Switched On: A handset for human hands

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

Switched On A handset for human hands

In the golden era of the PDA, many debated whether future consumers would adopt a one-device or two-device approach. The two-devicers argued that the connectivity for phone calls would come from a simple, bare-bones cellphone while all the fancy data management would occur on a Bluetooth-tethered, PDA-like device unbound from cellular contracts. The Handspring Treo was for many the first converged-device handset that accomplished key tasks well enough to make a convincing case for handset integration, and the smartphone revolution ensued.

The first iPhone featured a large screen for its time but not a much larger footprint than its contemporary competitors such as the BlackBerry or Treo. Competitors asked if a 3.5-inch handheld palette was good for consuming web content, wasn't a 4.3-inch display -- like that on the HTC EVO 4G better? Screen sizes and attendant resolution continued to grow with the 5.3-inch Galaxy Note, 5.5-inch Galaxy Note II and culminating in the 6.1-inch Huawei Ascend Mate that debuted at CES. Samsung and Huawei are joined by LG, Sony and HTC in offering or announcing a 5-inch or larger Android phone. The latter joined the pocket-stuffing ranks with the 5-inch Droid DNA on Verizon, available in China as the HTC Butterfly.

But HTC is offering an intriguing accessory for the Butterfly, the HTC Mini. The Mini upends the two-device approach of the mid-'90s. The largest phones are now so big and complex that they can be awkward to carry around in the hand and use for simple phone calls. And so the HTC Mini resembles one of those mid-'90s "candy bar" feature phones that might have been produced by Nokia with a large keypad and a small display -- except that it really is about as thin as a candy bar this time around. The handheld computer and the voice-centric device are still paired, but the radio is now in the former rather than the latter.

The HTC Mini can be used with your smartphone in a backpack or purse, or you can use it while looking up information on your smartphone's screen without having to do the ear-eye shuffle. As novel as the HTC Mini is, it is but one accessory to facilitate making, or at least staying on, calls from cellphones. Bluetooth headsets and car visor-mounted speakerphones have been with us for years.

Android handset makers have done a good job balancing growing screens with ergonomics as they've supersized the smartphone.

And those are just some options. For those looking for the creature comforts of a home phone, Native Union has offered full-sized, retro-styled handsets that can connect via wired or Bluetooth connections. Yet another alternative is the wearable Star Trek-inspired Indiegogo project CommBadge. A spate of Kickstarter-fueled smartwatches from the likes of Cookoo, MetaWatch and Pebble can relay bits of glanceable information from smartphones, and one from Martian can even activate commands on it via an integrated microphone.

The Mini offers a keypad, but perhaps a different take could offer a Blackberry-style physical keyboard for email power users missing the tactile experience. Or perhaps even a fully functional Android touchscreen device? It may sound like the height of redundancy, but, as Switched On discussed last May, Samsung included just that kind of functionality in its most recent Galaxy Players.

All in all, Android handset makers have done a good job balancing growing screens with ergonomics as they've supersized the smartphone. There's no doubt we'll see other devices like the HTC Mini. However, their viability is hardly a condemnation of the phablet. The HTC Mini is just another option for phone input and control. While those have been around since before the dawn of smartphones, the one-device school is poised to remain the default.

Ross Rubin is principal analyst at Reticle Research, a research and advisory firm focusing on consumer technology adoption. He shares commentary at Techspressive and on Twitter at @rossrubin.