Smartphone Screen Real Estate: How Big Is Big Enough?

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News Posted: Wed, Feb 27 2013 3:13 AM
About five seconds after we were first debating the merits of the 7-inch tablet form factor (for the record, I’m fully in favor), the market is suddenly flush with mobile devices at almost any screen size, from little 3-inch phones up to monster 10.1-inch tablets. Somewhere in there, phablets--so named because they’re too big to be a phone and too small to be a tablet--were born.

Aside from the terrible nickname (it sounds like a term for the spoiled offspring of fabulous people), phablets are somewhat controversial because they seem to be the epitome of inflated phone sizes. A lot of people wanted bigger, and this is “bigger” to the extreme. A larger screen on a smartphone is attractive for obvious reasons, but surely there’s a limit. So how big is too big?

First, let’s talk small. At just 3.5 inches, the iPhone 4 (and earlier) is relatively small compared to most higher-end phones on the market, yet it’s immensely popular. (Technically, the iPhone 5 has a 4-inch screen, but it’s just longer--not wider--so that doesn’t really count.) Apparently, then, that’s a good baseline for an acceptable screen size for a large swathe of the mobile market.

iPhone 5
iPhone: Big enough for many

However, there are clearly plenty of people who prefer a larger screen--myself included. For normal use, I actually find the iPhone’s screen real estate to be cramped and unpleasant to use. I much prefer a screen that’s at least over 4 inches diagonally.

Fortunately for the rest of us, there are ample options for smartphones with larger screens, and you’ll see plenty of devices in the 4- to 4.7-inch or so range. These devices aren’t without limitations either, though; there are just certain things you want to do on a device that require a larger screen, which is why many people own a tablet.

Now, not everyone wants (or can afford) both a phone and a tablet, so in one regard the phablet makes sense. But phablets are generally phones with screens over 5 inches diagonally, and the things can look downright silly when held against one’s ear. Moreover, 5 inches is on the small side of phabletdom; the Samsung Galaxy Note II, for example, is 5.5. inches, and there’s a monstrous 5.7-inch device coming from China’s Zopo.

There’s also the issue of portability. If you’re a person with a larger smartphone and don’t carry a purse, you know that pants pockets are not ideal for that kind of hardware. What are you going to do with a 5.5-inch phablet--start wearing cargo pants every day? (Or if you’re an Iron Man fan, maybe strap it on your chest like an arc reactor using some kind of harness?)

It’s also worth noting that some tablets can make voice calls, so is it reasonable to deem those devices phablets? Are people really going to hold a 7-inch tablet to their ears to chit-chat with friends and family? Even at current phablet sizes, things are just getting ridiculous, and such a phone only makes sense for people like this:

Andre the Giant
Andre the Giant (Image credit: WWE.com)

I get it, it can be annoying to have two devices--a phone and a tablet--but as we discovered with netbooks, tweener devices can offer the worst of two worlds instead of the best. So is a giant, awkward phone the answer to needing more screen real estate? No--at least, not for most people.

Not everyone agrees with me. Some of us here at HotHardware love these things (or at least the Samsung Galaxy Note II, specifically). To be fair, it’s worth noting that there’s a big difference between what amounts to an absurdly large phone (i.e., the aforementioned Zopo monstrosity) and a device like the Note II that is designed to fill a niche. In the case of the Note II, it comes with the S Pen accessory, which should tell you that this phone--sorry, phablet--is designed for more than just texting your buds and playing Angry Birds. Indeed, a device that size and with a stylus would be great in the business world, and believe it or not, a 5.5-inch phablet will fit comfortably in the inside chest pocket of a business suit.
Samsung Galaxy Note II
Samsung Galaxy Note II

In my opinion, the phablet “craze” will die off--not because there is no place for them, but because a few million of those phableteers will figure out that 5.5 inches or so is just too big for what most people want or need from a phone. Well-designed phablets are niche devices, and in that niche they can be superb tools and will continue to sell well, but they’re not for the average smartphone user.

If you’re not into parsing out the particulars of form factors and use cases, here’s a really easy way to figure out if your phone or phablet is too big: Can you hold the device in one hand and 1) unlock the phone, 2) type out a text message with your thumb, and 3) adjust the volume with the rocker without using your other hand? If not, you need a smaller phone.

In the meantime, if that 4.5-inch screen isn’t cutting it for you, just get a tablet already.
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Dave_HH replied on Wed, Feb 27 2013 10:20 AM

4.7-inches is about my max comfort zone. Marco LOVES his 5.5-inch G Note II. I think he's just compensating. HA!

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Marco C replied on Wed, Feb 27 2013 10:55 AM

At first glance, the Note II may SEEM too big, especially if you’re used to smaller devices. But once you use it for a while, there’s no going back. At least for me, the Note II is perfectly pocketable; it required no adjustments when switching from a GSIII. And now, everything else just feels small.

I think pocketability is actually the real criteria that will determine “how big is too big?”.

Once a device is too big to actually fit comfortably in an average person’s pocket, or you have to make adjustments just to carry it, then it’s too big. There’s still a good amount of bezel all around the Note II’s screen. If they’re shrunk the bezel down slightly and next-gen devices get a bit thinner with in-cell screens, etc., I think the max, acceptable size for me will be around 5.7-5.8”

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KOwen replied on Wed, Feb 27 2013 2:09 PM

Sorry Marco but I have to go with Dave on this one. I desperately tried to like the Note II but when I went to the store and realized it wouldn't fit in my pocket I had to walk away and go for the S3. I don't know what kind of pockets you have, but mine were no match for such a behemoth. But I do agree that pocketability will be a/the major determining factor in the future.

The beginning of the article claims that the iPhone is big enough for many. I don't think that is accurate. A majority of iPhone users are die hard Apple fans that would get the latest iPhone even if it was released with a 2-inch screen. Just because iPhone is one of the most popular smartphones doesn't mean people agree with the screen size given or buy the phone because they enjoy its smaller screen size. Fallacy of false cause.

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scolaner replied on Wed, Feb 27 2013 3:47 PM

Nobody's saying that people like the iPhone *because* it has a smaller screen. My point is that the screen size is *acceptable* to many.

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Well, I'll put myself out there for an example of someone who bought an iPhone 4s because of the size. I am far from an apple fan and this is the only apple product I own and will probably own. At the time, the only options seemed to be apple, Samsung GS2 and some similar HTC thing. The only phones other than apple in the 4" or smaller size were really cheap looking android phones. So I got the iphone and it hasn't changed my view of apple. But it works fine as a phone which is mostly what I use it for. I would really prefer something other than apple but everyone else is going bigger and bigger with the occasional nod to something more reasonable sized but usually far from as impressive in the specs. Usually taking a hit in battery life which sucks. So I'm stuck with apple for a while it would seem.

 

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CDeeter replied on Wed, Feb 27 2013 6:54 PM

Hmm seems things have changed, what at first seemed like a joke, has now become not so funny. I have a Droid 4 and I know I'd welcome a larger screen as most text on web sites is too small to read with out zooming in, and then you have to pan around a lot.

Dave made a good point when the original Note came out, these phablets are better used as a speaker phone most of the time, and only held up to your head when necessary.

Oh, and does anybody remember this legendary demo?

At the time it was quite funny, but the Note 8.0 isn't too far away from this becoming reality.

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Dave_HH replied on Wed, Feb 27 2013 7:25 PM

Hahah! That's awesome. I forgot about that episode. We have to get 2.5 Geeks going again soon.

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RWilliams replied on Wed, Feb 27 2013 8:29 PM

I don't own a phone like the Note II, but I can definitely understand the appeal of it. I'm someone who really dreads having to deal with a small screen, so any boost at all while not looking too ridiculous is definitely fine by me.

The 7-inches on the other hand... we're talking the size of an e-book reader.

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Marco C replied on Wed, Feb 27 2013 9:04 PM

HAHAHA! That's awesome. At least no one can say I'm too rigid. :) I joked about the original Note when it came out but gave the Note II and honest try and it made me a convert.

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I have a Moto Droid Razr, with a 4.3 inch screen. Love the phone, but am starting to have a hard time reading the small text. I cannot hold it & type in one hand, and I have pretty big hands for a female. Since I cannot hold this in one hand anyways, I'm thinking a 5" minimum screen is what I want. Or, I could make some kind of thumb extension.

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CDeeter replied on Thu, Feb 28 2013 7:10 AM

So true Dave. I loved 2 1/2 Geeks, it was the highlight of my tech week!

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CDeeter replied on Thu, Feb 28 2013 7:12 AM

The banter between the 3 of you was the best! There was something funny in every episode.

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I am an Apple Computer and iPhone user: my first iPhone was the 3G, then I upgraded two years later to the 4, then two years later to the 5. I also have the iPad 3 and will eventually get the iPad Mini when it features a Retina Screen. Lately, I have become a tad...dissatisfied? bored?...with the iPhone's interface and it's size. I was looking at the Samsung Galaxy S3 and the Note 2 recently and I found myself definitely attracted to the Note. I was not playing with the standard store model that is attached by a cord to the display counter, but to a free standing model the clerk let me handle and try out. I slipped it into my front pocket, where I carry my iPhone, and it fit perfectly! One does not need an inside coat pocket to carry the Note handily. It'll be about 18 months before my current contract expires and I can upgrade to a new phone at the subsidized price, and much can happen in that time. However, I won't just automatically upgrade to the then current/new iPhone as I have done; I will look carefully at what other devices are available and compare and contrast features. If the iPhone by then has not substantially changed at least its size, (if not also interface, which seems unlikely), or Apple has not added an additional--larger--model to its iPhone line, there's a strong chance I'll switch to another device, either the (then current) Note, or a similar device, if there's a better one available.

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digitaldd replied on Thu, Feb 28 2013 10:11 AM

I'm in the 4.5" is big enough camp. though my phone supposedly has a 4.7" display. FWIW anyone see the Asus Fonepad? its a $250 7" Android tablet with built-in 3G. So basically a tablet with similar specs to the Nexus 7 that can make phone calls in a pinch.

 

 

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scolaner replied on Thu, Feb 28 2013 11:49 AM

Yep. :)

http://hothardware.com/News/ASUS-Keeping-Busy-at-MWC-Announces-Fonepad-7inch-Tablet-with-3G-Voice-and-Data/

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Am I the only one who thinks the whole 'hold the phablet to your face to make a call' is a bogus dialog? If someone goes to the extent of getting a Note or such, it seems trivial to think they also get a bluetooth headset. I have seldom anything but a headset or bluetooth pickup in the car since they first became available, and certainly always for work.

Two cents...

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