Lenovo's two 7-inch Phab 'phones' technically teeter on tablet territory

This 7-inch smartphone is no joke. The 6.8-inch Lenovo Phab and 6.98-inch Phab Plus connect to carriers and offer tools for one-handed operation.

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I never envisioned a day when I would write about an enormous 7-inch phone with a straight face. For better or worse, Lenovo's low-cost 6.8-inch Phab and 6.98-inch Phab Plus are fearlessly crossing the size boundary that distinguishes phone from tablet.

Devices like the Phab and Phab Plus offer best-of-both-world features that are meant to grab budget buyers' attention. It's a bold move on the part of a company struggling to maintain its place as the world's fifth-largest smartphone-maker -- behind Samsung, Apple, Huawei and Xiaomi -- and a risky one. Most extra-large screen phones hover between the 5.5-inch and 6-inch marks, with few that creep up to 6.1 or 6.4 inches.

Even Samsung, which popularized the category, has kept its latest Note at 5.7 inches for three years running. Generally, smartphones larger than 6 inches are considered too awkward to handle for everyday use, and the thought of using supersize devices as telephones without an in-ear headset attracts ridicule. Lenovo's extra-large play could have limited appeal.

Big hands needed for the 7-inch Lenovo Phab Plus (pictures)

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Lenovo claims the Phab devices can be used one-handed, but we dispatched our most ham-hocked reviewer to test that claim on the Phab Plus, and even our resident lumbering giant found it tricky to manage with one mitt. It's not so much stretching your thumb to the far reaches of the screen that's the problem as keeping the device balanced when you do -- trying to use it one-handed will inevitably see it spin out of your hand sooner rather than later. Let's not kid ourselves: these are two-handed devices, better suited to your bag or coat pocket rather than the back pocket of your jeans.

But if you're on-board with the scale of the thing, the Phab Plus is a slick package. The slab of a screen picks up fingerprints but the rear has a subtle iridescent sheen that makes the huge size a little less overwhelming. And the slim bezel is truly impressive, meaning the phone doesn't add too much bulk on top of the large display.

Named in honor of the industry term "phablet," which is a portmanteau of the words "phone" and "tablet," these two Phabs are tablet-size phones whose cellular radio and SIM card slots (dual SIMs in the Phab's case) make phone calls over the wireless network. This is a significant difference from true tablets that are equipped with 4G LTE for faster Internet on the go, but only make calls over Wi-Fi.

Big and bigger

Despite their names and comparatively gargantuan builds, the Phab and Phab Plus are distinct handsets that share only a few features, like the 13-megapixel cameras on the back and 5-megapixel camera up front. They're also entry-level and midrange devices, respectively, in order to keep costs down.

The larger, higher-end Phab Plus has a metal unibody design with a 1,920x1,080-pixel display and octa-core Snapdragon 615 processor. It runs Android 5.0 with 32GB on board and 2GB RAM. You can also expand storage up to 64GB. Its 3,500mAh battery seems small for such a large-screen device that'll draw power to light up its screen. It comes in gunmetal, gray titanium and silver honey colors.

The Lenovo Phab Plus is fit for the biggest hands.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Contrast this with the Phab, which is made of plastic and has an even lower-resolution (and only slightly smaller) screen of 1,280x720-pixels. This is the same we'd expect on handsets with displays 2 or 3 inches smaller than these, so you're looking at a fuzzier picture for both phones than you'd see on high-end phones with resolutions of 2,560x1,440 pixels, such as the 5.7-inch Note 5.

Curiously, the Phab will run the more recent version or Android software, 5.1. Its 1.2GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 410 processor is common for budget phones. Storage and RAM are also on the lower end at 16GB of storage and 1GB of RAM, though a microSD card slot will give you more space for storing games and movies. The 4,250mAh battery is strangely larger than that on the Phab Plus, which could indicate slightly longer battery life for this handset over the Plus version. It offers two SIM card slots.

You can buy the Phab in red, aqua, black and white.

Pricing, availability, thoughts

Both phones will sell globally in September. The Phab Plus will cost $300 (which converts to about £195 and AU$420), while the less expensive Phab will go for $180 (or £117 and AU$253).

Lenovo plans to launch at least one of the two phones in countries in Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Latin America, including China, India, Hong Kong, Mexico, Chile, Ukraine, Russia, United Arab Emirates and Nigeria.

Both Phab phones are positioned as value plays that are meant to make coveted screen real estate accessible to cost-conscious buyers. A tablet-size hybrid device that still makes calls over the network can make it possible to watch movies and play games with comfort and ease without having to invest in a second device.

Lower end display specs mean that Lenovo can charge significantly less for the two-in-one handset than the typical tablet or large-screen phone.

Catch all the electronics news from this week's show in Berlin.