How big is too big? Android phones go large

by: Simon HillFebruary 25, 2013


Before we start, “That’s what she said.” Okay it’s out of the way now.

Have you noticed that all of the new flagship Android smartphones hitting the market are huge? It’s starting to look like a 5-inch 1080p screen will be the minimum standard and we’re seeing more devices heading into small tablet territory. Is this a good thing? How big is too big? Let’s start by looking at how it happened.

Smartphones growing

The 3.5-inch display used to be an average size for smartphones, but they’ve been creeping ever bigger. HTC started the jump with the HD2 which was the first 4.3-inch display, sadly it was also WinMo so it didn’t sell well, but the trick was repeated with the HTC Evo 4G and 4.3 inches became the standard for a while. The Galaxy S2 was 4.3 inches; in fact the AT&T variant pushed it to 4.5 inches. It proved to be very popular. With the S3 the following year Samsung took it further and a lot of people complained that 4.8 inches was too much to handle. Critics looking for something to pick on typically mentioned that the S3 could be a bit tricky to operate one-handed. It turned out to be the best-selling smartphone on the market.

Bigger was presumed to be better. The HTC One X had a 4.7-inch screen, so did the Motorola Razr HD, and the LG Optimus G. Even Apple gave into the trend, giving the iPhone 5 a 4-inch display, although one-handed operation was cited as a reason to go taller, but not wider.

Tablets shrinking

At the same time Amazon had some success with the 7-inch Kindle Fire and Google kicked into overdrive with the Nexus 7. The small tablet category has been thriving. In fact the water’s so lovely that Apple has been tempted in again with the iPad mini. There’s clearly a sizeable demand for small tablets and Samsung has led the crowd in trying to hit every possible size and form factor in its ridiculously long list of releases.

Phablet explosion

One experimental release that surprised everyone by selling well was the Galaxy Note. It wasn’t a new concept, but it was the first device in this size range to be considered a hit. The Galaxy Note had a 5.3-inch display and combined phone and tablet features. Samsung inevitably kicked it up a notch again with the 5.55-inch Galaxy Note 2. There was also the incredibly square LG Optimus Vu in this category.


With the demand established there’s a battle to get on the bandwagon. Huawei is investigating how big you can go with the 6.1-inch Ascend Mate and ZTE is not far behind with the 5.7-inch Grand Memo. We’ve also just seen the highly desirable 5.5-inch LG Optimus G Pro which is going to capture a lot of admirers.

Big flagships

At the same time we are seeing a host of big flagship smartphones. HTC asserted that the HTC Butterfly or Droid DNA was a phone not a phablet and it had a 5-inch display. The new flagship HTC One has dropped down to 4.7 inches, but it looks like most manufacturers are going the other way. Sony’s Xperia Z has a 5-inch 1080p display. We’ll find out how big the Galaxy S4 is going to be on March 14th, but 5 inches seems likely. We may have to wait until the summer to find out about the hotly anticipated Google X Phone.


What if you want to upgrade to a cutting edge device, but you don’t want a big phone? A lot of people would love to have the Optimus G Pro’s specs in a device with a 4.7-inch screen. How about a 4.3 inch version of the Xperia Z that doesn’t scrimp on flagship features? There are still plenty of smaller phones out there, but if you want the most powerful device with the latest specs then you have to go large.

Does size matter?

I can remember thinking the 3.7-inch display on my HTC Desire was huge, but it seems tiny now. There’s no denying that one-handed operation with my S3 is a challenge and I won’t lie to you, it has ended up tumbling to the floor on a few occasions because I tried to text one-handed. The thing is I watch videos, the occasional movie, and play games on it, so the difficulty of one-handed operation is offset by that big screen.

I’m over 6 feet tall and I have piano or basketball player hands, depending on whether you’re arty or sporty (I’m actually rubbish at both, but that’s not my big hands fault). How do these big phones feel for people with smaller hands? Is it a big deal? Do you need to be able to operate your phone one-handed?

Where’s the line?

If manufacturers can keep squeezing down the bezel and slimming the insides, then some of these screen size jumps are effectively masked by superior design. Strictly speaking the 5 inch mark is where phones start to turn into phablets and anything that hits 7 inches is a tablet.

We must be reaching a maximum size for phones now. It’s funny, if you go back and look at this poll we did at the end of 2011 the most popular sizes were 4.3 inches (23 percent), 4 inches (22 percent), 4.5 inches (18 percent). I’m sure you would get different results now. Times have changed. After all the Dell Streak was an Android smartphone/tablet hybrid with a 5-inch display released in 2010 and it was laughed out of town (though admittedly Dell did not do a great job on it).

Click for larger version.

Click for larger version.

How popular will phablets get? I have to assume people buying the Galaxy Note 2 or anyone looking to get their hands on the new Optimus G Pro is going for those devices as a phone replacement. Competitors seem to have resisted major growth. As mentioned the iPhone 5 grew taller, but 4 inches would be considered small for an Android phone. The BlackBerry Z10 has a 4.2-inch display. There have been a few bigger Windows Phone releases, but usually by the same manufacturers producing big Androids. That wide choice of devices has always been an Android strength, but is there room for a smaller flagship in the Android line-up?

What do you think? How big is too big? Do you like the Xperia Z or the Optimus G Pro specs, but feel that the display is just too big or is bigger always better? Post a comment and tell us.

  • Mike Bastable

    Correction needed according to your own site and all other sites the disappointing iPhone was the top selling unit device, even the old iPhone out sold the excellent please be accurate. The Galaxy series of phones were indeed the top sellers only when you discount total sales of iPhone combined. We should see an individual Android phone claim 1st place later this year!

    • WildmanJoe

      Only in the 4th quarter of 2012…

    • Abdullah Qaraeen

      the GS3 is the fastest selling gadget ever, selling 9 million in just one week, iPhone 5 got just 5 million !!!

      • Are you kidding me?

        I believe it was 5 million in 2 days. :)

        • Same Person

          In fact iPhone 5 was the fastest selling anything in history.

  • RarestName

    Just keep on making them bigger, so that I can see everything that people are doing on their phones on the bus and train.

  • Roberto Tomás

    16cm × 9cm is probably as large as you’d ever want to go: that’s a 7.2″ phone even bezel-less.
    I just measured some with some books and a tape measure, and in my hand 11cm is definitely like some of the photos I’ve seen of small people holding ~6″ phones.

  • MrMLK

    If you had asked me a year ago, I would have said that the Galaxy Note was far too big. Then, four months ago, I tried a Note 2, and decided that 5.5 inches was perfect, but that the rumored 6.3 inch Note 3 would be far too big. After four months with the Note 2, I am now eagerly awaiting the up-sized model.

    I am happy to have a super large screen for consuming content even if I have to give up the ability to create content with one-hand. As long as it fits in the front pocket of my khakis and still allows me to sit down, its not too big.

    • Completely agree. I have an S3, but the Note looks great! So I’m definitely going up to 5 inches or more. Maybe even a Note 3 or galaxy S5 next year.

  • panica

    4 inch is the limit for me.
    waiting for flagship that pack 1080p screen & snapdragon 800 in 4 inch thin bezel phone.

    years ago I feel comfort with 3.2 inches compact phone.

    now I use 4 inch phone, a bit troubles when using on single hand.
    still usable, but I doubt I can use bigger phone than this.

  • 5.5” are perfect. Anything above that is too big, Huawei Ascend Mate for example.

  • 4.5 inches and lower is too small. That is for older people. Maybe not watching videos or stuff. I’d say 5 inches is alright for now but up to 6 for a phone is all good. We’re all going bigger.. .

    • Aram

      Rather than “older”, lets just call them “people who have real jobs and responsibilities, and because of that, may not have time to stare at their phone for an uninterrupted 2 hours. These 5″+ phones are hilarious looking; Very Zach Morris-esque. 4.3” bezel-to-bezel display is a winner, AKA Motorola Razr I

      • leoingle

        I have a real job and responsibilities and i think 5in is perfect size.

        • Vijesh Yechury

          For making calls one handed? Or just hipster activities?

  • Strange that the people who want bigger phones are the ones with smaller hands.

  • next is led with sim

  • williamworlde

    I was relieved to see you made the point I was thinking of whilst reading the article: You’ve got big hands. So, a bigger-sized phone *will* work for you. I tried the 4.7″ LGO and it just felt blocky and big and “cut” into my palm. It was tough for me to give that up, what with its great specs, and go to a GNex, amazingly ONLY 0.05″ smaller. Somehow though, it just felt better in my hands, which I think are average-sized, and still covered all my needs/wants.

    I think what makes the GNex’s screen so well-designed (put aside all other prejudices) is the fact that it just uses its real estate really well. I have hoped that manufacturers will build SPs using stronger materials so they can push the entire boundaries of the screen to their very edges within a reasonable 4.3″ – 4.7″ size. That is a whole lot of real estate for web viewing, Excel manipulation, reading a PDF, and of course for gaming. I still have my older iP3GS and I absolutely hate using it for any of those features I just mentioned; it’s one of the reasons I went to Android too. (BTW, the reason I chose GNex is because I could be running OSes upon release; I’ve been running 4.2.2 just two days after its release.)

    Finally, in addition to enhanced specs with each new iteration, smartphones are a work of art. You want to show it off and not have it stuck in your pocket/purse having to use it via BT/corded headphones. You know this a truth. I still think peope holding up the Note and anything that size or bigger to our AVERAGE HUMAN HEADS look very, very silly and comical even!

  • MasterMuffin

    5,5″ is pretty much it unless the bezels get smaller!

  • AverageUser

    Give me a full tablet sized phone. Just give it its own wireless headpiece that will be held and charged by the phone + work 50 feet from it. Also allow it to work with a smart watch that lets me send and receive text and make phone calls

  • Allday314

    In my opinion they are becoming too big, its good to have options but I believe that 5 inches is the limit.

  • TJ

    I’m considering a note 8.0, a pebble, a backpack and no “phone” at all.

    • leoingle

      thats hilarious….not really.

  • Earl Odopter

    I just got the note II yesterday. I’m very happy with the larger size after the initial 5 minute pocket shock. I can see myself using it a lot more that my old Fascinate. Fast, much better GPS, good audio, great screen. I can type about 2.3 times faster with fingers or stylus. Thanks, whoever kiped my phone at oakland coliseum two days ago!

  • ALCapitalist

    When I decided to upgrade in December, I tried the Note 2 & GS3. I loved the N2 screen size and figured I could even live without one handed operation. The thing that made me go GS3 in the end was exercise. I take my phone to the gym and listen to books and music while I work out and while doing cardio, biking,walking or hiking. The N2 was just too large for those activities.

    Now that I have a few months in with the GS3, I’m glad I chose it. I use my phone in the vehicle quite a bit and even its size is sometimes a challenge.

    Wouldn’t trade it for anything though!

  • I like the Galaxy Note 2 size. It eliminates the need for a tablet.

  • I use GMD gestures to better navigate the Note 2 one handed.

  • dwizard

    i’d love for them to get bigger because i only want phones that are below 5 inches.. if these bigger phones became the flagship phones then those below 5 inches will become the mid-range phones thus having lower prices than those giant phones… hehehe..

  • Mitthrawn

    I find it hard to believe you have big hands. My hands are “piano” hands and I’ve yet to drop my galaxy note 2 (knock on wood) and ive had it two months now. It’s the perfect size for me- I can’t imagine going back to an Iphone sized screen. Bring on the 6.3 inch bezeless phone!

  • snowmanjack

    4.8″ is perfect. As someone who regularly keep the phone in my pocket all day, 5″ gets too big. If you keep it on a desk/table mostly, and watch video regularly, I could see wanting a 5.5″ model. Could see *maybe* 5″ if they go full bezel-to-bezel.

  • Meh.Im like 14-15 smaller than almost everybody in school, and I can still perfectly hold my 4.7 inch Padfone 2 in a single hand and do stuff.

  • Micolitolits

    It’s all because of Samsung’s innovative UI that made a 4.8, 5.3 and a 5.5 inch screen very ideal,.
    the split screen, and the S pen contributed much of it,.
    in the end, usability exceeds grandiosity.

  • 5″- 5.5″ will be the sweet spot as long as they can change the notifications window from the top to the bottom of the phone

  • sharp shooter

    i really like the large display phones it make it much easier to read email texts watch videos as opposed to trying to watch something or read anything on the much smaller screens so yes the bigger the screen the better

  • Joe the Coder

    A 4 inch screen (measured diagonally) is about as big as I want. I use my phone one-handed quite a lot, and my Galaxy Nexus is just Too Damn Big for that. My Nexus One was about the perfect size – I could reach everything on the screen with my thumb, using it one-handed, and that’s what I want. I don’t need anything bigger, and my eyes are good enough without needing to blow everything up to 4.5 inches or bigger.

    Will ANY company release a high-quality, high-spec phone that has a 4-inch screen or less?

    • dcont

      HTC Droid Incredible 4G. Was high end when it was released in July, Dual core 1.5 Snapdragon, 4″, very nice display, micro SD. I like mine.

  • dcont

    This is exactly the issue I had trying to find a phone. I wanted high end specs but not a huge phone. I settled on the HTC Droid Incredible 4G. I’ve had it for about 6 months and very happy with it. However, I have a feeling when it comes time to replace this in a year or so, I’ll have a much harder time finding a smaller high-end device. WHY do manufacturers associate large screen with high end? I can’t be alone. Throw the best stuff in to a RAZR M or a One S chassis. Thanks. LOL

  • funny

    completely sheet making bigger phone…useless….no need phone to be a bigger than 4 or 4.5 inch, why don’t use tablet if need bigger to surf internet, game, chating..etc useless things to do that’s still just a phone….not useless stuff to do. now a days people are doing more useless stuff compare to actual functionality of device and feature of device. one day again it will be down to size…..