All hail the phablet! Jumbo phones finally going mainstream

While there were only a handful of phablets at the Consumer Electronics Show, they're poised to have a more substantial presence in the market this year.

Roger Cheng Former Executive Editor / Head of News
Roger Cheng (he/him/his) was the executive editor in charge of CNET News, managing everything from daily breaking news to in-depth investigative packages. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade and got his start writing and laying out pages at a local paper in Southern California. He's a devoted Trojan alum and thinks sleep is the perfect -- if unattainable -- hobby for a parent.
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  • SABEW Best in Business 2011 Award for Breaking News Coverage, Eddie Award in 2020 for 5G coverage, runner-up National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Award for culture analysis.
Roger Cheng
3 min read
The ZTE Iconic Phablet will be heading to the US eventually. Lynn La/CNET

LAS VEGAS -- It seemed like only yesterday that we mocked the idea of holding up a 5-inch smartphone to your ear for a call.

Now, we're not even batting an eye at 6- and 7-inch displays on smartphones.

Such is the quick ascent of the "phablet," the official name for jumbo phones that lie between a traditional smartphone and the larger tablet. Phablets are no longer a niche product: Accenture found in a recent survey that more than half of people who were asked about their next smartphone said they would prefer the bigger phone.

At the Consumer Electronics Show here, three phablets popped up: the Huawei Ascend Mate 2 4G, the Asus ZenFone 6, and the ZTE Iconic Phablet.

In a show where phones often take a backseat to other consumer electronic products such as televisions, speakers, and now wearables, having three of the higher-profile mobile devices be phablets says a lot for how the category has grown, and the increasing tolerance for larger sizes.

"With television and movies, a larger screen size seems more appropriate," John Curran, a consultant at Accenture, said while at CES.

Accenture, which surveyed 6,000 people from six countries, found 52 percent of respondents preferred a phablet for their next smartphone. In the US, where phablet adoption has been slower, the number drops to 45 percent. It's a lower number, but fairly significant.

Curran said he was surprised by the response to phablets, and named it as one of his six top categories for early this year. He added his survey didn't even ask about phablets last year, a testament to the quick rise in the popularity of the category.

Credit Samsung Electronics for getting phablets into the mainstream. The original Galaxy Note, which had a 5.3-inch display, was widely slammed for its large size, and ended up as a niche product. But Samsung aggressively pushed the product, readily handing out review units and marketing it heavily, and only doubled down with the Galaxy Note 2 and a larger 5.55-inch display.

With the Galaxy Note 2, Samsung got even more aggressive in seeding the units to the media and high-profile fans, throwing a number of lavish launch events, including one in Manhattan in which it rented out the old Post Office headquarters so Kanye West could hold a concert.

When the Galaxy Note 3 came out with an even bigger 5.7-inch display, no one even batted an eye, with CNET editor Brian Bennett calling it the most compelling case for a supersize phone.

The three smartphones announced at CES are all even bigger, with the ZenFone 6 rocking a 6-inch display, the Ascend Mate 2 4G coming with a 6.1-inch display, and the Iconic Phablet with a 5.7-inch display. Of the three, only the Iconic Phablet is coming to the US, although it's unclear whether it will be through a carrier or unlocked.

These devices follow high-profile launches from late last year, including the HTC One Max and Nokia Lumia 1520. LG's curved G Flex, which has a 6-inch display, will launch on AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile later this year.

More jumbo phones are likely on their way, with Mobile World Congress kicking off at the end of next month, and increasing chatter that Apple is considering different larger screen sizes for its next iPhone.

The phablet trend doesn't look to be slowing down anytime soon, and indeed, looks to be ramping up.

Pretty soon, we're all going to have a massive phone mashed up against the side of our head. And it will be the new normal.