Best phablets 2014: The best big-screened phones to buy right now
Phones have been getting larger, looking to bring you more of what you love: a bigger, better experience. They have become devices designed to give you the ultimate in entertainment, the ultimate in productivity, the ultimate smartphone experience in a package to easily take with you on the move.
Devices have been coming from all corners, bringing huge displays but also huge batteries, taking you beyond the endurance of a typical smartphone - even if you'll need bigger hands, deeper pockets or even a bag. Yes gents, you may soon be needing a manbag if you want to carry the latest phablet, and ladies, this could be the ultimate clutchbag filler. The time has come: arise the phablet.
Phablet (noun): A smartphone having a screen size that is intermediate between a typical smartphone and a tablet. (def)
Phablets have fought their way into a space of their own, a hinterland of temptation. The definition of a phablet is still something of a grey area: we would say the Xperia Z1 and the LG G2 don't fall into this category despite the relative body and screen size they offer, they are smartphones; equally, the Huawei MediaPad 7 Vogue or the Asus Fonepad are too big and we class those as tablets, even though they make calls.
Should you be drawn in and go big, or stick with the firmly pocketable? Here we run through your phablet choices, so if you've decided to go big, you've come to the right place. There will undoubtedly be more large-screen devices in 2014 - some of which we've seen teased already, such as the Huawei Ascend Mate 2 and P6S - but here we round up the best phablet devices based on what we've reviewed in full.
8. HTC One max
The HTC One max gives you a great 1920 x 1080 display (373ppi) spread over 5.9-inches, adorned with Android 4.3 and Sense 5.5, so it's totally up to date. The display is excellent, delivering authentic colours and great viewing angles.
It's a big handset, measuring 164.5 x 82.5 x 10.29mm and weighing 217g, meaning you've got quite a lump in your pocket and it doesn't quite carry with it the superb design values as the original HTC One.
But the size means you get the twin front-facing BoomSound speakers, making this a great device for those who love music or want to watch movies or play games without headphones. The battery is impressive too, with the 3300mAh cell getting you through a day with ease, although you can't change it as it's sealed into the body.
However, the HTC One max isn't as powerful as some of its rivals, despite being one of the newest, running on the older Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 processor with 2GB of RAM, the same as the HTC One launched much earlier in the year. Unfortunately, the HTC One max arrives at a premium price point too, making it just as expensive as other more powerful devices already out there.
QUICK VERDICT: The HTC One max offers the HTC experience on the big screen, but there's little novelty other than the size. The design looks good, microSD card expansion is useful and the BoomSound speakers are the best around, but this huge phone might be too big for some to handle and never really makes use of the screen size on offer, considering the high price.
FULL REVIEW: HTC One max review
7. Samsung Galaxy Mega
The Samsung Galaxy Mega attempts to bring big displays and small budget together. Although the design fits that of the rest of the Galaxy family - like the SGS4 - be warned that this phone really is mega. A 6.3-inch display swells the body to 167.6 x 88 x 8mm and a weight of 199g means it might be just too big to be manageable for some.
The display is reasonable, limited in resolution at 1280 x 720 pixels (233ppi), but there's plenty of space for gaming, movies or browsing. It's one of the least powerful devices listed here, which contributes to its lower-than-most price point, but the 8GB of internal memory is restrictive, especially for gamers who might have to contend with many GB of game files.
For that low price you get a lot of display on your phone and a Samsung experience that's pretty good: it's better suited to music and movie fans who can store files on microSD, and does come with a few compromises.
QUICK VERDICT: We like the Mega. But there's no doubt in our minds that it will be just too big for most people, and it lacks some of the cool features of something like the Note 3 - the stylus most notably - but it's still a great device. That internal storage issue isn't going to go away though, and it will limit a lot of users.
FULL REVIEW: Samsung Galaxy Mega review
6. Huawei Ascend Mate
It's important to note that the Ascend Mate isn't for those who want the best gaming experience, as it's not well set up for that. Where it did win us over was in the usability, screen quality - despite having only a modest resolution at 720p (241ppi) - and the epic battery life. If you need a phone and general "internet" device, then the Mate can't really be bettered. Heavy users will get two days battery life and light users could see three or four days.
The 163.5 x 85.7 x 9.9mm and 198g weight are respectable, but the low internal storage lets it down: 8GB will limit the number of apps you can install that require a lot of data, such as games.
It's nicely designed, feels solid and generally gets the user interface customisations about right. It's got a reasonable price tag too. Just bear in mind that it's not a graphics powerhouse, and you'll be fine. For normal use, the quad-core processor makes it feel snappy and slick.
QUICK VERDICT: While its size will put most off, if you're keen on a big phone this offers loads. It might not have the pen features of the Note, but if you can live without that, then this phone offers you many of the same advantages. Watching video on it is an absolute joy, and for browsing the web out and about, it feels like you've almost got a laptop with you. A solid effort from Huawei, and a phone we're very happy to recommend.
FULL REVIEW: Huawei Ascend Mate review
5. Samsung Galaxy Note 2
The Samsung Galaxy Note took the smartphone world by storm, crossing the divide between tablets and smartphones and really doing a lot to push these big beasts into the limelight. It might be ageing, but it's still well worth considering.
The 5.5-inch display gives you room to play, without being too big for your pocket, although it's only a 1280 x 720 pixel display. There's an older 1.6GHz quad-core chipset at its heart, but it still has plenty of power for cutting through daily tasks.
There's a stylus which might be more popular with those who prefer to note down things in writing, but you can equally just leave the stylus in place and never use it, if it's the larger display that you're after. It's big and beautiful, and far from stupid.
It's only the newer Note 3 and some more powerful devices around that see the Note 2 slip down the rankings. But with its price point also slipping it makes for a top purchase.
QUICK VERDICT: We're in love. This phone may seem wildly illogical, but those fabulous Koreans have somehow managed to create a device that offers so much more than a smaller phone and almost makes tablets pointless. This phone won't be for everyone, but for us it's one of the best Android devices money can buy.
FULL REVIEW: Samsung Galaxy Note 2 review
4. Oppo N1
Of all the phones we’ve handled we’ve never been approached by so many members of the public to ask about what we're using. The Oppo N1 caught peoples’ eyes and stood out as the different, alternative phone that it genuinely is.
There's no stock Android though - it's either Oppo's own ColorOS Android-based system or the open-source CyanogenMod. If the idea of the latter system - CyanogenMod is like an open-source Android re-skin - sounds scary, then fear not. It’s a lot like using Android 4.3 and works a treat. Add to that a decent 5.9-inch 1080p IPS screen, a quirky rotational camera that’s of genuine use, solid design and fair price and the N1 gives us a lot to marvel at.
Even though the S600 processor at the N1’s core isn’t the most up to date, we didn't mind. Because for the price it’s a fair association, and as a smartphone it still did everything that we wanted it to.
If you’re on a 3G network and are looking for a fully-featured bargain phablet then the Oppo N1 is a great option. Can’t stretch to a Galaxy Note 3? The N1 would be our alternative budget choice.
QUICK VERDICT: The N1 has a lot going for it, even if it does come from a brand that many Westerners will look at and say "what?". It’s like the hipster of phones; a positively different device that, while it won’t suit all and isn't the most powerful on the market, we have grown to love over time.
FULL REVIEW: Oppo N1 (CyanogenMod) review
3. Sony Xperia Z Ultra
The Sony Xperia Z Ultra is a strange device. It's a technological marvel in many ways, delivering a big screen experience, with plenty of power in a package that's skinny, but waterproof. On the other hand, with 6.4-inches of full HD display (344ppi), it will be far too big for many to conventionally use as a phone.
If it's size that matters, however, then the Sony delivers it. The display is very good, performing better than some of the displays in smaller Sony Xperia devices like the Z1. The downside is that the Z Ultra is huge, measuring 179 x 92 x 6.5mm and weighing 212g. It is thin, though, meaning it's lighter than the HTC One max and despite considerably more power than that handset it costs no more cash.
Inside is a power Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor with 2GB of RAM. To help you get the most out of the display, it supports pens and pencils, so you can just pick one up and start scribbling. The software isn't as sophisticated as the Galaxy Note 3's S Pen support, but as a multimedia device, the Xperia Z Ultra really does deliver.
QUICK VERDICT: You'll either love the concept of a phone bigger than your head or you won't, and that's the bottom line here. But if it's the former you won't be disappointed, we just don't know how many people will fit into that category. The Sony Xperia Z Ultra is a marvel, but a marvel that might be limited in appeal.
FULL REVIEW: Sony Xperia Z Ultra review
2. Nokia Lumia 1520
When it comes to Windows Phone 8 devices there is no better handset on the market: the 1520 is certainly the best Lumia we've used to date. That's not just thanks to the reassuringly high quality build, but also thanks to the new Black OS - a platform that Nokia uses to stack its own additional apps and behind-the-scenes quirks on top of Microsoft's standard OS.
Other standout features include the brilliant 6-inch screen, complete with 1920 x 1080 Full HD IPS display, a brilliant camera, Here Maps for navigation, and plenty of power from the Snapdragon S800 processor and 2GB of RAM.
It may be huge, but if that's exactly what you're looking for then the first Windows Phone phablet is also a huge success, pipped to the post only by the excellent Samsung Galaxy Note 3. The Lumia 1520 is a fantastic smartphone that can sit proudly in among its phablet peers and, indeed, better the majority of them.
QUICK VERDICT: Not only the best Windows Phone 8 phablet, but the best WP8 device we've yet used. A stunning camera, a fast user experience, a strong battery life - it's all here.
FULL REVIEW: Nokia Lumia 1520 review
1. Samsung Galaxy Note 3
The Samsung Galaxy Note really kicked off the phablet craze, and the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 takes the format and continues to refine it. In this 2013 model, there's a cracking 5.7-inch display offering a 1920 x 1080 pixel resolution, giving you 386ppi. It's packed into a frame that measures 151.2 x 79.2 x 8.3mm, making it one of the most compact phablets around.
Some might not like the faux leather back, but you can peel that off and swap it out: as well as access the internals to expand the storage or change the battery.
There's plenty of power, thanks to the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 chipset and 3GB of RAM, meaning that everything is slick and smooth. Samsung hasn't ignored the screen space on offer, giving you innovative features through the S Pen to help keep you productive.
You get a lot with the Note 3, but that comes at a premium price. You can get bigger displays for the same money, such as the Z1 Ultra, but we feel in the Note 3 that the size is just right.
QUICK VERDICT: There will be some who will dismiss this phone out of hand for being too big. Those people are silly, and will never know what they are missing. The Note 3 is a diamond in the rough, a phone that doesn't just follow that pack, but leads it shouting, "Come on you dozy slowcoaches, at least try to keep up". It has instantly become our go-to Android phone, and will remain so until the Note 4, no doubt.
FULL REVIEW: Samsung Galaxy Note 3 review