When super-sized smartphones become pocketable tablets


— 11:16 PM on April 12, 2012

I thought I lost my smartphone the other week. Somewhere between walking my dog in the morning and heading out for lunch, my trusty Palm Pre vanished into thin air. I tried calling it with Skype but heard no ring. Next, I retraced that morning's route. It had been raining steadily, making the odds of survival low for an unprotected electronics device. Even if it lay lifeless, I was at least determined to recover the body. Leave no technology behind.

As I trudged through the park, my eyes scanning every shrub my dog had sniffed, I found myself not bummed out about losing the phone but excited by the prospect of replacing it. That was surprising, because up until very recently, modern smartphones haven't really held much appeal for me.

The last phone I really loved was the Motorola Razr, which had not an ounce of smarts but was the perfect size and weight for a portable device: small enough to almost disappear into a pocket yet just heavy enough to let you know it was there. Smartphones feel positively portly in comparison. Their much larger footprints demand deeper pockets, which had always seemed like a step backwards.

Turns out I was thinking about it all wrong.

In everyday life, my smartphone is used far more often to read email, surf the web, and take quick notes than to make actual calls. It's much more computer than telephone. So, rather than looking at 4" handsets as oversized phones, I've begun seeing them as smaller tablets. That simple shift in perspective changes everything.


The iPhone 4 (left) and Galaxy Note (right): jumbo smartphones or pocketable tablets?

Much of the inspiration for my new stance on jumbo smartphones comes not from my experiences with the Pre, but from the time I've spent with Asus' Transformer tablet. The 10" device delivers a genuinely satisfying computing experience—the sort of experience I want to bring everywhere. It's too big to carry around without a hipster man-purse, of course, but the latest and greatest handsets offer similar horsepower and comparable display resolutions in 4-5" devices that actually fit into a pocket. You'll be able to see them in my pocket—quite possibly from across the room—but I'm willing to trade a little discomfort and some social awkwardness for a compelling portable computer.

The snappy performance of the latest SoCs drives a good chunk of my upgrade itch. Older smartphones have always felt like they were struggling to keep up with the demands of the software and even the base operating system. Newer devices, like the iPhone 4S and Galaxy S II, are much more responsive. Some of that's software streamlining, but a lot of it comes down to more powerful hardware.

More pressing than my desire for moar power is a yearning for something with a larger screen and loads of pixels. Perhaps because I've been squeezed into the Pre's 3.1" 320x480 display, I find myself drawn to the Galaxy Note for its humongous 5.3" screen, whose 1280x800 resolution is a perfect match for my Transformer tablet. I've also caught myself lusting after the Galaxy Nexus, which serves up 1280x720 pixels in a slightly smaller 4.6" screen. Could I get by with less? Sure, but giving up inches means losing valuable screen real estate and crucial input area. My fat, clumsy thumbs far prefer the larger on-screen keyboards and UI elements that bigger screens can provide.


Cyril hand-models the iPhone 4 and Galaxy Note

Until roll-up or folding displays become a reality, there's no way to get a big screen without a similarly large device. The one thing I most desire in a pocketable computer is the very thing I don't want to have to have in my pocket. But the bigger screen wins, because it's attached to something I'd actually consider a computer.

I'm still worried about warping or otherwise damaging a larger handset by sitting when it's still in my pocket. However, societal norms seem to be solving that problem. The last time I was seated with a decent-sized group at the pub across the street, just about everyone had their smartphones sitting on the table rather than in their pockets or purses. Amazingly, not one drop of beer was spilled on any of them.

Alas, I didn't pour one out for my dead Pre. As it turns out, it was never left out in the rain to meet an untimely demise. Instead, it had fallen out of my pocket when I went to change the pants that had been soaked by the early morning downpour. The Pre ended up buried in the duvet on my bed, ringer muffled, snuggling with my girlfriend's cat.

Ultimately, I felt relief upon finding the Pre. The prospect of paying full price for a new handset while mid-way through my cellular contract was not appealing, no matter how fast the processor or how beautiful the screen. There was another thing, too. I was certain the Pre wouldn't survive being left out in the wet, and I've been leery of using any smartphone in the rain, which falls in Vancouver roughly half of the year. As much as I long to carry a powerful portable computer on my person, I don't want it to be a fair-weather device.

Ruggedized smartphones like Samsung's Rugby Smart are purportedly impervious to the elements, but they're a little behind the curve in terms of processing power and screen quality. They're chunkier, too, although certainly more durable than the average handset. I'd settle for water resistance, which may soon be a common feature thanks to hydrophobic coatings that several companies are now applying to existing devices.

My cellular contract comes up for renewal next summer. By then, the market will surely be flooded with supersized handsets even more capable than the ones available now. I dreaded the thought of larger smartphones even a few months ago, but today, I can't help but look forward to the next generation of pocketable tablets.

   
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