2014 Phablet Comparison Guide
Like it or not, the word "phablet" is here to stay – and so are the supersized smartphones that the word describes. Though the category was once practically synonymous with the Samsung Galaxy Note, there are now enough competing phablets to make your decision difficult. Read on, as Gizmag compares the best phablets you can buy today.
What is a phablet? Well, on its simplest level, this phone/tablet portmanteau describes any smartphone that's big enough to replace a small tablet. For our purposes, we're going to say it's any phone with a 5.5-in or bigger screen. We're also limiting this comparison to high-end phablets with high-resolution screens. That means we're skipping intriguing mid-range devices like the Huawei Ascend Mate2 (which is definitely worth a look if you're trying to keep the price down).
With that in mind, here's our group of six absolutely phabulous phablets:
- Samsung Galaxy Note 3
- LG G Pro 2
- HTC One Max
- Nokia Lumia 1520
- OnePlus One
- LG G3
For each category, you'll see two rows of phablets, ordered just as they are in the list above. If you forget which is which, you can just scroll back up and check it against this list.
It's rare that we publish a "best of" comparison that doesn't include a single Apple product, but the iPhone is still stuck in the land of tiny screens. That will likely change later this year, but for now we're looking at five Android phablets and one humongous Windows Phone.
None of these phones are small, but the LG G3 probably gives you the best balance of screen real estate and phone size. At 5.5-in, it has the smallest (or maybe it should be "least gigantic") screen in this bunch. But the bezel on its front face is so minimal that the phone itself doesn't feel unusually large. Some of these phones are like shoving a piece of ceramic tile in your pocket (I'm talking to you, HTC One Max and Lumia 1520), but the G3 has a relatively small footprint.
Weight is another win for the G3, though several phablets in this bunch feel relatively light in hand. The One Max, meanwhile, is the least appealing in this round as well.
Only the One Max and OnePlus One have non-plastic exteriors (and, in the case of the One Max, even it has some plastic around the edges). While metallic builds are nice to have in standard smartphones, I'm not sure if they're as desirable in phablets. Once a phone gets this big, plastic's lighter weight and less rigid build can sometimes make the devices more comfortable to hold.
The G3's backing is made of plastic, but with a metallic film on top that (sort of) combines the best of both worlds.
These are the color options for each phablet, though some of these are carrier exclusives (or even Asia-only exclusives) so you might see less variety in your local wireless or electronics store.
Size and weight are the best arguments against phablets, but screen size is the best argument for them.
The percentages above show each phablet's relative screen area, compared to the largest in the group, the Lumia 1520. As you can see, some of them (OnePlus One, G3) are just skating on the edges of phabletville, while others (Lumia 1520, HTC One Max) wear their phablet nature on their sleeves like a badge of honor. And the biggest question you'll want to ask yourself is which end of that spectrum you want to lean farther towards.
Devices that use onscreen navigation keys (usually menu, home and recent apps) sacrifice a little bit of screen real estate to make room for that persistent virtual bar that lives on the bottom of the display.
Only the two LG phablets use onscreen navigation keys exclusively. The OnePlus, meanwhile, actually gives you the choice of using onscreen buttons or the capacitive keys that live below its screen.
Android's Immersive Mode, though, helps to minimize the blow of those persistent onscreen navigation keys. In some places, like video and reading apps, the keys will automatically fade away and you'll be able to use the full screen area for your content (a swipe down from the edge will bring the menu keys back). And on the G3, you can even choose specific apps (even ones that don't natively support Immersive Mode) to hide the navigation bar in.
1080p is the order of the day, as all but one of our phablets carry Full HD resolution. All are going to be plenty sharp for even the most discerning retinas. The lone holdout is the LG G3, which has an even sharper (2,560 x 1,440) screen. It has the best smartphone (or phablet) display I've ever seen.
Samsung really started something with this whole phablet thing, but one thing its rivals haven't copied is its stylus. The Galaxy Note 3 is the only device in this bunch that includes (and natively supports) pen input. The S Pen slides into a slot on the bottom of the Note 3, and gives you a level of precision that your stubby fingers can't provide.
Only the LG and Samsung phablets support split-screen (side-by-side) multitasking. It's a handy feature that fits those huge screens like a glove.
The OnePlus One is the most easily hackable in this group, and there are Android tweaks that let you run split-screen apps on it as well. But since it isn't an out-of-the-box feature, and takes some advanced know-how to install, we're slapping that big 'X' under the OnePlus One.
Having such an enormous display can be a drawback if you only have one hand available. Here both the Samsung and LG phablets have an answer, with their one-handed modes. They each work a little differently though: the Note's version shrinks the entire display area to about the size of a standard smartphone's, while LG's one-handed mode only scrunches the keyboard to the side of the screen.
LG's Knock-On lets you turn on your phablet's display just by tapping twice on its (sleeping) screen. You can then tap twice again on an unused part of your home screen to turn the display back off. Even better is LG's Knock Code, which lets you create a unique pattern of taps that anyone will need to know in order to get into your phone.
The OnePlus One duplicates LG's double-tap-to-turn-on functionality, but not the secure pattern part.
There are some terrific cameras in this bunch, but the Lumia 1520's is probably the one to beat. When I reviewed it earlier this year, I was impressed with its quality and variety of options. Its 20 MP resolution also lets you zoom or crop pretty close, and barely notice any drop in resolution.
The G3's camera uses a laser to measure the distance between the phone and its subject, making for lightning-quick autofocusing. Shooting is as simple as tapping on the point on the screen you want to focus on: the G3 will instantly focus and snap the pic.
The last three phablets in this comparison all have dual-LED flashes. And two flashes are usually better than one: they can help to create a more natural, less blown-out, look for your subjects when taking flash-based shots.
Phablets often have terrific battery life, since their huge bodies have room to cram big honkin' batteries inside. All of the devices in this group fit that bill.
The most interesting thing here is that the OnePlus One jumps from 16 GB to 64 GB of storage, skipping the 32 GB option that most OEMs place in between. Best of all, that extra 48 GB of storage only costs an extra US$50.
But if those internal storage totals aren't enough for you, then you can rest easy knowing that all but the OnePlus One have microSD card slots.
The One Max has a fingerprint sensor, but unlike those in the iPhone 5s and Galaxy S5, which live in the phones' home buttons, the Max's is on its back, below its camera. It's an awkward place to have to slide your finger (especially on such a huge device) and, when I reviewed it, I quickly turned it off and used a standard passcode instead.
The LG, Samsung and HTC phablets all have infrared (IR) blasters, which let you use your device as a universal remote control. It can be handy for changing channels on your TV, cable/satellite box or Blu-ray player.
All but one of our phablets run Android 4.4 KitKat, including the Play Store and other Google services, but they each have their own unique (manufacturer specific) skins pasted on top.
The most unique is the OnePlus One, as it runs Cyanogenmod 11s, a customizable, hacking-friendly flavor of Android that started as a favorite of the development community. For those who live and breathe for rooting and customizing, this is the first phone that's tailor-made for you (well, apart from Nexus phones).
The Lumia 1520 runs Windows Phone 8.1, a gorgeous and fluid mobile OS that still flies a bit under the mainstream radar. Part of that, though, is because its app selection just isn't on par with the Play Store's (Android) or App Store's (iPhone).
Though Google supports iOS with native versions of all of its apps (from a business perspective, it would be foolish not to), apparently the company has no interest in helping a smaller rival platform grow. Ergo, no official Google apps on the Lumia 1520. If you want Google services on Windows Phone, you'll have to make do with third-party and web apps.
Oh look, it's a Qualcomm Snapdragon party. The 800/801 family of chips that powers most of these devices is the current cream of the crop, delivering blazing-fast performance and good power management. The 600 variant found in the One Max is still very fast, but not quite in the same league.
It's either 2 GB or 3 GB of RAM in each of our phablets. The G3 actually has a foot on each side of that fence, and it will vary depending on which storage configuration you choose (16 GB storage gets 2 GB of RAM; 32 GB storage gets 3 GB RAM).
These are the original release dates for each phablet. There are, however, two big keys we want to hone in on here.
The first is that we're probably about two months away from the Galaxy Note 4. Samsung has been the leader in this product category, and if you aren't in a rush to snag a phablet right now, it might have something better on its menu come September.
We also want to put a big honkin' asterisk next to the OnePlus One. Though it's technically available for purchase, OnePlus is using an invitation system to drum up hype. So you can't just visit the company's website and order the phone. Nope, you'll have to either a) sign up for a newsletter and wait (who knows how long) for an invitation, b) pay above retail to buy one second-hand or c) schmooze someone who already bought one for one of their invites.
Companies can market their products however they please, but we were tempted to leave the OnePlus One out of this comparison due to these annoying availability constraints. On one hand, you could say that supplies are short and this is all the company can sell right now. But on the other hand, you could say that OnePlus knows damn well that scarcity tends to drum up desire, building an elusive, hard-to-get aura around the product. Chase this car if you please, but you might also want to consider the possibility that OnePlus' marketing department is playing you like a violin.
Starting price (off-contract)
Prices vary by carrier and retailer, so we'd take these numbers with a few grains of salt. And, of course, if you live in the US, you may well be buying one of these with a new two-year contract, which will significantly drop the upfront price of admission.
We included an asterisk next to the OnePlus One here as well. On paper, the phone looks like an outstanding value – and if you can get your hands on one, it is. But, again, until it becomes widely available, it might not be worth the game of cat and mouse that it takes to get there.
The best phablet?
So which one of these is the best? Our answer to that is the same as it always is: it's going to depend on what you're looking for.The Galaxy Note 3 is easily the most popular phablet, and, until recently, the Note brand basically was the phablet market. You could also easily argue that its blend of tight hardware and stylus-friendly software still makes it the leader of this pack.
But there are some other terrific options here as well. If you get the opportunity to buy one, the OnePlus One just might deliver more bang for your buck than any mobile device ever made. With its customizable Cyanogenmod software, it's also an excellent choice for those who love to tinker.
Though it isn't cheap like the One, the LG G3 is one hell of a phone as well. It's the rare device that has a phablet-sized screen, but feels more like a standard smartphone. It probably provides the best balance we've seen of screen real estate and manageable size.
For more on our group of elite phablets, you can hit up our individual reviews of (some of) these devices:
Any favorites from this group? Drop us a line in the comments and tell us why it's your pick. And if you want something even bigger, you can check out our latest tablet comparison guide.