How big is too big? Android phones go large

February 25, 2013
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Perfect-Phone-Size

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.

samsung-note-2

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.

Sony-Xperia-Z

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.

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