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Tablet phones: style over substance?

Is there a place in the market for the middle ground between tablets and smartphones?

Product launches at the September IFA consumer electronics tradeshow in Berlin gave consumers an unprecedented choice of screen sizes.

But analysts are questioning whether consumers can learn to love them all.

One of the trends was screen sizes between 4.5 and 5.5in. Large-screen devices such as Samsung’s Galaxy S II and Galaxy Note, HTC’s Titan and Sony’s dual-screen Tablet P were on display.

So far, consumers have shunned products with screens around this size, such as the 5in Dell Streak. But vendors including Samsung and HTC are hoping larger screen sizes will help them to differentiate their products in ?a very competitive market.

“Today’s smartphones are difficult to distinguish between by the customer looking instore. Increasing the screen is a clear example of manufacturers trying to differentiate rather than following the established product classes,” said CCS Insight analyst Geoff Blaber.

samsung-galaxy-note-1

At the Galaxy Note product launch, a tablet-cum-smartphone with a 5.3in display and optional stylus, DJ Lee, head of global sales and marketing at Samsung Mobile, said the company wants to create a new category between smartphones and tablets. But not everyone is as convinced that there’s a demand for large screens.

“People are mostly happy with a smartphone of a reasonable size: 3.5 or 4in,” said Bob O’Donnell, program vice-president for Clients and Displays at IDC.

Desirability

The introduction of smartphones with larger screens has many implications for users, according to Daniel Freeman, business design lead at Fjord, a company that specialises in service design.

“If you look at it from the consumer side, there is battery life, the cost of these big panels and the fact larger screens are more susceptible to breaking,” he said.

Not being able to fit the phone in a pocket is a pain, and consumers want to be able to hold a smartphone to their ear without looking like an idiot, added Freeman.

But increasing the screen size isn’t all bad. It’s better for media consumption – watching videos, browsing the web and reading e-books. A large display also makes it easier to type on the onscreen keyboard, which is an issue with many smartphones.

dell-streak-entertainment-hIn designing the new breed of large-screen smartphones, vendors are helped by hardware developments that allow them to stretch the screen from edge to edge. For example, HTC’s Titan, which has a 4.7in screen, maintains its integrity as a phone, albeit one suited to tablet-like functions such as browsing and watching videos, Ben Wood, director of research at CCS Insight, wrote in a research note.

Expectations that HTC’s smartphone will be similar to Dell’s Streak are wrong, said Wood. The Titan weighs 160g, about 60g less than the 5in Streak, for instance.
In Wood’s view, the HTC Titan will further erode the opportunity for tablets with 7in screens as the distinction blurs between large smartphones and small tablets.

Pushing the screen to the edge of a phone may allow vendors to keep the size of a device down, but it isn’t ideal for usability: “The closer the screen gets to the edge of the device, the more you find your fingers interrupt the experience,” said Freeman.

The consensus is that smartphone screen sizes have reached their useful maximum at about 4.5 to 4.7in.

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