Take a look at smartphone and tablet releases over time and you’ll find a trend: Smartphones are getting bigger, while tablets are getting smaller.
To see how the market has changed over the last five years, here’s the proportion of small (less than 4.5-inch), medium (between 4.5- and 5.2-inch) and large phones (more than 5.2-inch) released since 2010:
Tiny screens are nearing extinction, while the large phone (aka “phablet”) looks poised to grab half the market by 2015. Today, for each new 4-inch handset (Sony Xperia Z1 Compact), there are four corresponding phablets (LG G3, iPhone 6 Plus, HTC One Max, Samsung Galaxy Note 4).
Here’s the same chart for tablets of small (less than 9-inch), medium (between 9-inch and 11-inch), and large (more than 11-inch):
There’s a little more flux here, but on the whole, tablets are getting smaller. In 2013 and 2014, over 60 percent of all tablets could be considered small (less than 9 inches in screen size), up from 38 percent in 2010. Big tablets like the 12-inch Microsoft Surface Pro 3 and Samsung Note Pro 12.2 have trickled out once every few months, but small tablets remain far more common. Consider that the Galaxy Tab 4, ASUS Memo Pad 7, Dell Venue 7, and Hisense Sero 7 Pro all came out this year, and all are just 7 inches.
As smartphones grow and tablets shrink, we have to wonder: Are we converging on the same device? Does anything separate the modern small tablet (under 9-inch) from the large phone (over 5.2-inch), beside the fact that the latter can make calls? And which offers the better bang for your buck?
Let’s take a look at the data, from price to size, to camera and battery life and more.
Average prices: Tablets show more spread
Comparing price is a bit tricky, given that most people buy smartphones with a two-year contract but purchase tablets at full price. To keep things simple, we’ll throw out the contracts and focus only on the full MSRP.
Based on a sample of over 1,600 phones and 750 tablets, we found that smartphone prices moved surprisingly little even as display sizes grew. The average price per size range was as follows:
- Small phones: $343
- Medium phones: $368
- Large phones (“phablets”): $397
Tablets, on the other hand, chart a far more linear course in pricing. As the following averages show, the bigger the tablet, the bigger the price.
- Small tablets: $304
- Medium tablets: $533
- Large tablets: $899
Overall, tablets and smartphones have significantly different pricing structures. The tablet gets a lot more expensive as screen size goes up, while the biggest smartphones are only about 15% more expensive than the smallest, on average.
Here's the fun fact: When it comes to just the large phone versus the small tablet, their prices are quite similar—separated by just $93, on average.
Average price per inch: Phones start high, stay high
A straight-up price comparison may not be fair when the 12-inch Surface Pro 3 gives you so much more real estate than a 4-inch iPhone 5s. With that in mind, we did the same calculation for price per inch.
For phones, the average cost per inch started high and stayed high:
- Small phones: $97 per inch
- Medium phones: $74 per inch
- Large phones: $70 per inch
Tablet prices made more sense, getting bigger along with the device. Note that the average price per inch for a large tablet is the same as the average for large phones.
- Small tablets: $42 per inch
- Medium tablets: $53 per inch
- Large tablets: $70 per inch
By the inch, small tablets are by far the most affordable device category of the bunch—40% cheaper than large phones. If you simply want the most screen real estate for your money, the small tablet is the clear winner.
The camera: A priority for phones, not tablets
For camera quality, it’s a different story. As with MSRP, we calculated the average number of megapixels (MP) for each device and size category below (2013 data onlyy):
(Note: Sensor size would be an even more telling metric, but tablet makers are inconsistent about reporting any camera spec besides megapixels. So for today’s purposes, we stuck with MPs—the most widely and reliably reported figure.)
Phone camera resolution seems to grow along with phone size, as shown here:
- Small phones: 5.7 MPs
- Medium phones: 7.7 MPs
- Large phones: 9.9 MPs
Even though tablet sizes generally range from 7 to 13 inches, camera resolution in tablets is surprisingly stagnant:
- Small tablets: 3.8 MPs
- Medium tablets: 4.0 MPs
- Large tablets: 5.8 MPs
For both phones and tablets, camera quality tends to increase as screen size increases. But the smartphone is clearly better on average. Consider that only six tablets have ever shipped with a camera above 8 megapixels. Compare that to smartphones, where there have been 46 such devices released in 2014 alone.See the scrolling list below for details.
Even if you consider a tablet with a fairly good camera, like the 8.1MP Sony Xperia Z2, you’ll find that neither experts nor users comment much on photography in their reviews. Most customers don’t seem to take cameras seriously on tablets, and likely as a result, neither do manufacturers. The large phone wins in a rout.
Storage: Similar, save for large tablets
Tablets may not make phone calls or take great pictures, but they’re better equipped for storing tons of photos and videos, right?
Not really. In the data we gathered (since 2013), the average storage on different-size phones varies just a little bit:
- Small phones: 10.2 GB
- Medium phones: 11.5 GB
- Large phones: 13.9 GB
Even though tablets are bigger in size, their storage amounts hardly differ from those of phones. The exception: The large tablets come with (comparatively) spacious storage.
- Small tablets: 12.7 GB
- Medium tablets: 17.4 GB
- Large tablets: 89.6 GB
For each device, base-model storage increases very slightly with each additional inch of screen size—with one exception: large tablets. Here, we find there’s little difference between large phones and small tablets. The real divide for this category is the Giant Tablet vs. Everything Else.
Average battery life: Smartphones prevail
For battery life (in data since 2013), smartphones stand out for their greater stamina:
- Small phones: 9.7 hours
- Medium phones: 12.8 hours
- Large phones: 17.7 hours
Large phones simply hold their juice better than smaller ones. The latest evidence is the 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus, whose 24-hour battery life dwarfs the 4.7-inch iPhone 6’s 14 hours. This phenomenon has been around for awhile: The 5.7-inch Galaxy Note 3 has always outlasted the 5-inch Galaxy S4; the 5.9-inch HTC One Max gives you 25% more battery than the 5-inch HTC One (M8). The likely explanation? Battery capacity. By nature of their size, larger phones have more room for packing in plenty of milliamp hours (mAh).
Tablets, on the other hand, struggle somewhat to get through the day.
- Small tablets: 8.3 hours
- Medium tablets: 8.6 hours
- Large tablets: 10.8 hours
Note that tablets have better battery life as they get bigger, but that the difference between a small and large tablet is less pronounced, on average, than it is for phones. With tablets, it’s likely that those 11- to 13-inch screens require so much power, that it mostly offsets the advantage of a giant battery.
For the phablet versus the mini-tablet, however, the distinction is clear: The phablet dominates.
Your choice hinges on a few key specs
If you throw out making phone calls, the choice between a mini-tablet and phablet comes down to a few simple factors.
Get a large smartphone if you’re...
- an aspiring Ansel Adams
- always looking for your charge cord
Get a small tablet if you...
- are on a budget
- just want a bigger screen
But if you're worried about anything else—like storage, availability, or the overall price tag—don't. For those attributes, the phablet and mini-tablet are quickly becoming the same device.Behind the Spec Sheet seeks to draw new insights based on hardware data. Produced by FindtheBest, a company that aggregates specs and features in a centralized database, this weekly guest column will share data-driven discoveries and surprises, and attempt to expose common misconceptions.