Samsung On Mission To Feel Out Phablet Market

The next Samsung Galaxy Note smart phone will have a slightly bigger screen than the first. The industry is testing consumer waters with devices of different sizes and capabilities to see what sticks.

Mark the calendar for late August in Berlin. That's when and where Samsung unveils the next version of its Galaxy Note smartphone, er, tablet, er--whatever you want to call it.

I want to track down whoever coined the word "phablet" and shake them until the buzzwords fall out of their ears. Not that I can come up with a better one myself--and not that the phablet is a bad idea, either. It's just another example of how the most vigorous area for exploration with mobile devices is their size.

The original Galaxy Note fits in a shirt pocket and is easy to use with one hand. Click here to read BYTE's review..

I've had some passing experience with the Galaxy Note. As a mini-tablet--that is, as a place to run apps and watch videos--it's a drool object par excellence. The screen's about as large as you can make something like this without becoming excessive; it's great to look at; the included stylus is handy; the software is solid.

But when you hold it up to your ear, the sheer size of the thing hits you. Using it like a phone is like pressing a paperback to the side of your head. I didn't dare stick it in my pocket; it was a three-way toss-up between it getting stuck there, breaking in half when I moved my leg, or giving me a wedgie.

You have no idea how tempted I was to just buy pants with bigger pockets.

Before the rise of the current crop of smartphones and tablets, you had two personal computing gadgets: the ungainly desktop PC and the notebook. There was (and still is) some room for variation between the two: most of the new desktops, for instance, are all-in-ones that hearken closer to an oversize slate than anything else. But the explosion of phones and tablets introduced new subdivisions that didn't exist before. People with extremely modest computing demands no longer needed to, say, shell out for a notebook and lug it around; they could get their Web browsing fix from an iPad or even a smart phone.

Someone once wisecracked that however small you could make a pocket calculator, you didn't want to make it so small that someone couldn't push the buttons. In other words, the most important part of what makes phones and tablets as big or as small as they are is their human users. Apple for the most part gets this; the sizes of its devices nicely complement the people who use them. I suspect the reason they haven't hustled out a mini-iPad is because they wanted to get a sense over a long enough period of time as to how much acreage they could lose from the full-blown iPad and still feel they were giving people something worth paying Apple prices for.

The Galaxy Note and its cousins in the smartphone space are another iteration of this thinking. Details about the next Galaxy Note are sketchy, but various reports say it's slightly larger than its predecessor--5.5 inches vs. the current 5.29 inches--and sports a faster processor, possibly 1.6 GHz quad-core, and an improved camera. There's little way to make the screen any bigger without also ramping up the size of the phone, since the original Note's screen already had a pretty thin frame to begin with.

Much of this is also a contest to see which devices can be used most comfortably for the largest number of applications. Think about the sheer number of things a phone is used for these days: phone calls, e-mail, gaming, video, photography, real-world navigation, Web browsing, e-books, contact and task management--and that's just on my older smart phone.

Put out that many more devices of that many more sizes, and you stand a better chance of finding out where along that spectrum the comfort zone is for most people. At what point do they give up and buy a full-blown slate or notebook? It's an expensive way to do market research, but there might not be any other practical way to do it--which means it remains the domain of companies with deep pockets, such as Samsung.

The current Samsung Galaxy Note.

Samsung's gamble of trying different screen sizes seems to be paying off: as of June it had shipped seven million of the Galaxy Note, which was introduced in late 2011. There is at least as much attention paid to the quality of the device as there is its size. Few people walk away unimpressed from a Samsung phone of any size or shape. Dell's own gamble with a gadget this size, the Streak, was a flop, not because of its size, but because the screen and on-board software weren't up to snuff.

So, good luck to Samsung as it explores the limits of what people will consider a phone, a notebook, a slate, or a tablet. It just needs to hold a contest to come up with a better descriptor. Smartslate? Notephone? Winner gets a Galaxy Slate II and a year's unlimited 4G data to go with it. How about it, Samsung?

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