Is There a Case for an iPhone Phablet?

November 22nd, 2013

Let me put my cards on the table first. I absolutely hate the term “phablet,” something that describes a swollen smartphone with a display that’s exceeds five inches, which appears to also function as a tiny tablet. However, the tech media has decided that the term is appropriate, so I’ll give them their due.

Certainly, there are loads of products that fill that space. Many of them, from Samsung and other companies, were no doubt designed with the philosophy that if you throw a bunch of darts in the air, some will find their target. So you have every conceivable size of smartphone and then some. No matter what size you prefer, there’s probably something to fill that need, although display size is just one spec among many.

Now it’s fair to say that I doubt that people petitioned Samsung and other companies asking them to make phablets. At the same time, folks who regard the smaller smartphones as offering insufficient screen real estate no doubt appreciate the larger sizes, even if there are notable tradeoffs. So, the logic goes, Apple is missing out on hundreds of millions of potential iPhone sales by not releasing them in more sizes.

Apple’s argument with the 4-inch iPhone 5 series is that it’s larger than the original iPhone, but still not so large as to inhibit one-handed operation. Sure, that size may be a bit much for people who have small hands, but the 5-inch Samsung Galaxy S4 and similar handsets are even less convenient. They are also tight fits in your wallet, and aren’t always suited to a small purse. But, as I said, people buy them nonetheless, and they seem satisfied. Reviewers like them too, but I wasn’t enamored of the Galaxy S4 as you readers know. The larger screen was nice and all, but there were too many shortcomings.

Samsung’s fatal flaw is choosing an AMOLED display, at least when it comes to the present state of the art perhaps. Now a related technology, OLED, is used for some really expensive smart TV sets, and they are well rated for picture quality assuming you can afford upwards of $9,000 for one. On the Samsung, the 5-inch display delivers a sharp, bright picture, but it totally washes out in sunlight. Sure, an iPhone dims noticeably, but still manages to be readable.

Aside from that very serious shortcoming, which has been overlooked by some tech reviewers as if it’s not important, the larger display will require more juice to power, meaning you need a larger battery or you have to put up with shorter battery life. There’s also the question of fragmentation. Aside from the fact that most Android smartphones and tablets cannot be updated to the latest and greatest OS, developers have to allow for loads of different display sizes, resolutions and aspect ratios. All told, there have to be compromises, which means that apps may not appear in the best light on some models.

For iOS, Apple has limited display configurations. There are two existing form factors for the iPhone and two for the iPad, which is with or without Retina displays. Even though the iPad mini is smaller than the iPad Air, the screen resolution is identical. The iPad 2 and the original iPad mini also share screen resolutions. So it’s either standard definition or high definition roughly speaking. Again, developers have an easier task to optimize their apps for best performance, and the most consistent look and feel.

So if Apple adds one or two larger iPhones, they would probably work out screen resolutions that were proportional to the existing iPhones. Perhaps twice as many pixels would be used for the rumored 4.9-inch model, assuming one ever appears. Rumors of an iPad Pro, at 12.9-inches or thereabouts, focus on yet a higher resolution, or just providing the same setup as the 9.7-inch model. The assumption might be that the reduced number of pixels per inch would be compensated for by the fact that you don’t hold it as close to your eyes.

At the end of the day, Apple CEO Tim Cook hasn’t denied that Apple is considering a larger iPhone. He talked of tradeoffs in quality and longevity, but that merely means that Apple would simply announce the problems have been resolved, and here’s their solution.

The latest rumors do make it seem as if the larger iPhone is indeed coming, perhaps by the fall of 2014. Again, it’s fair to assume that all sorts of iPhone and iPad configurations have been delivered in prototype form. It almost seems as if a company like Samsung will just release nearly everything that makes it to the prototype stage. Apple, however, will be far more circumspect about which products get the green light.

Besides, if an iPhone Maxi, or whatever it’s called, does see the light of day, perhaps it will be just another entrant in the lineup. It won’t replace the 4-inch iPhone 5 series, although 2014 will see the end of the 3.5-inch form factor, which presently survives in the iPhone 4S.

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One Response to “Is There a Case for an iPhone Phablet?”

  1. David says:

    Apple will not stop making a small, thin iPhone. It’s one of the best selling products in the world at any price point.

    The question therefore is whether there is a net gain from releasing the iPhone in two different sizes. Listing the pros and cons is relatively easy, but determining the impact of a larger iPhone on the bottom line is nearly impossible for anyone outside Apple and difficult for those within the infinite loop.

    Opportunity to capture customers who insist on a large display
    Large phones are selling very well in Asia
    Apple seen as offering greater choice and listening to customers

    Significantly increased development costs
    Increased marketing costs
    Increased work for iPhone developers
    Cannibalization of 4″ iPhone and iPad mini sales

    Developers are used to having to support two slightly different layouts: 640×960 & 640×1136, and deal with both retina and non-retina graphics. When the iPhone 6 launches every new iPhone will be the same resolution, something that hasn’t been true since June 2010. That makes it the perfect time to introduce a 5″ iPhone sporting an 800×1422 display (or a completely new LCD material that isn’t 326dpi).

    Apple has always said it’s better to cannibalize yourself than let a competitor do it.

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