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Can a single mobile form factor rule us all?

By Kenny Yeo - 15 Feb 2016

Can a single mobile form factor rule us all?

These are exciting times for mobile computing. In the past, it used to be just notebooks, but now smartphones and tablets are proving themselves to be excellent productivity tools as well. Surely, there were smartphones before the iPhone, but it was the iPhone that introduced the concept of smartphones - phones that could do more than merely answer calls and text - to a wider audience in 2007. The iPhone, along with the success of the App Store, ensured that it various abilities and capabilities were unmatched by any other phone before it. It even coined the phrase, “There’s an app for that," that help perpetuated the thought that there was little that a smartphone couldn’t do.

And today, that very phrase has never been truer. Modern high-end smartphones can surf the web with ease, reply and compose emails, crop and edit photos, and even be used to create videos. It’s truly remarkable when you consider that just years ago, you’d need a proper notebook or desktop machine for doing these things.

The next logical step in this evolution would be to increase the screen size and this was what happened in 2010 when Apple released the iPad. It ran the same iOS operating system as Apple’s smartphones and was in essence a larger iPhone. However, all that extra display real estate made a big difference. Text was easier to read, videos were more enjoyable, and the on-screen keyboard was also larger and easier to type on. The tablet was dubbed as the ultimate media consumption device.

The Samsung Galaxy Note 5 is the latest iteration of the phone that spawned the phablet craze.

Seeing the success of tablets, Samsung decided to merge the two form factors to give us the 5.3-inch Galaxy Note, arguably the first device that sparked the current phablet phenomenon. On hindsight, the phablet made perfect sense as it combined everything users liked about smartphones with the larger display of tablets. Even Apple, who said earlier that it would not make larger smartphones, eventually conceded and made its first phablet - the 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus in 2014.

With Continuum, the new Lumia 950 and 950XL can function almost as if they were PCs.

Fast forward to 2015 and we are beginning to see the next step in the evolution of mobile computing. Thanks to incredible advances in microprocessor technology, we now have smartphones that will fit into the palm of our hands and yet have the same amount of processing power as a desktop from years ago. A great example of this is Microsoft’s new flagship Lumia phones - the Lumia 950 and 950XL- which boast of a new feature called Continuum that turns it into almost full-fledged PCs. This is a testament of the remarkable processing capabilities of today’s phones.

We now have tablets of various sizes. The iPad Pro with its 12.9-inch display is Apple's latest and largest.

As phones become larger and powerful, tablets are beginning to make less sense for consumers. While Apple is still the runaway leader in the tablet business, sales have been dwindling for the past couple of quarters. Recent studies also show that the most popular iPad today is the iPad 2 from nearly five years - accounting for over about a fifth of all iPads sold. The next most popular Apple tablet on the list is the four year old iPad Mini.

In order to reinvigorate sales and renew interest in tablets, Apple released the iPad Pro just a couple of months ago and are calling it the tablet that can replace your notebook or computer. With a 12.9-inch display that rivals most Ultrabooks and its A9X processor which is said to be more powerful than 80% of all portable PCs shipped in the past year, the giant tablet is arguably more adept than most traditional notebooks at graphics intensive tasks such as video editing and computer-aided design.

Is it a tablet or a notebook? The Surface Pro 4 successfully bridges both classes of devices.

On the other hand, Microsoft’s Surface tablets have been very successful in their own attempts to blur the lines between tablets and notebooks. Thanks to the touch-input friendly design of Windows 10, the Surface Pro 4 works fine as a regular tablet; but attach the Type Cover keyboard and it turns into a very usable notebook. It even runs full-fledged Windows 10 like a proper notebook.

But wait, notebooks are not going out without a fight, and today’s notebooks have never been slimmer and lighter. Case in point is Apple’s new 12-inch MacBook which weighs just 920g and is just over 13mm thick at its fattest point. These notebooks are giving tablets and detachable/convertible notebooks a run for their money because they are super portable and arguably more practical and functional. But perhaps the best example of a notebook that wants to make tablets redundant is the Microsoft Surface Book. It is for all intents and purposes, a notebook, one that even has discrete graphics; however, its display detaches and turns into a Window tablet. It truly seeks to offer the best of both worlds.

The MacBook is so compact and thin that it's arguably more portable and useful to carry around than a standard tablet.

The fact of all these developments is a clear sign that form factors formobile computing are converging. Phones are now almost as large as tablets, while tablets on the other hand are growing larger and are rivaling traditional notebooks for both display size and functionality. Meanwhile, notebooks are also becoming incredibly portable whilst retaining much of their original functionality.

And at this point, it doesn’t seem like a single form factor will emerge victorious. Diehard notebook users are reluctant to give up their keyboards for the flimsy ones of detachable notebooks, while tablets power users cannot bear the thought of carrying something as bulky as a notebook. And then there are those who cannot stomach the thought of carrying a phone that won’t fit neatly into their pockets. However, with proponents of all form factors constantly pushing the boundaries of what is possible, who knows what the future might hold?

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