Tablets struggle to maintain their identity at Mobile World Congress 2014

Tablets aren't phones and phones aren't tablets. The tablet makers at Mobile World Congress should probably be made aware of this.

Xiomara Blanco/CNET

BARCELONA, Spain -- The Mobile World Congress 2014 tablet lineup was filled with over-sized phones, undersized "tablets", and tablet that knew exactly what it was. There's a palpable feeling coming out of the show that tablet makers are having difficulty deciding what next to do with them.

Tablet phones
Tablet phones aren't a thing in the US, but if the showing at MWC is anything to go by, countries outside the states don't appear to have a problem with them as this year they were more ubiquitous than ever before. The HP Slate 7 VoiceTab, Huawei 4G MediaPad X1, Media Pad M1, and Nvidia Tegra Note 7 LTE (reference design) all house SIM card slots and include text messaging and voice call capabilities.

HP enters the tablet phone game with the aptly-named VoiceTab. Sarah Tew/CNET

The Tegra Note 7 LTE will see a release in the states, but with text and voice features stripped out. A large -- 7 inches or above -- tablet that you can use as a phone just isn't that practical or appealing for most Americans. And manufacturers in Barcelona this year would have you believe that the rest of the world doesn't share that hang up.

However, after spending four whole days interacting with an international crowd of tech enthusiast and professionals, I saw not one person making calls with their slates. Unsurprisingly, smartphones appear to still be the best way to communicate on the go.

CNET's full coverage of Mobile World Congress

Now, that's completely anecdotal evidence on my part and in no way is it empirical, but you'd think if there's a conference where you're going to see it, it would be here.

I'm not saying that tablets shouldn't have phone features, but if text and voice are your most exciting innovations, you're doing something wrong.

Phone tablets Beefy phones
A phone that doesn't shatter into multiple pieces when dropped would definitely appeal to the more inept among us, but a giant thick Porterhouse steak of a phone may not be what the butter-fingered in our ranks had in mind.

The 6-inch Panasonic ToughPad FZ-X1 and ToughPad EZ-E1 are "tablets" -- Panasonic insists are calling them such -- that are made for people with much more adventurous lifestyles than I. Each is submersible in up to 1.5 meters of water for up to 30 minutes. They're also clearly made for the individuals that absolute require such options, as they'll retail for about $1269 each when released.

If Panasonic can get away with calling a 5-inch device a tablet instead of a large phone, will we start seeing more devices that are clearly phones slapped with the "tablet" moniker?

It's a thick brick of a phone, but still not a tablet. Aloysius Low/CNET

In my mind, the definition of a tablet starts with screen size -- at least 7 inches, but an industry in which more sub-7-inch devices are pushed as slates, begins to blur the line between tablets and other devices too severely. Tablets should have larger screens than smartphones, and trying to pass a 5-incher off as a device that can provide the innate advantages of a tablet feels shortsighted.

That said, at the end of the day, it's simply a categorizing problem that will probably end with Panasonic. At least I hope.

The vibe
The vibe I felt coming out of MWC 2014 is that manufactures don't really know what to do with tablets in order to take them to the next level. What ever that level is. Making them phones or taking phones and pretending they're tablets is not the answer.

These things are appealing and successful because they offer the best of all worlds: the slightness of a phone with a larger screen, and performance and features that resemble a laptop.

The Sony Xperia Tablet Z is unapologetically a tablet. Andrew Hoyle/CNET

To that end, the Sony Xperia Z2 Tablet is probably the best tablet of the show. The Z2 Tablet's Snapdragon 801 processor makes it potentially the fastest tablet yet and all the second-screen features and media options allow it to stretch out and show its strength as a tablet.

Tablets don't have to be one thing, but if they're to continue to be successful, they will need to demonstrate what they can do that other devices can't -- or won't -- do. Hopefully, this show isn't completely indicative of things to come in 2014 and we'll actually see some new exciting developments in tablets over the next few months.

 

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