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Plus-sized phones dominate wireless trade show

7:48 PM, Feb 26, 2013   |    comments
The HTC One smartphone is shown at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.(Photo: Rob Pegoraro, USA TODAY)
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By Rob Pegoraro, Special for USA TODAY

BARCELONA -- The annual wireless-industry trade show happening here this week is called Mobile World Congress, but it could also be fairly labeled the Android Market.

The operating system that Google launched on a single U.S. phone in 2008 has pushed every other smartphone platform but iOS to the margins -- and Apple is sitting out this show, as it does with most tech events it doesn't run.

The big Android news here is bigness itself. A little over a year ago, Samsung's Galaxy Note -- a phone whose 5.3-inch screen pushed its dimensions toward those of a tablet -- popularized the "phablet" concept, and then its 5.5-inch Galaxy Note II showed that a still-larger screen would draw buyers. Other vendors have since busied themselves rolling out plus-sized models to counter those of the Korean conglomerate.

Lenovo's K900 and LG's Optimus G Pro may merely match the Note II's size, but the touchscreen on ZTE's Grand Memo spans 5.7 inches. And Huawei's Ascend Mate raises the ante yet again with its 6.1-in. display; it still, however, barely fits in a shirt pocket.

You can't say that for Asus's new Fonepad. With its 7-inch screen (imagine that the Nexus 7 tablet Asus builds for Google could also make phone calls), it all but demands transportation in a purse or messenger bag. In terms of relative size, it is to my head as my wife's iPhone 4 is to our two-year-old's noggin when she plays with it.

(The Fonepad will sell for $249 but doesn't have an announced carrier; the other models don't have U.S. prices announced yet. Many phones introduced here will reach other markets first as their manufacturers continue to negotiate with U.S. carriers.)

For people with regulation-size hands, phablets usually defy one-handed use -- a problem if, say, you're a busy reporter trying to catch up on his e-mail while refueling with an espresso in the Fira de Barcelona's capacious exhibit halls.

But many users have apparently elected to trade away that option: Samsung says it sold 3 million Note IIs in little over a month after its release, although that's still far behind the 5 million iPhone 5s Apple sold in that device's first weekend.

This shift may also speak to decaying relevancy of voice calling for many phone users. The GSMA, the London-based group that runs Mobile World Congress, announced Monday that by 2018, mobile data revenues will top mobile voice worldwide, with the U.S. crossing that threshold next year.

The other trend in Android concerns what fills those larger screens -- an interface that can look distinctly estranged from the one on such "pure Google" phones as the Nexus 4.

Having already pasted their own front ends on Android's home screen, vendors are now taking advantage of Android's open-source flexibility to push alterations deeper into Google's software.

Many phones here, for instance, toss aside Google's recent-apps button, which provides thumbnail views of your open programs, in favor of a menu button. The HTC One's home screen consists of a scrollable series of tiles representing news from the world and from your friends, like Windows Phone's start screen and the Flipboard news app before that, and Huawei's Ascend P2, introduced at the show, ditches the "app drawer" listing all of your installed software.

The changes show some creativity but also chisel away consistency. Each time you pick up a new Android phone, you should have the same vast set of apps available but may have to relearn how you manage them.

Meanwhile, I have yet to see a non-Nexus phone here running the 4.2 version of Android Google shipped in November. Phones with the 4.1 release lose out on a nifty gesture-typing option, in which you "write" words by tracing a line from character to character in the onscreen keyboard, but also don't get Google's latest security fixes.

The race to go beyond "Retina Display" resolution seems even less productive. When LG felt compelled to use magnifying glasses to show off the superiority of the Optimus Pro G's more than 400 pixels per inch (the iPhone 5 packs in 326), you have to ask if anybody should care about those extra pixels.

I'd happier to see phone vendors step up their competition to extend the still-problematic battery life of smartphones. Expect to see the term "mAh," short for milliamp hours, in increasingly large type on spec sheets this year: 2,100 mAh, the capacity of Samsung's Galaxy S III, now looks to be the floor for new Android smartphones, with many phablets topping 3,000 mAh.

Microsoft's Windows Phone and BlackBerry's BlackBerry 10 constituted sideshows next to Android (though Nokia's cheap, compact 520 provided a pleasant counterpoint to the phablet fad), and Mozilla's intriguing Firefox OS won't arrive in the U.S. until maybe next year.

But even without an Apple exhibit on the floor, the volume and variety of companies showing off cases, cables and covers for the iPhone -- as well as all the iPhones in use by MWC attendees -- leave no doubt of the dent Cupertino continues to make in the phone universe.

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