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Lenovo Phab Plus Phablet: You Might Want It, But You Can't Have It

Look, no one is saying that a $299 phablet is necessarily a true competitor to the recently-announced Samsung Galaxy Note5 (or even the older Note 4), but it's not terribly far off in some respects. If you're into that sort of thing, Lenovo made a much less expensive device that you might want called the Phab Plus, as well as the slightly lower-spec'd sibling called the Phab.

But most of you can't have it, because it's not coming to North America. (Sorry for even bringing it up.)

"Phablet" is a term that makes some people wince, but Lenovo's Phab and Phab Plus are phablets, and they sport some compelling specs and features. The Phab Plus runs on a Snapdragon 615 SoC (an octa-core chip) with 2 GB of RAM and 32 GB of internal storage (expandable with a microSD card), and it ships with Android 5.0 Lollipop and offers a 13MP rear camera with autofocus and flash, along with a front-facing 5MP camera. The 3,500 mAh battery promises significant battery life.

Lenovo PhabLenovo Phab Plus
Display7-inch (1280 x 720) IPS6.8-inch (1920 x 1080) IPS
SoCSnapdragon 410 (quad-core ARM Cortex A53 at up to 1.2 GHz)Snapdragon 615 (quad-core ARM Cortex A53 at up to 1.7 GHz, quad-core 1.0 GHz ARM Cortex A53)
GraphicsAdreno 306Adreno 405
Storage16 GB, expandable to 64 GB32 GB, expandable to 64 GB
OSAndroid 5.0 LollipopAndroid 5.0 Lollipop
Cameras- 13MP with AF and flash- 5MP front- 13MP with AF and flash- 5MP front
Battery4,250 mAh Li-ion3,500 mAh Li-ion
Audio- Mic array with noise cancellation / group talking- Dolby Atmos 3D surround soundDolby Atmos 3D surround sound
Connectivity-4 G LTE (dual SIM)- 802.11a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi- Bluetooth 4.0- 4G LTE (dual SIM)- 802.11a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi- Bluetooth 4.0
Dimensions- 0.35 inches thick- 0.55 lbs - 0.3 inches thick- 0.49 lbs
Pricestarts at $179starts at $299

Audio is bolstered by Dolby Atmos 3D Surround Sound, but you should be aware that you'll only really experience the benefits of this technology with your headphones. It's a clever bit of tech, and from what we heard in Lenovo's demos earlier this year at Mobile World Congress, it provides a slightly more immersive surround experience (you can hear sound go over your head while watching a movie, for example) that you otherwise might not expect on a mobile device.

The Phab has similar specs, but it has a lesser SoC (the quad-core Snapdragon 410), and half the RAM and onboard storage. However, it's actually slightly larger than the Phab Plus at 7 inches, and it has a "three-mic array solution" designed to enhance recordings and calls with noise cancellation.

The larger display may seem a quizzical feature, made even more odd by the fact that it's a lower resolution than the Phab Plus (1280 x 720 compared to 1920 x 1080), but it also has a larger-capacity battery (4,250 mAh compared to the Phab Plus's 3,500 mAh). However, this appears to all be in an effort to boost battery life -- by lowering the screen resolution and increasing the battery, the Phab will, according to Lenovo, offer 24-hour battery life.

I spent a bit of hands on time with the Phab Plus during a Lenovo briefing recently, and what struck me right away was that the Phab Plus borrowed some design language from the iPhone 6, with the slim, sleek body, slightly rounded corners, and completely flat back. In fact, it felt somewhat like holding a giant iPhone 6; it even has that little horizontal band running across the bottom. (Is Lenovo unaware of Apple's litigious nature?) One small but notable difference is that the Phab Plus's rear camera doesn't protrude from the bezel at all, whereas the iPhone 6's pokes out ever so slightly.

Look Ma, One Hand

With 6.8- and 7-inch displays, respectively, the Phab Plus and Phab are (ahem) a handful, and one of the most attractive features Lenovo baked into both is a clever bit of software that makes it easier to use the device with one hand.

The inability to reach all of the buttons and icons with one hand is of course a common complaint about phablets (and even smartphones with larger displays), and it's a tough problem to solve. Physics is immutable.

To solve the issue, the Phab Plus has a feature that lets you shrink the size of the operational display down to a more reachable size. When you draw a "c" on the display, it will launch into the one-hand mode, which shrinks the whole displayed image -- we're talking everything here, even the app icons -- down to the right-hand corner of the screen. You can tilt the phone this way and that to move that windowed image to the other corners of the screen -- however it allows you to better access it.

There are three buttons at the top of the windowed image. By tapping the first one, you can move the image up or down incrementally to find a sweet spot. The next is a one-touch way to toggle between a larger and a small windowed display. With a tap, the button on the far right returns you to full screen mode.

To be clear, you still have full functionality, even when the device is in this one-hand mode. You can tap icons to launch apps, and so on. Simply, everything is smaller so you can better reach them with your thumb instead of having to use your other hand.

One limitation I noticed, though, is that although Lenovo solved the thumb-reach problem, there's still a bit of a weight issue. (Physics, what can you do?) In the video above, for example, notice that at times it was easier for me to use both hands, even when the display area was reduced. This is because, I realized, the device is a little heavy, and it felt a bit more comfortable steadying the Phab Plus with one hand while navigating with the other -- which defeats the purpose of using it one-handed.

Further, the "single hand optimization" feature points to a glaring feature omission -- namely, the lack of a stylus. This is where a budget device like the Phab or Phab Plus simply doesn't compare to a Galaxy Note device; make no mistake, that stylus is a tool that, for some, will make or break their purchase decision.

There, Not Here

What Lenovo has discovered is that many users in developing nations can only afford one decent computing device. When forced to choose between a phone, tablet or PC, they pick the best option -- a phone (because they want or need a phone) with as much productivity power as possible. Thus, a phablet, or a smaller tablet with a data plan option, fits the bill.

The Phab Plus is designed for these people, but like Lenovo's Vibe Shot camera phone and A7000, which are also not available in the U.S., it's the kind of product that may be tempting for North American users looking for a specific type of phone experience at a pleasing price point.

Too bad you can't get one in North America.

The Phab and Phab Plus are coming to the UAE, KSA, Nigeria, Egypt, Vietnam, Thailand, Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, China, Indonesia, India, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Korea, as well as some Central and South American countries (Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Chile). They're coming to Eastern Europe as well, landing in the Ukraine, Russia, Czech Republic, Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria.

The devices will ship in September.

Seth Colaner is the News Director at Tom's Hardware. Follow him on Twitter @SethColaner. Follow us @tomshardware, on Facebook and on Google+.