It’s time to make peace with the term phablet.
Sure, the tech industry could have come up with a prettier, less jarring way to refer to smartphones that are big enough to be used as tablet computers. But phablets deserve their own unforgettably descriptive name. They aren’t simply large-screen phones. They are a distinctly new type of computing device, a machine that is often more useful, and more versatile, than either smartphones or laptops.
Phablets could even become the dominant computing device of the future — the most popular kind of phone on the market, and perhaps the only computer many of us need.
Now, I’ve long been on the record as hating big phones. But this week I decided to try using the latest one, Apple’s new iPhone 6 Plus, with its 5.5-inch display, as my primary, all-purpose computer — a machine for work, fun and everything in between. I had to make occasional stops at my laptop to write my articles, but I ended up spending about 80 to 90 percent of my computing time with Apple’s big phone.
I didn’t exactly prefer this lifestyle; if you’ve got the resources and patience to buy a laptop, smartphone and tablet, go for it. But if an alien race swooped down on the planet and forced earthlings to use only a single computer, I’d choose the iPhone 6 Plus. If you’re looking for one machine for everything, a phablet like this isn’t a bad way to go.
Apple doesn’t use the P-word, but the 6 Plus, which goes on sale on Friday, is larger than the original Samsung Galaxy Note, the device that came out in 2011 and is generally credited as being the first phablet. (The latest Note has a 5.7-inch screen.) It’s obvious why Apple had to make a phablet, a device that its executives and fans had long made fun of. Despite the awkwardness of holding a device as large as a cafeteria tray up to your ear, phablets made by Samsung and other companies have become a huge global hit. Phablets are already more popular than laptops and desktops, and they’ll almost certainly begin outselling tablet computers soon, too.
Their popularity might reflect the unimportance of the phone part of the phablet: Who makes phone calls anymore? Instead, some market-watchers argue, a significant number of the world’s population either can’t afford or can’t manage a tech future in which we all own three devices — a PC, a tablet and a phone. Lots of people want a single machine that can fulfill most of their computing needs.
On the other hand, a phablet presents many trade-offs. Depending on the job you have, there’s a good chance it isn’t nearly as comfortable for sustained work as your PC. As I wrote in my review of Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 earlier this year, many of the tasks we call “work” usually require a great physical keyboard, and obviously the iPhone 6 Plus doesn’t have that built in.
What’s more, though it’s quite thin, the 6 Plus is about 27 percent taller and 32 percent wider than Apple’s old flagship, the iPhone 5S. That makes it something of a monster in your pocket. There were times this week when I reached for my old iPhone 5S and fell in love again with that device’s seductively compact design. (Apple also introduced a new small phone, the iPhone 6, with a 4.7-inch screen; my colleague Molly Wood reviewed both iPhones earlier this week.)
Yet what it lacks in pocketability, the iPhone 6 Plus makes up for in usability and accessibility. Your phablet, like your phone, is a machine you always have with you, but like a tablet, it has a screen big enough to let you accomplish many more productive tasks. And unlike a laptop, it’s instantly available. Pull it out of your pocket and begin working anywhere.
Over the last week I used the 6 Plus to do just about everything I normally do with my phone and my laptop. Every morning I’d wake up, then slump into my phablet-friendly office, also known as my bed, couch or some other recline-friendly bit of furniture I could find. There I’d stare and tap at my screen all day long. This was sort of bizarre; my house is full of computers, and at least early in my experiment, I often had to restrain myself from grabbing a laptop to get stuff done.
But I persevered, and soon I found myself falling into the habits of a phablet-only life. I caught up with email, researched my articles, read lots and lots of stuff on the web, worked with a few spreadsheets and, with the help of an add-on physical keyboard, even tried to write some of my articles on the 6 Plus.
I found that the 6 Plus has two advantages over smaller smartphones, and one primary advantage over rival phablets. Typing is much easier on the 6 Plus compared to small phones. When you hold the 6 Plus with two hands in portrait mode — that is, vertically — and type with your thumbs, there’s a perfect fit.
Using the iPhone’s built-in on-screen keyboard or an on-screen keyboard made by Swype, I found myself jotting emails much more quickly than I have on traditional smartphones. Unfortunately, in landscape mode — holding the phone horizontally — the effect was ruined; as Molly also found, the 6 Plus is much too wide to type on comfortably.
The other obvious advantage over smaller phones is screen size. The 6 Plus’s display is big enough to transform activities that are a bit unpleasant on small smartphones into tasks that are nearly comfortable to perform on a phone. These tasks range from watching movies to reading documents to scrolling through spreadsheets to sorting through email — anything where the display counts, and where you’re eager to save your eyes.
The 6 Plus’s advantage over other phablets is also pretty obvious: It runs Apple’s iOS, an operating system that is still far more intuitive and user-friendly than the interfaces that rivals like Samsung have built into their phones.
It’s true, as Molly notes, that unlike Apple, Android phonemakers have added many extra software features to take advantage of phablets’ larger displays, including the ability to run two apps on a screen at once. But I’ve found many such features gimmicky; it’s not often that I need towatch a video and sort through email at the same time.
What’s more important is iOS’s fundamental usability advantage over rivals. Apple’s operating system is easier to understand and easier to get around than Android, and app developers still devote most of their resources to creatingthe best apps for iOS first.
One oft-mentioned risk of the 6 Plus, for Apple, is that the big phone will displace sales of Apple’s tablets. But the Plus could actually be a blessing. Apple sells the 6 Plus to carriers for prices starting at $750; the high-definition iPad Mini starts at $399.
But to customers who sign up for a cellular contract, the 6 Plus appears cheaper than the iPad — it’s just $299. In other words, if you choose a big iPhone over an iPad, Apple will be selling you a more expensive device at price that looks cheaper to you. So that’s the other big thing about phablets: They can make money for tech companies.