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Originally published August 31, 2013 at 5:58 PM | Page modified September 2, 2013 at 9:12 AM

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Crazy-big phone for a mini niche

While size makes it strangely impractical for the mainstream market, the Samsung Galaxy Mega could be just the model certain users have been waiting for, and it illustrates some interesting trends in the cellphone industry.

Seattle Timestechnology columnist

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I’m almost embarrassed to use the Samsung Galaxy Mega, a monstrous new phone that’s the first of several gigantic handsets arriving this year.

Jumbo phones that double as mini-Web tablets have been around for a while, and the latest “standard” phones have screens in the 5-inch range.

But the Mega is in a different class altogether, with a 6.3-inch diagonal screen that extends from the chin to the temple. It’s supersized, nearly as tall as a McDonald’s large soda cup.

Held horizontally, it’s the size of a side mirror on a large sedan. In a pinch you could use it as a pingpong paddle.

You make a statement carrying a phone that big, and not just because it makes your pants droop.

Whenever I pulled out the Mega in a public place, I wondered if people thought I was going through a midlife crisis. Instead of a motorcycle, sports car or carbon-fiber 10-speed, I had an obscenely large cellphone.

The Mega has more than 15 ways to share content wirelessly with people near and far, and 36 preloaded ringtones including “blowing dandelion seeds,” “spring of hope” and “dawn.”

What I really wanted, though, was a way to announce that, no, really, it was just a loaner from AT&T.

Seriously, though, the Mega represents some interesting trends.

The Mega may be too large for most people to carry as their primary phone, but it’s an intriguing option for people who may have several phones. Shared-data plans introduced last year by AT&T and Verizon paved the way for this by making it easier to have multiple devices on a single wireless account.

We’re also entering an era of more personalized phones. Growth is slowing and the industry is looking for ways to sell more devices. Big players also are trying harder to differentiate rather than imitate.

Customers are used to restaurants catering to their choosiness. Instead of coffee or a sandwich, you order a customized beverage or meal, so why not a personalized phone?

You can now order Google’s new Moto X in a rainbow of colors and styles, and Apple is expected to offer new iPhones in more than just black or white.

Samsung, meanwhile, is churning out Galaxy models with screens of all sizes to fit any hand, pocket or persona. Imagine if it partnered with Starbucks.

Would you like a 4.3-inch dual-core Galaxy Mini to go with your double-tall, two-pump, half-caff vanilla latte? How about a 5-inch octa-core S4 to go with your grande Americano? Or a 6.3-inch Mega and a half-gallon of French roast?

Bigger screens really are better for some things, and some people will gladly trade some portability for the largest possible display.

People with weaker eyes will like the bigger icons and touch-screen buttons. It’s also refreshing for those with big or unsteady fingers.

On the flip side, it’s a bit unwieldy — the case is about 6¼ by 3½ inches. But it’s thin — nearly as thin as an iPhone — so it feels lighter than you’d think for a 7.2-ounce whopper.

The big chassis holds a giant battery with claimed 18 hours of talk time. With moderate use, it ran more than two days for me on a single charge.

One of the Mega’s best tricks is running two apps at once in a split screen. You can have email and the browser displayed simultaneously, for instance. But the effect is lost when you need to type: the on-screen keyboard pops up and takes half the split screen.

As a phone, the Mega works fine but takes getting used to. It’s so big you have to slide it around your cheek until the speaker is close to your ear. It’s almost impossible to dial one-handed, using just a thumb, unless you have NBA-sized hands.

The big screen is far better than most smartphones for watching videos and viewing photos.

I did have trouble launching Netflix on the Mega at first. It worked fine after I reinstalled the app and blocked AT&T’s maddening Wi-Fi app, which overrode the factory settings and kept the phone in a perpetual hunt for nearby Wi-Fi, to limit cell-network usage.

AT&T needs to improve the out-of-box experience, especially if it expects people to upgrade phones more frequently. It’s daunting enough to wade through the endless requests to allow Google, Samsung and others to track your location and target you with ads. Then you’re bombarded with requests to sign up for new services and sit through device tutorials.

I’m all for disclosure, but setting up a phone now requires you to sign more waivers and legal documents than a mortgage. It’s silly, because we now know that we’ll be tracked and spied upon regardless of whether we click “Don’t allow.”

Once it’s all sorted out, the Mega is very nice for reading e-books.

The screen is big and crisp enough to display what feels like a full paperback page, without requiring you to squint or zoom. It’s actually taller than the display on early Kindles, but not quite as wide. Yes, it’s a crazy big phone, but it’s easier to carry than both a phone and an e-reader.

The Mega’s screen is roughly the proportion of a newspaper page, and traditional front pages look pretty good on the device. Unfortunately, some news websites detect that you’re arriving from a phone and force you to look at listified mobile versions of their sites, designed for puny, circa 2012, non-mega devices.

There are some other, surprising trade-offs with the Mega.

Samsung didn’t use its highest-resolution screen — the Android-based Mega has 720p instead of 1080p like the flagship Galaxy S4. The Mega also doesn’t have the latest or greatest processor. It’s a dual-core, 1.7 gigahertz model, vs. the S4’s eight cores. Samsung also scrimped on the camera, giving the Mega an 8 megapixel camera vs. the 13 megapixel unit on the S4.

That explains why AT&T is selling the Mega for $150, which is $50 less than its premium devices.

The Mega also has a less potent processor than the most comparable device, Samsung’s Galaxy Note II, a 5.5-incher that also works with a stylus. Samsung is unveiling the Note III on Wednesday. If you’re looking for a jumbo phone, wait until then to see how it compares with the Mega.

These hardware compromises won’t affect performance for most users, but they’re odd. You expect the biggest phone to be the most potent.

But the Mega isn’t intended to be the ultimate smartphone or win over the cognoscenti. It’s a special model with niche appeal. For some people it will be just the phone they’ve been waiting for.

It’s like an enormous pickup with two-wheel drive, or a bushel of movie popcorn without butter.

Each to their own.

Brier Dudley’s column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com

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About Brier Dudley

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
bdudley@seattletimes.com | 206-515-5687

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