huawei Ascend Mate is a mid-sized phablet and offers a resolution of 720 x 1280 pixels, resulting in a relatively good pixel density of 241 ppi. It is equipped with the same Huawei quad-core chipset as the current flagship smartphone by the same manufacturer, called the K3V2, running a 1.5 GHz clock. I tested it at CES 2013 first and later in great detail.
The Ascend Mate is slightly heavier than the token phablet, Samsung’s Galaxy Note II, weighing in at 198 grams (compared to 183 grams of the Samsung model), but these two devices are equally thick at 9.5 mm. Another important difference in relation to the Samsung model is that the Huawei tabphone comes with pure Jelly Bean, without any user interface modifications. Of course, the Ascend Mate has no S Pen. It really does seem huge when held in hand and only those with big hands will be able to use it with just one hand. Furthermore, it looks rather odd when pressed against the ear, however, working on its luxurious screen is a real pleasure, just like owning a tablet. In the end, the difference between 6.1 inches and 7 inches (which is the diagonal of many tablets today) is quite small.
The Ascend Mate’s viewing angle is average and the same thing goes for contrast sustainability when used in various situations. Taking its appearance into account and my impressions when held in hand, the Ascend Mate looks like a blown-up version of the Ascend P6 smartphone. However, after using it for some time, it can be sensed that this device has been made several months before the Huawei flagship smartphone. The colors are not as saturated as on the smaller device and its display brightness is something that requires more work.
Just a few days after presenting the Galaxy S4, Samsung revealed two phablets that are reminiscent of its flagship smartphone when it comes to appearance, but are intended for less demanding users when it comes to hardware. I am, of course, referring to the 6.3-inch and 5.8-inch Galaxy Mega models, which have different display resolutions, processors and dimensions. I tested them both with Samsung’s European representatives, and the bigger 6.3-inch model made a better impression.
This bigger and more powerful Galaxy Mega does not really offer many differences compared to Samsung’s 7-inch Galaxy Tabs (the difference in size is almost insignificant) and many will surely see it more as a tablet than a cheaper (and bigger) alternative for the phablet godfather, Samsung’s Galaxy Note II. The Galaxy Mega 6.3 has no S Pen, but it still has the option of making phone calls. However, what is most impressive about it is its elegance and small mass: it is only 8 mm thick and weighs 199 grams, which is an outstanding accomplishment for a device of such size. Thus, despite its size, holding Galaxy Mega 6.3 in hand for a long time is not a problem, even for hours, while the luxury provided by the HD SC-LCD screen will please any purchaser as it offers a pleasant 233 ppi pixel density.
Still, compared to Super AMOLED screens, which Samsung includes in its most powerful smartphones and phablets, the difference in display sustainability, sharpness, brightness, and color saturation is evident. The screen provides quite a lot of comfort while working with it, but those who have tried better models will feel a bit let down. With the speed of a dual-core Snapdragon 400 with Krait cores running a 1.7 GHz clock and Android OS 4..2.2 (Jelly Bean), 1.5 GB of RAM, and a battery of 3200 mAh, the device offers exceptionally good performance and no real objections can be made.
Samsung Galaxy Mega 5.8 is, on the other hand, a much weaker device. It has a smaller screen size, but it’s thicker (9 mm) and just slightly heavier (182 grams). It has a dual-core processor running a 1.5 GHz clock, 1.5 GB of RAM as well, but its screen has ‘just’ 540 x 960 pixels of resolution, resulting in a pixel density of 190 ppi. In practice, these differences, especially those regarding the display, are evident at first glance, making this a phablet for less demanding users.
3. Sony Xperia Z Ultra
I had the opportunity of testing what is convincingly the most beautiful phablet after its premiere last month in London. The 6.4-inch Sony Xperia Z Ultra, a device that is almost identical to the 5-inch smartphone Xperia Z, is exceptionally elegant (it is just 6.5 mm thick) and features impressive artisanship. It weighs only 212 grams despite its front and cover being made out of glass and, just like Sony’s flagship smartphone and tablet models, the company’s phablet is waterproof, which gives it a significant advantage over the competition.
The resolution of the 6.4-inch screen is 1080 x 1920 pixels, resulting in an exceptionally great pixel density of 344 ppi. Imaging on the display is therefore splendidly sharp and individual pixels cannot be recognized by the naked eye, even while looped straight lines are being animated, which is an impressive achievement for such a big screen. Still, I did not care for the contrast. Just like with Xperia Z and Xperia Tablet Z, black tones could be darker and white tones could be brighter, which would make other colors appear more realistic.
Compared to the smartphone and the tablet, the viewing angle of the Xperia Z Ultra is significantly better and contrast sustainability cannot be objected to, such as it is. It is evident that Sony is progressing where display craftsmanship quality is concerned. That said, even though one can sense that the phablet is a newer device than the smartphone and the tablet, there is still room for catching up with the competition.
This is the first Snapdragon 800 device I have had the opportunity of trying in my hand. This chipset comes with four Krait 400 cores running a 2.2 GHz clock with Adreno 330 graphics and 3 GB of RAM with LTE support. As such, the phablet’s features are above average in terms of speed and lag cannot be felt even while performing the most demanding tasks. It would have been great, though, if Sony had managed to include a battery in such a device that had a greater capacity than 2050 mAh.
LG’s best mobile device, the Optimus G Pro, was initially revealed at MWC in Barcelona this year and was presented at special events later on in New York, London, and several other cities, which helped spread interest. And after a few months of being on the market, it seems fair to conclude that this is the most successful phablet on the market behind Samsung’s Galaxy Note II. We wrote a review of this device in great detail, so here is just a brief summary of the Optimus G Pro’s pros and cons.
The biggest deal-makers of this mini-phablet are its exquisite display and great performance. The 5.5-inch Full HD IPS Plus LCD screen with a pixel density of 401 ppi offers unprecedented imaging sharpness, exceptional dynamic range and color vivacity, and imaging sharpness. With 2 GB of RAM, the quad-core Snapdragon 600 offers multitask options that have not yet been implemented on any other mobile device in the world, and the quality of photographs taken by the 13-megapixel back-facing camera are praiseworthy.
What I did not like, however, is its highly unimaginative design, contrast sustainability while being exposed to direct sunlight, and poor video recording quality.
5. Asus Fonepad Note FHD 6
One of the biggest smash hits of this year’s Computex fair was Asus’ phablet, the Fonepad Note FHD 6, which I recently had the opportunity of trying at the Asus headquarters in Hong Kong.
When it comes to its appearance, the Fonepad Note FHD 6 is reminiscent of Samsung’s Galaxy Note II, however, of course, it is significantly bigger with its 6-inch display. It is this dominating screen that can be credited for the good impression Fonepad Note FHD 6 leaves at first glance, given that this is a Super IPS+ LCD display with Full HD resolution, resulting in great pixel density: 367 ppi. Regardless of the viewing angle, the imaging always looked exceptionally sharp with precisely saturated colors and a great level of contrast, though the screen’s brightness was lacking.
The device comes with a stylus (Asus has not made it clear which type it is), however, once again, it is almost identical to the S Pen offered by Samsung with its flagship phablet. Still, the greatest peculiarity of the Asus offering is that it comes with a dual-core Intel Atom Z2560 running a 1.6 GHz clock, securing above average performance, but not economic enough or optimized for Android OS 4.2 as offered by Qualcomm and Samsung’s processors. Due to the usage of the Intel hardware, this phablet does not support LTE, but HSPA+ radio is here as a “compromise”, offering speeds up to 42 Mbps in downlink.
The final impression after trying Asus’ unusual copy of the Galaxy Note II is that this is not a precisely planned product that still offers plenty of room for improvement, even though many will find it interesting and it might still take Asus into the big leagues of mobile devices.