Smartphone Screen Real Estate: How Big Is Big Enough?

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:

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.