What are phablets?

PHABLET: A Dell Streak, the next big thing in mobility?
PHABLET: A Dell Streak, the next big thing in mobility?

Never heard of phablets before? They are - quite literally - the next big thing in mobility. Slightly larger than a smartphone and a fair bit smaller than a tablet (especially the iPad-sized ones), the idea is that they occupy a happy middle ground for power users that want a single device that does everything.

The only thing that irks me is the name. Phablet. There's a special place in hell for whoever coined this word. It's on the same level of stupidity as hybrid celebrity names like "Brangelina" or "Bennifer". I'm taking a stand: from now on, I'm calling them tablet-phones.

Whatever you want to call them (and please make it "tablet-phone"), the latest sales figures indicate there's definitely a demand. Earlier this week, Samsung announced that it had sold five million of the new Galaxy Note tablet-phones worldwide in the first five months of its release. Not bad for an as-yet unproven form factor, especially since it wasn't available in the United States until February and only just launched in Australia this month.

I'm convinced that tablet-phones will take off. They're not for everyone, mind you, but if you spend a lot of time on a smartphone doing things other than making phone calls, the larger display of a tablet-phone will make your life a lot easier.

I've been using a Galaxy Note for the last three months (an overseas model), and almost everything is better on a bigger screen, whether it's web browsing, reading emails and eBooks, gaming, social networking or viewing pictures and movies. Once you get used to the larger display, going back to a smartphone feels limiting and constricted.

Tablet-phones bring a few challenges to the table as well. The big screen is as much a curse as it is a blessing because of how much larger it makes the device overall. The Galaxy Note, with its 5.3" display, only just fits in the palm of the hand, and using it one-handed is a struggle, especially if you want to reach the top corners of the screen with your thumb.

Talking on the Galaxy Note is difficult as well. Not physically, but it's hard not to feel conspicuous holding a device like this to your ear in public - almost as if you'd starting talking to a paperback book, or a taco (see: side-talking).

But this sort of self-consciousness always passes. Been there, blushed about that. I remember having an O2 XDA II Pocket PC phone back in 2003 (one of the first touchscreen smartphones) and feeling the same embarrassment using it in public, and that device only had a 3.5" screen (the same display size of the iPhone). Even using an iPad a couple of years ago got lots of curious stares, but now no one looks twice when they're used in public.

Portability is an issue for tablet-phones, particularly if you prefer to carry your phone in your pocket. It's unavoidable really. Bigger screen = bigger device. In the Galaxy Note's case, however, I think Samsung got it pretty close to perfect. The screen is big enough to provide a superior experience to a smartphone, but the device isn't so big that you can't carry it in your back pocket.

Technically, tablet-phones aren't new. Dell did it first with the Streak, an Android device with a 5" display that launched back in the third quarter of 2010. But it didn't take off because the market wasn't ready for it. I don't think even Dell knew what it was trying to achieve by bringing the Streak to market.

Things are different now. Thanks to the runaway success of the iPad, mainstream consumers have gotten used to the idea of having a mobile device with a larger touchscreen. Smartphone display sizes have also been inching their way upwards, with devices like the 4.7" HTC Sensation XL and the 4.65" Samsung Galaxy Nexus still considered compact enough to be classified as regular smartphones.

Could 2012 be the year of the tablet-phone? There'll definitely be a lot more smartphones with 4.5" or larger displays this year, but I don't think tablet-phones will become common-place for another 12 months at least. That said, they're definitely here to stay, and we should be seeing a handful of other tablet-phones launch later this year such as the LG Optimus Vu.

We've been talking about smartphones being 'PCs in your pocket' for years, but I think tablet-phones have finally made this geeky dream a reality.