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Tablet adoption could give flip phones new lease on life

In an unexpected twist, some tech-savvy customers are supplementing fancy tablets with simple phones.

Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1
Pair this with a "dumb phone" to keep costs down.
Josh Miller/CNET

This story originally published August 23, 2012, and updated on October 26, 2012.

commentary Here's a list of people who tell me they want a simple phone: my retired parents who have easy access to a computer and two clunky laptops at home, my nonagenarian grandmother, and the tech-savvy CNET reader who recently thanked me for my review of the Samsung t159, a $20 T-Mobile flip phone.

It may sound hard to believe, but basic phones like the t159 and others are poised to see a small uptick among an unexpected demographic. I'm receiving more and more e-mails from CNET readers interested in supplementing their investment in a Wi-Fi-only tablet with a cheap hunk of hardware adept at making calls and little else.

As a proliferation of tablets take off, there's a growing number of people who are interested in a tablet's larger screen, but who don't feel the need to duplicate their apps and tools on two separate devices.

In the context of Microsoft releases its Surface tablets, and Apple announces its iPad Mini alongside a refreshed full-size iPad, the number of first-time adopters is sure to grow as choices become even more varied.

For this set, there are a few practical options to save money and cut back on machinery.

The shift from small-screen phones that compute to larger-screen devices that also make calls is behind products like Samsung and LG's supersize smartphones, particularly the 5.5-inch Samsung Galaxy Note 2 and LG Intuition, both of which hope to straddle the best of both phone and tablet worlds.

These two phone-makers, and perhaps HTC soon, designed extra-large screen phones to nudge on-the-fence consumers toward an all-in-one device. (Of course, they'd love for committed tablet buyers to purchase their slates as well.)

Samsung t159
Believe it or not, some people really want this phone. Josh Miller/CNET

The pickle of motivating customers to pay for two devices is also helping to drive AT&T and Verizon's shared data plans. Both of the top two U.S. carriers charge a device access fee for data use on smartphones, tablets, feature phones, and hot spots. Beyond that, it won't matter whether you use your phone or tablet to tap data; the two act as one and the same.

Then there's the third route for budget-conscious buyers of personal electronics, using a larger tablet -- or even a smaller, 7-inch tablet -- over Wi-Fi for e-mail, entertainment, photography (the horror!), and work, and tucking the inexpensive flip phone into the pocket or purse for routine or emergency calls.

Of course, some people may increasingly pull away from pocketable phones altogether and opt for a 4G or 3G tablet through a carrier and answer calls by way of a Bluetooth headset instead.

It's too soon to say where the trend is headed, but I'll guess that heavy tablet users today will find a waning allegiance to their 4-to-5-inch smartphones as time goes on, and could trade in their do-everything handsets for a much cheaper and more limited model as their contracts end.

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