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How big is too big?

The Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra is a massive phone, which forces us to ask: Just how big is too big for a phone?

Published onFebruary 27, 2020

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra in the hand with tracks

The Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra reaches stores soon and in our review we found it to be just too darned big. The line between manageable and unmanageable — as far as usability is concerned — is different for everyone, but we have to believe there’s a general consensus on how far phone makers should push it. So let’s talk about (ahem) size.

Why big phones are a pain

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra on book

Big phones used to have a specific name: Phablet, a portmanteau of “phone” and “tablet.” They were called such because they were simply massive devices that you could barely cram into your pockets. The Samsung Galaxy Note was probably the first phablet when it launched back in 2011. It had a screen that stretched 5.3 inches, which was way bigger than the iPhones of the time. Samsung birthed an entire class of devices that are now mainstream for many people.

Big phones pose problems. Big phones can be hard to hold, hard to use, and hard to carry around. You can stuff them into the front pocket of most (men’s) jeans, but not comfortably. You’ll know the phone is there when you sit down in a car or airplane seat. Many women resort to carrying their phones around in their back pockets — where they are in danger of falling out — because that’s the only place they’ll fit.

Something we've lost thanks to big phones is usability. We used to easily use phones with a single hand.

Something we’ve lost thanks to big phones is usability. We used to be able to use phones with a single hand easily. Small screen sizes meant checking your email while striding through an airport, luggage in one hand phone in the other, was no risk. Now, we have to perform finger gymnastics to reach the upper half of the display. This puts the phone in a precarious spot, because you often can’t hold the phone firmly while juggling it around. It’s often safer to use two hands — otherwise checking your email while towing luggage is an activity fraught with peril.

Big phones are a pain, but we keep buying them anyway.

Length versus width

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra against metal door

The Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G has a screen with a diagonal length of 6.9 inches. The screen is slotted into a chassis that measures 6.57 by 2.99 by 0.35 inches (167 x 76 x 8.8mm). Believe it or not, this is a huge improvement from a handful of years ago before screen tech helped get bezels under control.

Two of the bigger phones I can recall  from yesteryear are the HTC One Max and the Nokia Lumia 1520. These beasts measured 6.48 by 3.25 inches and 6.41 by 3.36 inches, respectively. They were massive platters, unwieldy, and a burden to use. They were also heavy as hell. The screen sizes? The One Max had a 5.9-inch screen and the Lumia 1520 had a 6.0-inch screen. So we should be grateful the S20 Ultra is as compact as it is despite the 6.9-inch display. 

Length isn't an issue so much as width is.

Any phone longer than 6 inches is considered tall. Length isn’t an issue so much as width is, however. The critical boundary is 3 inches. Anything wider than that is much harder to hold onto than something with a narrower waist. That’s why the One Max and Lumia 1520 were so awkward. Sure they were tall, but their 3.25-inch girth really impacted usability. Seriously, the Lumia 1520 was a nightmare.

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra S20 Plus S20

If the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G is too big, what isn’t too big? The Galaxy S20 Plus is a good start. The screen measures 6.7 inches and the phone measures 6.37 by 2.9 by 0.3 inches (162 x 74 x 7.8mm). That may not seem like a big difference, but it is. The S20 Plus is still a really big phone, and yet I found it to be much more hand friendly when we first checked it out. The S20 is, of course, even more manageable.

Dialing things back just a little makes it easier to get a grip on the experience. While I’m loathe to give up that screen real estate, sometimes smaller is superior.

What do you think, dear reader? Where do you draw the line? How big is too big for you?

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra

Are modern phones getting too big?

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