Smartphones go B-I-G

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Oct 9, 2013

Tour guide Gedeon Goh, 30, was a huge iPhone fan for five years until last week.

When he decided to switch to a Samsung Galaxy Note 3 last month, he had just one consideration: size; not software, processor, apps or other technical features. He found the iPhone 5's 4-inch screen just too small for his needs.

The Note 3 has a 5.7-inch screen.

"I wanted to see more on my phone and while I have an iPad, there are times you don't want to bring out two devices," he said.

He wanted to be able to have a splitscreen view, to multitask and not have to squint while surfing the Web or viewing photos on his phone.

That was why he was second in line at SingTel's counter at Marina Bay Sands to get the Note 3 when it was launched two weeks ago.

In mere days, he came to rely heavily on the handwriting recognition function of the Note 3.

It is something, he said, that he simply cannot do without in his job.

Large smartphones, or phablets (phone tablets), have risen in popularity this year, with Sony Mobile and Asus joining Samsung in the market with their supersized phones.

But the very definition of a phablet is also evolving.

When Dell launched the 5-inch Streak Android in 2010, it dwarfed the Android, BlackBerry and iOS phones then, all of them with screens smaller than 4 inches.

Today, 5-inch devices are the new normal: LG G2 (5.2inches), Samsung Galaxy S4 (4.99inches), HTC One (4.7inches), Sony Xperia Z1 (5inches) and BlackBerry Z30 (5inches).

Consumer demand was one reason why BlackBerry gave the Z30 a 5-inch screen, said Mr Cameron Vernest, BlackBerry's managing director for Singapore and the Philippines.

"It's about price to cost. Why pay for a small screen, when you can have something bigger?" he added.

All three Singapore telcos report a spike in demand for larger phones.

SingTel said a quarter of its customers are now using devices with screens 5 inches or larger.

M1 said that, in the last nine months, 47per cent of the devices it sold had screens larger than 5 inches, compared with 13 per cent last year. For devices with screens 4 inches to 4.9inches, it was 46 per cent.

Fewer supersized models were launched last year.

M1's chief marketing officer, MrP.Subramaniam, attributes the shift to changing lifestyle needs.

He said: "With 4G technology, more consumers are watching videos or playing online games on their mobile devices, especially on public transportation or while waiting for an appointment.

"They find such multimedia experiences enriched by a larger screen."

"The combination of the functionality of a phone with a bigger screen also means that consumers now have less need to carry multiple devices."

MsCindy Hung, StarHub's assistant vice-president for consumer premises equipment, thinks demand for larger phones or phablets will keep on growing.

She said: "Though smartphones with standard screen sizes currently dominate the market, we believe phablets have mainstream potential and the popularity of such phone-tablet hybrids will continue to gain momentum."

But there are also buyers for the undersized smartphones. With them in mind, Samsung launched the Galaxy S4 mini while HTC unveiled the HTC One mini.

Research company GfK Asia said in Singapore, sales of devices with screens larger than 4.99 inches hit 623,500 in the period between September last year and August this year, compared with just 140,000 in the same period a year earlier.

But sales of smaller devices, with screens measuring 3.99 inches to 4.99 inches, still led the pack during this period, with 1,073,400 sold in the year ended this August, compared with 563,200 units a year earlier.

Digital Life takes a look at the main supersized contenders on the market right now.

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The largest contender: Sony Xperia Z Ultra

Just as tablet elements can be grafted onto a smartphone, phone features can be added to a tablet.

But where does one end and the other begin?

The Asus Fonepad is a 7-inch phone that is the size of a tablet. The Samsung Galaxy Note 8 is an 8-inch tablet with voice features.

Understandably, neither will fit comfortably in your front or back pocket.

On the other hand, the Xperia Z Ultra, with its 6.44-inch screen, would be able to slide in the back pocket of your jeans. However, the ZUltra's large size and thinness mean that it will flex if pressure is applied to both ends or in the middle, so sitting down on it would not be a good idea. In your hands, the 179.4mm x 92.2mm phablet feels like a paperback - large enough to read without squinting, yet compact enough to tuck into a pocket or handbag.

Just 6.5mm thick, it is skinnier than the 5.7-inch Samsung Galaxy Note 3, which is 8.3mm thick. This led to the rather long profile, as Sony wanted to keep it thin.

Whatever the reason, the Z Ultra presents a good grip and the light weight gives it good balance, even when someone grips it by the corners.

Users who want a good screen for watching their videos or reading a book will find the ZUltra's bright Triluminos screen sharp. It displays great colours and contrast.

On the downside, the audio punch from the built-in speaker is relatively weak, so investing in decent earphones or headphones would be wise if you want to get full value from your TV show or blockbuster movie.

Some may lament the lack of multitasking features (like those of the Samsung Note 3), but Sony Mobile is not trying to compete on that front. It reckons some will just want extra real estate on a screen, minus additional bells and whistles.

But if you need to take notes, the Z Ultra can recognise handwriting. Instead of a stylus, you can write on screen with any conducting material, even a pencil.

With such a large screen, though, do expect a greater drain on the battery, especially if you watch videos constantly.

It is also dust-resistant and waterproof up to 1.5m for 30 minutes.


Price: $1,038 without contract

Processor: 2.2GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 800

Display: 6.44-inch full-HD Triluminos, 1,920 x 1,080 pixels

Cameras: 8 megapixels (rear), 2 megapixels (front)

Operating system: Android 4.2 Jelly Bean

Memory: 16GB (expandable to 64GB)

Battery: 3,000mAh


Features: 4/5

Design: 5/5

Performance: 4/5

Value for money: 4/5

Battery life: 5/5

Overall: 4/5

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The original: Samsung Galaxy Note 3

When the original Galaxy Note was launched in 2011, the 5.3-inch display was considered massive. Today, 5-inch devices are commonplace but that does not mean that the latest Note 3 fails to stand out from the crowd.

Giant screen aside, Samsung's Note offerings have always centred around multitasking with the S Pen stylus, which one uses just like a regular pen on a paper notebook.

It can be used to write or draw on the screen, manipulate information (copy, paste and highlight) and even access short cuts unique to the stylus.

With the Note 3, Samsung has added more features to the S Pen. Now, there are short cuts based on the type of information written on screen, be it an address it can cough up in Google Maps, a number it can open directly in the dialler, or a contact it can store directly in the phone's contact list.

In case you are confused about how to use the SPen, a pop-up menu that lists the most commonly used S Pen features appears every time you pull out the stylus.

While its screen is dwarfed by the Xperia Z Ultra, it is big enough for watching your favourite TV show.

For those who might cringe at the thought of whipping out this giant to make calls, Samsung has a rather expensive accessory, the Galaxy Gear ($488) watch to pair with the device.

One can take photos, read SMS messages and make calls on the phone via the Gear watch, without having to pull out the supersized device.

But the true gem here is in the multitasking software implemented by Samsung. You can choose to open two apps concurrently on screen to, say, scroll through Facebook and watch a YouTube video at the same time.

Like the Xperia Z Ultra, the Note 3 uses the latest and most powerful quad-core processor. Samsung also threw in a 13-megapixel camera.

The night shots taken by both the Note 3 and Z Ultra can be better. But the Note 3 stands out as a sort of Swiss Army knife, for those who want more than just a big screen companion.


Price: $1,048 without contract

Processor: 2.3GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor

Display: 5.7-inch full-HD Super Amoled, 1,920 x 1,080 pixels

Cameras: 13 megapixels (rear), 2 megapixels (front)

Operating system: Android 4.3 (Jelly Bean)

Memory: 32GB plus microSD slot (up to 64GB), 3GB RAM

Battery: 3,200mAh


Features: 5/5

Design: 4/5

Performance: 5/5

Value for money: 5/5

Battery life: 4/5

Overall: 5/5

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The new kid: BlackBerry Z30

Like its full-touch Z10, which was its first BB10 device, the Z30 is a touchscreen electronic slab sans keyboard. What is a surprise is that the 5-inch screen is the biggest the company has ever made.

While it is not a full high-definition display and packs slightly fewer pixels per inch than the Z10, the screen here is snappy, perfect for navigating e-mail, photos, webpages and social networks.

The sharpness is most obvious when you fire up the 8-megapixel camera. Its processor is slightly faster than the Z10's and its battery has a larger capacity.

Dual speakers are positioned at the back for better sound.

The OS has also been tweaked, but the changes seem to be refinements rather than upgrades.

For all its software and hardware improvements, there are still some glaring omissions. For example, the YouTube app merely redirects you to the browser, whereas the Android and iOS YouTube apps let you watch a video and search for new videos simultaneously.

Like the Windows Phone, its ecosystem is still lacking, omitting popular apps such as Instagram and services such as the digital books that are offered on iOS and Android devices.

If you love BlackBerry phones a lot and swear by their ecosystem, the one here has not changed much and can give Windows Phone a run for its money.


Price: $828

Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon Dual-core 1.7GHz

Display: 5-inch Super Amoled

Operating system: BlackBerry 10.2

Cameras: 8 megapixels (rear), 2 megapixels (front)

Memory: 16GB, 2GB RAM

Battery: Non-removable 2,880mAh battery


Features: 3/5

Design: 3/5

Performance: 3/5

Value for money: 4/5

Battery life: 3/5

Overall: 3/5

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The small big phone: Galaxy S4 mini With LTE

Size and price are not the only things Samsung and HTC have slashed on the scaled-down versions of their flagship devices.

For Samsung, aside from a screen shrunken from the Galaxy S4's 4.99 inches to 4.3 inches for the mini version, the "mini-mised" S4 uses a dual-core processor, whereas the S4 uses as quad-core processor.

Its battery has been similarly downsized and its internal memory halved to 8GB from 16GB. But at least the S4 mini has a micro-SD slot, to boost its limited storage by an additional 64GB.

The most significant downsizing is in the camera: 13 megapixels in the original S4 but just 8 megapixels for the mini. The HTC One mini keeps the same camera as the HTC One.

Then again, the deletion of some S4 features, including Eraser mode for the camera, means the S4 mini lacks some of its bigger sibling's gimmickry, which may be good news to some.

Build-wise, the mini uses the same removable plastic back as the S4, which means that you can swop batteries on your own, unlike with the HTC One.

Some good things have been retained, including LTE connectivity to the faster 4G mobile network and a bright screen that does the Galaxy branding justice.


Price: $698

Processor:1.7GHz dual-core processor

Display: 4.3-inch qHD Super Amoled

Operating system: Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean

Cameras: 8 megapixels (rear), 1.9 megapixels (front)

Memory: 8GB Internal memory, 1.5GB RAM

Battery: 1,900mAh


Features: 3/5

Design: 3/5

Performance: 3/5

Value for money: 3/5

Battery life: 3/5

Overall: 3/5

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The almost-as-huge: HTC One mini

In terms of competition, the Samsung Galaxy S4 sits up there with the HTC One. Both were released at around the same time and while one boasted some new features, the other banked on its design aesthetics.

Now that some time has passed, it is easy to dismiss some of the S4's features as being too gimmicky.

Unlike Samsung though, HTC seems to have made more concessions with the mini version; the biggest being with its looks and material.

The original HTC One boasted an aluminium body, now replaced with a silver-coloured plastic shell. However, there is still no micro-SD slot to increase storage capacity.

Do not be fooled by the apparent low count of the 4-megapixel camera though. The mini uses the same system as the original One, which has a lens supported by its UltraPixel camera that produces great images, even in low-light conditions. However, the image stabilisation function has been omitted in the mini version.

For Samsung, trimming the S4's 4.99-inch screen down to the 4.3inches of the S4 mini makes sense.

But with the HTC One, the cutback from 4.7 inches to 4.3 inches is hardly noticeable. Considering the other features sacrificed, those checking out the HTC One mini should give the original HTC One a closer look, as the mini makes its bigger sibling look more attractive and at only a small price premium.


Price: $688

Processor: 1.4GHz dual-core processor

Display: 4.3-inch Super LCD2

Operating system: Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean

Cameras: 4 megapixels (rear), 1.6 megapixels (front)

Memory: 16GB Internal memory, 1GB RAM

Battery: 1,800mAh


Features: 3/5

Design: 4/5

Performance: 3/5

Value for money: 3/5

Battery life: 3/5

Overall: 3/5

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Oct 9, 2013

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