By Taylor Martin | April 25, 2013 7:00 AM
Over the years, we’ve watched smartphones grow … and grow … and grow a little more.
Average smartphones in 2009 and 2010 were between 3.2-inches and 3.8-inches. In fact, 3.8-inch phones were, by many, considered to be quite large. And HTC started pushing that boundary. The HD2, running Windows Mobile 6.5, hit shelves in 2009, sporting its luxurious and then-large 4.3-inch display.
Some credit the HD2 for popularizing large mobile displays. But I feel that title rests more appropriately with one of the first smartphones to really put Android on the map, the HTC EVO 4G. Then came the Motorola DROID X. Some 4-inch phones also released, which was revered by many as the smartphone size “sweet spot”. Then the HTC ThunderBolt, the 4.7-inch HTC Titan and a slew of 4.5-inch and larger phones. From there, it was only tighter and tighter pant pockets.
Samsung broke yet another boundary, breaking into the 5-inch sector with the 5.3-inch Galaxy Note and the 5.5-inch Galaxy Note II. Huawei broke 6-inches with the 6.1-inch Ascend Mate. Samsung topped it with the Galaxy Mega 6.3 and, technically, 8-inch tablets with earpiece speakers and Phone capabilities.
And now we’re left asking OEMs, “Where does it end?”
If our own Anton had his way, he’d carry the biggest device possible that can still make calls. (To each his own.) I’ve found comfort in devices that range from 4.7-inches to 5.5-inches, and I don’t care to go any larger, unless I can bring back the fanny pack. And the hordes of people with tiny hands are left with only a handful of options when it comes to buying a smaller, high-end smartphone.
While we’re at it, let’s get it all out on the table. Large smartphones are great. So are small smartphones. Different use cases and different consumers warrant different form factors. Who ever said choice was a bad thing?
Something I’ve tried to wrap my head around for a while now is how OEMs jumped on the XXL smartphone bandwagon and all but forgot about the smaller sizes. Practically everything below 4.5-inches is considered mid-range or low-end. It’s as if, overnight, manufacturers forgot how to make a reasonable-sized smartphone with great specifications.
Fact of the matter is: OEMs like bigger phones. They sell and they give designers and engineers more room to work with. And they’ve enabled the rapid advancement of mobile display technology, for which we all are thankful.
And that’s likely a valid reason that the HTC First plucked at a few of my heartstrings, even if its size was difficult to cope with. It’s an indication that the gap between high-end and mid-range is quickly closing, that the importance of top notch specifications are waning and order and balance may once again be restored in the smartphone market. Maybe.
There’s also the flip side to this story. There’s a single manufacturer who has done its best to resist the phablet effect. For the better part of two years, consumers begged Apple to increase the size of the iPhone and … it did. Sort of.
Technically, the iPhone 5′s display is larger than the display on all previous models. It’s taller and sports a higher resolution. But, in every sense of the word, the larger display on the iPhone 5 was haphazard. It was a way for Apple to silence the pitchfork army who was begging for more pixels and a larger panel to work with; it saved developers from having to completely remake their app and game graphics for a new screen resolution; and it allowed the company to maintain a similar design language, look and feel of its most prized and profitable product. In other words, it was a way to appease the masses without too much “shock and awe”.
But it was still haphazard. The display physically felt no larger than the iPhone 4S. And that’s because it’s the exact same width, which sort of defeats the purpose of making the display larger.
“The 4-inch Retina display lets you see more of everything,” says Apple. So would a wider display. In fact, it would show even more content.
“Because even though the display is larger, iPhone 5 is the same width as the iPhone 4S. So it’s just as easy to use with one hand.” Yeah, maybe if you have tiny hands to begin with. This is just another way of saying, “it’s just as hard to type on as last year’s model.”
For the last 13 days, I have used HTC’s latest smartphone, the First. Its 4.3-inch display reminded me of why I don’t like to go smaller than 4.7-inches. Look at one of my recent YouTube videos. Any of them. “Your hands are huge!” “You make the Note II look like the S4.” I have short, stubby hands, and typing on a smaller display is an awful experience (especially without gesture typing). So is trying to press on-screen buttons.
And this (among other things) is ultimately why I chose to move away from the iPhone 5. The
larger taller display is no more useful or helpful than the iPhone 4S display. (Seriously, displaying more vertical content is useless. Scrolling up and down is effortless. The valuable aspect of larger displays, at least in portrait mode, is width.)
My point in all this is that Apple is ignoring the elephant in the room. In fact, there may be a couple elephants in this room.
There are people with larger hands, people who have switched to other platforms because the tiny display is cumbersome. (I know I’m not alone on this.) And larger displays don’t necessarily mean a worsened user experience, or a full-time, two-handed experience. I use the Nexus 4 and Galaxy Note II one-handed all the time. Again, my fingers aren’t long – my hands and fingers are short and wide. I know plenty of people with tiny hands who enjoy the gigantic Galaxy Note II. I know even more with 4.7-inch phones who swear they’ll never go smaller again.
Apple is avoiding the inevitable for … what? A simplified product lineup? A superior user experience it’s convinced only itself of? To stave griping developers who should be using vector graphics anyway?
The number of people I would suggest an iPhone to is growing smaller each and every day. Not solely on its size, of course, but on a principle much larger than that. The company is resting on its laurels, letting more agile companies innovate circles around it and offer viable competing devices to each and every different type of consumer, while also living on the false pretense that a single device, a single form factor offers the perfect experience for everyone … equally.
This year, Apple needs to fully deliver a larger iPhone – something 4.5-inches or even 5-inches – without killing the current size. Offer two (current) iPhone sizes, just like it does with its iPad lineup.
Apple, despite what you’ve heard, size matters.