Where Have All The Small Phones Gone?

So, you might’ve heard some news out of London recently. Samsung finally took the wraps off its new hotness, the Galaxy S III, and it looks to be packing quite a cool set of features. In many ways, the GSIII represents the best Samsung -and, to an extent, Android- has to offer.

As with every smartphone, its display will play a critical role in shaping its success. The debates have already begun in forums across the internet over how well or poorly the GSIII’s display will perform, the arguments peppered with terms like “S-AMOLED” and “PenTile” and “STFU fanboy!!!!!!!!” But let’s put all that aside for a second and look at something measurable, something undebatable: the size.

The Galaxy S III ships with a 4.8″ display. That’s bigger than any conventional smartphone (read: non-phablet). It’s massive. While Samsung is touting the slim bezel, rounded shape, and thin casing as factors which reduce the phone’s apparent size, there’s no getting around its actual proportions. This will be one of the largest phones yet.

Galaxy S3 Huge2

Size is approximate.

And because of the way we use our mobile devices, that’s become a real asset. Though voice calling continues to fade in importance, our appetite for media consumption on the go is rising. For that kind of content consumption, bigger is better. No one wants to watch YouTube or browse large, media-rich websites on a two-inch display.

It wasn’t too long ago that the 4.3″ panel on my HTC Evo 4G seemed absurdly large. I remember feeling overwhelmed by the sheer scale of it; it felt monstrous. But today, that display size seems normal to my eye … and the iPhone 4S seems positively diminutive. There’s something wrong with that.

There’s a happy medium that we seem to have lost sight of somewhere, a huge sacrifice we’ve collectively made in the quest for the best, biggest, brightest screen: we’re all carrying around miniature tablets.


Even those of us without the Galaxy Note.

To we power-users, maybe this isn’t as big an issue. For some reason, the mentality of tech geeks is often heavily -some might say overly- dosed with the kind of machismo that insists that bigger is always better. But what about normal folks?

That kind of setup demands an anecdotal story that starts with the words “I have a friend.” So … I have a friend whose Droid X recently gave up the ghost. When her upgrade time came, she was reluctant to move to iOS because she preferred the customizability of Android. Not the type to bow to the incredibly weird advertisements and the “I’m a girl so look at my delicate purple phone” marketing message behind the HTC Rhyme, she shopped the regular Android selection and … hold on a sec …

Rhyme weirdo ad2

Sorry. You just seriously need to look at this nightmare fuel for a second.

Anyway, she shopped the regular Android lineup and found not a single phone appealing. The reason? She’s tiny petite. Very petite. And two years with the Droid X had made her yearn for a device with a more manageable footprint. Sadly, there wasn’t one. So she bought an iPhone 4S and now she’s very happy.

Now, it’s true that there are a lot of smaller Android devices out there to choose from. But none of them are what you’d call “high end.” They used to exist; the original HTC Incredible offered some great specs in a small package, but its sequels have bumped up the display dimensions, moving them out of the mid-size envelope.

Guys, I’m the first one to say that people focus way too closely on specs: they’re not everything. But they’re also not nothing. Hearty specifications make a great user experience possible. No one would suggest that a modern OS could run well on a 66MHz processor, for example, or that a beautiful image could be produced by a 4,096-color STN LCD. You need a competent hardware-software combination to deliver a worthy experience, especially on Android. So my friend, who has more than a passing familiarity with technology, wasn’t about to settle for a midrange device just because she wanted a more petite mobile phone.

phone drawer2

“Sure, we offer smaller devices! The specs are *almost* as good, too!

Whether the blame lies on manufacturers or consumers, the bias is real, and it’s ridiculous. If you want a merely competent device, you can find one in almost any size. But if you’re looking for a truly advanced, high-end experience in the 3.5-inches-and-smaller range, unless you’re shopping for an iPhone, you’re out of luck. And that stinks.

Last summer, I carried the diminutive HP Veer as my daily driver for about three months. Its specs certainly weren’t top-shelf -the display in particular could have used a bump in quality- but the feel of the unit wasn’t low-end, or even mid-range. It didn’t feel like a bad compromise, like so many smaller phones; it just felt like a shrunken version of a deluxe-edition device. And it was so tiny that I routinely forgot which pocket I’d put it in. After spending so long with larger devices, the Veer’s ultra-portability made everything else seem cumbersome and unwieldy. That was an unexpected pleasure.


Just a little longer, old friend. Just a little longer ‘till open source.

The more power we as users have, the happier we are. And a great way for OEMs to give mobile-tech consumers more power is to offer more choice. Right now, we’re all forced to choose between manageable device size and a truly great user experience: it’s one or the other. The manufacturer who finds a way to consistently give us both (in other words, doing more than just throwing us an Aria here and there) will find itself very popular in the long run. That’s very popular with everyone, not just with we tech types talking bezels, pixels, and casing materials on the internet.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go order a tractor trailer. My Galaxy S III review unit is due soon.

Galaxy Note image source: Wired

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About The Author
Michael Fisher
Michael Fisher has followed the world of mobile technology for over ten years as hobbyist, retailer, and reviewer. A lengthy stint as a Sprint Nextel employee and a long-time devotion to webOS have cemented his love for the underdog platforms of the world. In addition to serving as Pocketnow's Reviews Editor, Michael is a stage, screen, and voice actor, as well as co-founder of a profitable YouTube-based business. He lives in Boston, MA. Read more about Michael Fisher!