Phablets vs Tablets

All two long-time readers of Sandor at the Zoo know that the “small” size tablets (7 or 8″) are the better form factor than the “large” (10″) ones.  A follow-up question is, what about “Phablets,” ultra-large 5 or 6 inch phones?  Do they in turn eat the use case for small tablets, and thus destroy the case for tablets in general (or, perhaps, preserve a slim niche for large tablets in the case where large tablets make sense)?

This is a debate raging across a number of fora right now:  Hacker News is discussing it here, based on Zal Bilimoria’s discussion of his experience with building the NetFlix tablet app.  John Gruber is apparently talking about it (as in, a podcast) here, though I haven’t listened to it, and Matthew Yglesias defends the position that non-tech-nerds don’t want to buy three devices, so they want phablets.

It has certainly been the case that phablets have been unexpectedly popular in the face of strong skepticism from the techie community.  I think techies are predisposed to dislike phablets on a few grounds:

  1. They feel inelegant.  Just adding inches to a screen is something that smacks of the brute force solutions we’ve been trained our whole lives to avoid.
  2. There are noticeable technical costs to supporting 4″ phones, 5″ phones, 6″ phones, etc.  It’s pleasant as a developer to know that people’s screens are roughly such-and-such a size.
  3. Apple has been super-resistant to larger screen sizes, and they’re an opinion leader for the techie community.

I’ve never had a terribly large phone — my smartphone is on the small side for an Android phone.  But everyone I’ve known with a phablet has loved it, and I do love my Nexus 7.  That said, I can’t fully endorse Yglesias’ logic that normal folks don’t want to buy three devices.  I’ll agree that techies are willing in general to spend more on their devices, and that the whole array of desktop (or external keyboard, monitor, pointing devices and powerful laptop) plus laptop plus tablet plus smartphone is a silly thing to imagine everyone will get.  But if we’re talking about reducing the total cost of ownership for the average consumer, we should be in fact looking at total cost, not number of devices.

The fact of the matter is that a Nexus 5 plus a Nexus 7 costs about as much as an iPhone 5s (all of them unlocked).  That may be obscured to casual buyers, who will probably get the 5s on contract, but I think there is increasing awareness that subsidized phones still cost you, and even if you’re paying $200 for an on-contract iPhone5s, you could be getting a free lower-end Android smartphone plus a Nexus 7 for about $230.

People think about Apple’s tablet prices, $400+++, but there are sub $100 Android tablets now (albeit pretty compromised ones), and $200 in Android for a 7″ tablet gets you a nice device.  So I don’t think we see the end of tablets if regular folks are cost-sensitive.

Regular folks might be complexity sensitive, and not want to deal with three devices (phone, tablet, computer).  But that’s a different argument, and I’ve never seen a lot of evidence for it.  People really like their small tablets — they get used a lot in ways that big tablets don’t.  (Big tablets tend to languish on end tables).  And they honestly aren’t hard to manage — you just plug them in at night.

So I think we’re back to usability, not price or complexity.  Does a phablet actually supplant a small tablet?  Do you miss the extra 1-2″ of screen size when you’ve got a phablet?  My guess is that most people don’t.  Phablets get you most of the way to the usability of a 7″ tablet, and they’re more pocketable and portable.  But at $200, I think that the number of people who are willing to sink the cost for essentially a higher-end reader and web-browser is large enough to sustain a second-class tablet market.

Thus, my vision for the future is:  Phones generally in the 5-6″ range, cheap 7″ tablets, and then computers for work and composition.  The competing view of the future is “ten inch tablets eat laptops,” but I’ve never bought it before and don’t buy it now.  Laptops that swing all the way open into a pseudo-tablet I can buy.


One thought on “Phablets vs Tablets

  1. Pingback: Google Bets Phablet | Sandor at the Zoo

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