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Best phablet? What's that? It might be a bit of a silly name, but “phablet” conveys its meaning well. A cross, in size at least, between a phone and a tablet, big-screen smartphones are currently sitting at the top of the line-ups of the biggest phone manufacturers.
A big screen phone has a lot of advantages. Gamers find them particularly appealing, while watching videos and browsing the web on one of these larger devices is certainly a more immersive experience. For photographers, being able to view your carefully crafted compositions and daily vlogs on a larger screen is also a welcome bonus. A larger screen means a larger phone, which means that you generally get a bigger battery too – great for all-day usage.
Many of the best camera phones can be considered phablets. If you’re wondering if there’s an exact definition for phablet, the answer is no, no not really, but we’d consider anything with a 6-inch screen or above to worthy of the title. Some phones, particularly the Galaxy Note series, with its built-in stylus leave you in no doubt that they belong in this category, while others, such as the iPhone 12 Pro Max, make the cut by virtue of its 6.8-inch screen.
Models from the two big names in smartphones (Apple and Samsung) don’t come cheap, but it could be argued that by buying one device and foregoing an additional tablet device, you do in fact save money. That said, there are some slightly more budget-friendly options on our list too, for those who don’t want to burn such a big hole in their wallet.
Read on to discover our top choices for the best phablet you can buy in 2021
Best phablet in 2021
With its enormous 6.9-inch screen, there’s absolutely no doubt that the Note 20 Ultra belongs in the “phablet” category. This extra large screen is an absolute gem for viewing your video and photos on, with stunning clarity - but it can be a little unwieldy to use for typing and the like, especially if your hands are on the smaller side.
The USP of the “Note” series is that it comes with an integrated “S Pen” stylus. With this, you can write on the screen, but it also has photographic applications, such as working as a remote trigger for the shutter, which can be handy at times.
In terms of the camera set-up, we’ve got three lenses to shoot with, plus a Laser AF sensor which is used for measuring depth. The telephoto zoom offers a 5x optical zoom, but you can also engage up to 50x “super resolution zoom” - though the best results are seen when you stick to 10x digital or below. The main camera has a huge 108MP, with a high-resolution mode that you can engage if you want to show off a lot of detail - otherwise, images are output at 12 megapixels.
The Live Focus (portrait) mode puts in a decent performance, while the Night mode produces good results in low light.
Enthusiasts will enjoy the well-specced “pro” mode, which allows you to make changes to key settings, as well as record in raw format.
Other specifications of note include 5G connectivity, wireless charging and 8K video recording (24fps).
• Read more: Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra review
Usually, Apple uses the same camera setup on both its “Pro” and “Pro Max” models, but with the 12 series, the California giant took a slightly different approach.
The result is, while both have a triple-lens set up, it’s only the larger which has a slightly longer 2.5x (65mm equivalent) lens, as well as sensor-shift stabilisation. That means that if you’re an Apple fan and want the best camera possible, you need to go for the larger of the two devices.
There are some plus points to doing that however. The 6.7-inch screen is gorgeous, and truly displays your photos and videos at their best. That’s especially true if you shoot videos with Dolby Vision HDR enabled, another new feature for the 12 series.
It’s both a positive and a negative that the native iPhone camera app is so simple. You really can just point and shoot and feel assured of excellent results in a wide range of situations. Enthusiasts will welcome the addition of ProRAW shooting, but might prefer to also see advanced controls (though there’s plenty of third party apps that offer the same benefit).
Apple introduced 5G to its 12 series for the first time, while other useful features include increased waterproofing and wireless charging.
• Read more: Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max review
The newest model on our list, the S21 Ultra shares some similar specifications with Samsung’s Note 20 stable, including newly-added compatibility with a stylus (not included with the phone, however).
A very large 6.8-inch screen housed in a pretty large phone (bigger than the iPhone 12 Pro Max for example) makes it a little unwieldy, but it’s a dazzling display for your content.
Camera wise, this is the most versatile on our list, with four different lenses to choose from. The main 108 megapixel lens is surrounded by an ultra-wide lens, plus two telephoto options. The furthest reach is 10x, thanks to a periscope design. This can also be boosted to 100x digitally, though it’s fair to say the results are mixed if you do.
Results from across the lenses are very good in a number of different situations, while you also get 8K video recording (with a crop applied), plus standard 4K video modes.
Other standout features include a great battery life, a well-featured native camera app and 5G connectivity.
• Read more: Samsung S21 Ultra 5G review
If you want a job doing, go do it yourself. That seems to be the thinking behind the Pixel phones which, after years of providing their Android operating system for other manufacturers, entered the fray themselves in 2016. Not only has that enabled Google to keep features like their own virtual assistant pure and unimpeded by less able manufacturer alternatives (we’re looking at you, Samsung Bixby), but right from the start Google chose to emphasize the camera.
Oddly, though, rather than achieve the pure systems integration which Apple prides itself on, Google seem to have turned their phone customers into a series of beta testers (perhaps not too surprising), so the feature set seems a little at odds with what might be useful. Radar-based gesture sensors? Cool, but they do drain the batteries, and the “Face unlock” security isn’t widely supported in Android apps.
While the cameras are great, there is no wide-angle lens, a real shame given the arrival of a stellar astrophotography mode (over 4 minute exposure) to complement the already excellent low light functionality already seen in the Pixel series. Despite the omission, the AI-based system seems to get things right far more often than not, and also includes Live HDR+ allowing you to shoot with pretty much the same view as the final shot – no jarring ‘and after processing’ moments.
• Read more: Google Pixel 4 XL review
The OnePlus is a 5G handset powered with a Snapdragon 865 making it more than comfortable driving its glorious 3168 x 1440 pixel 6.78-inch Quad HD+ display, even at 120Hz. While the device design is perhaps less beautiful than some of the others here – a bit busy on the back – it’s cheaper too, and can be chosen in some stand-out body colors. The design includes a punch-out front-facing camera in the top left corner of a rounded screen.
The camera array’s main camera uses the Sony’s 48-megapixel IMX 689 sensor, so it more than holds its own against the big boys. The system has subtle but effective HDR processing, as well as face tracing which can also handle pets (potentially an Instagram essential!) Capable of capturing 4K video at 60fps and down to super slow motion at 720p@480fps. Stills are bolstered by Nightscape, but the really unusual feature is the 5 megapixel Color Filter Camera which shoots through a coated lens to create hardware-assisted Instagram-like effects. Interesting, though of limited use.
In general operation, the phone is well equipped, with Dolby Atmos support and a screen suited to watching or gaming (indeed OnePlus are especially keen to note their boosted haptics and special gamer’s do-not-notify mode). That said, you’ll see fewer customizations to Android than on a Samsung Galaxy (not necessarily a complaint!)
• Read more: OnePlus 8 Pro review
If you don’t have an enormous budget to spend, but you still want a large phone with interesting camera specs, it’s worth deviating from the “big” brands.
The Xiaomi Mi 10T Pro has a 6.67-inch screen. It boasts an impressive refresh rate for a smooth display, but in terms of deep colours and brightness, there are better options on the market.
For the cameras, you get a high-resolution 108MP main sensor, paired with a 26mm f/1.9 lens. There’s also an ultra-wide optic, plus, intriguingly a macro lens, which helps you to get highly-detailed close-up shots. All three put in a reasonably decent performance, with that macro option being particularly appealing if you’re the type to photograph subjects such as flowers.
Other useful features here include 5G connectivity, a massive 5000mAH battery, and a good range of different camera modes accessed via the native app.
Although there are undoubtedly better performing cameras on our list, at the price, you get a lot for your money.
• Read more: Xiaomi Mi 10T Pro review
Google phones have established computational photography as a key selling point, so if you’re looking for a great camera in practical use, on a phablet-sized phone, but without the most recent bells, whistles and big numbers of the latest devices, the Pixel 3 XL is well worth a look. The device is upgradeable as far as Android 10, so you’re not behind the times either, though there is no 4K won’t go past 30fps so action video fans should look elsewhere.
At 2960x1440 the P-OLED screen isn’t out of touch with anything on this list, though the notch seems chunky compared to the punch hole on other devices, and it’s not the brightest. It does house two selfie cameras, one ultra-wide, which means you can get more friends into a selfie.
One camera on the back might seem almost quaint compared to the latest phones, but at launch it wasn’t the camera specs but the software supporting it which won plaudits, and even now the reliability and fuss-free approach is up with the best. For the most part you can simply point and shoot and trust the camera to make the right decisions for you, or pick the dedicated Night Sight mode. Google know a thing or two about AI, which really shows in image tones and the fact the system pulls off a brilliant portrait mode without a second sensor.
Perhaps the most phablety phablet of them all, the Samsung Note’s signature feature is the small stylus – the “S Pen” – tucked in its body. The pen-like add-on might look small, but is OK to write with for limited periods, and if you use Samsung’s notes app, it makes a fairly adept translation of even my scrawl into digital type and with 6.8-inches the screen is the size of a small notebook. Usability is slightly sacrificed for design though, with a no-bezel design which makes accidental touches all-too-easy (and transferring the notes isn’t as easy as you’d hope).
Camera-wise, a three lens array, assisted by a VGA-resolution depth sensor, can capture great photos and generate ‘Live Focus’ portraits. They don’t quite have the low-light performance of rivals like Pixel and iPhone 11 Pro. On the selfie side, the top-notch cameras are bolstered with some great effects. The screen mode is set to 1080P by default, helping the phone reach more than all-day battery, but the pixels support a QuadHD+ mode (handy for VR fans).
The Galaxy Note 10 Plus also offers reverse wireless charging, meaning you can not only charge wirelessly, but share some of the phone’s power in the other direction with QI compatible devices, like Galaxy Buds (or Apple’s AirPods, come to that). On the subject of compatibility, there is also a microSD card slot and 5G.
• Read more: Samsung Galaxy Note 10 Plus review
Apple has embraced the phablet format for a few generations now, with the ‘Max’ option for lovers of big screens. Many forums are filled with nostalgic waffle about the tiny-by-modern-standards iPhone 4 (which Steve Jobs compared to a Leica). The main issue, one thumbed typing, is easily solved with the one-handed keyboard options on offer since iOS 11, while the bigger color-balanced screen and unparalleled A13 Bionic processor make this phone a joy not just to watch video but to edit images on.
The three-camera array is amongst the best on the market, bolstered by Apple’s deep pockets when it comes to AI additions like Portrait mode. The wide-angle camera brings a range of possibilities new to iPhone users, and is neatly integrated into the camera app to show you what you might be missing when composing.
The iPhone 11 Pro Max also boasts great battery life and Apple’s extended support. iOS gets software and security updates for pretty much the life of the phone – over 5 years typically – while Android customers are lucky to get 18 months (there’s also 12 months of Apple TV+ so you can enjoy original shows like Mythic Quest). Apple’s extended ecosystem also includes benefits like Siri, “it just works” accessories like the AirPods, and these days even Apple Maps should be considered a plus!
• Read more: Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max review
• Also see iPhone 12 Pro Max vs Samsung S21 Ultra
Why the S20 Plus and not the Galaxy S20 Ultra? Put simply, cost. The Ultra is the top of the line product, with 100x zoom and an even bigger 6.9-inch screen, but the S20 Plus can be had for less cash and, if you’ll accept a mere 30x zoom rather than the frankly insane 100x of the Ultra, why spend more? (If you do want to know, check out the full review of that phone).
The 3200x1440 screen is amazing, not least the fluid scrolling in 120mHz mode, powered by an Exynos 990 2.73GHz 8-core processor. HD videos look stunning on the display, though one can’t help imagine the saturation is a little exaggerated. Very little of it is punctured by the small camera hole top centre – no notch here.
The camera array might not have grabbed as many headlines with ‘only’ a 12MP main sensor, but the 64MP 3x zoom means that 30x ‘Space Zoom’ (hybrid/digital zoom) shots are within reach and, with the right steadying aid, look pretty good. You’ve also got 8K video shooting available and you can still shoot 33-megapixel stills as you make movies – decisions are for later! In practice, video benefits hugely from excellent image stabilization, great for action, and the camera in general is gifted a surfeit of AI features from live focus blurring to “Single Take” which will help you pick the best moment and style from ten seconds shooting.
• Read more: Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus review