Samsung's (NASDAQOTH:SSNLF) upcoming flagship phablet, the Galaxy Note 4, will make its sales debut in South Korea and China before the end of the month, ahead of Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) competing iPhone 6 Plus.
In general, Asian markets tend to be more favorable to phablets than other regions, and the Galaxy Note 4's early launch may give the device a slight edge over the iPhone 6 Plus, which is likely to be its most direct competitor.
Apple and Samsung's staggered release dates
Apple has released the iPhone 6 Plus in a handful of countries already, including the U.S., Japan, and Singapore. On September 26, Apple's phablet is expected to debut in 20 additional nations, mostly in Europe.
The timing of its release in China, however, has remained a mystery, with some outlets suggesting that the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus could be delayed until early next year. On Tuesday, Reuters reported that Chinese regulators were in the final stages of reviewing the smaller iPhone 6 for sales approval -- presumably, the iPhone 6 Plus would be included in that review, but either way, there's still no firm release date.
In contrast, Samsung has confirmed that the Galaxy Note 4 will be available on all major Chinese carriers before the end of September, ahead of its U.S. debut (American buyers will have to wait until October 17.) Samsung's latest phablet will also beat Apple's iPhone 6 Plus to South Korea, though that's not of particular importance to Apple: With just 50 million people, South Korea is a relatively small market, and its citizens tend to be loyal to Samsung and its domestic rivals -- Apple's South Korean smartphone market share has long hovered in the mid-single digits.
Chinese consumers love phablets
Launching its phablet in China ahead of Apple's may ultimately prove to be more important to Samsung than a four week U.S. delay. Although the U.S. may be the world's most important smartphone market (in terms of high-end handsets and app development), American buyers simply do not prefer phablets as much as their Chinese counterparts.
That isn't to say that phablets are unpopular in the U.S., but the category as a whole is more popular in China. Earlier this year, research firm Kantar WorldPanel noted that a staggering 40% of all smartphones sold in China during the month of March had screens larger than 5-inches. To be fair, U.S. demand for phablets may have been (until now) limited by Apple's refusal to release one -- the iPhone accounts for more than 40% of all U.S. smartphones -- but early surveys suggest that the iPhone 6 is outselling the iPhone 6 Plus.
More than Apple and Samsung
Of course, Chinese buyers looking for large phones have many more choices than Apple's iPhone 6 Plus and Samsung's Galaxy Note 4. In fact, while the two phablets may eventually jockey for dominance in Western markets, Chinese consumers, particularly those on limited budgets, could flock to one of the many cheaper domestic alternatives.
Chinese vendor Huawei, for example, offers the 6.1-inch Ascend Mate 2 for just $390 -- about half the cost of Samsung's year-old Galaxy Note 3. Lenovo's S930 is even cheaper still, and can be purchased for less than $200. Of course, neither of these handsets (or the many other alternatives) come close to Samsung's Galaxy Note 4 or Apple's iPhone 6 Plus in terms of pure specs, but are far more affordable. Unsurprisingly, earlier this year, Samsung lost the top spot in China's smartphone market to a domestic rival -- and with a wide variety of cheap Chinese phablets to choose from, that trend could continue.
Still, those Chinese buyers that want a high-end phablet will largely have two choices in the months ahead: Apple's iPhone 6 Plus or Samsung's Galaxy Note 4. Given the size of China's smartphone market (the largest in the world,) and the country's appetite for phablets, beating Apple to market should be seen as a great achievement for Samsung's mobile business.
Sam Mattera has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Apple. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.