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Don't super-size my smartphone

Posted on 12 Jul 2012 at 10:27

Paul Ockenden doesn't understand why people want smartphones with giant screens

Has anyone else noticed what’s been happening to top-end smartphones recently? They’ve started to get big – really big.

Comedian Dom Joly used to do a sketch with a giant spoof Nokia phone (funny the first few times you saw it), but if smartphones keep growing at their current exponential rate, it will look more like prophesy than parody.

It’s certainly true that with a bigger phone you’ll often get a bigger screen, and with a bigger screen you’ll see much more of a web page without having to pinch and zoom. But do people really want that at the expense of carrying around such a huge, heavy lump of tech in their pocket?

To sidetrack a little, I collect watches – especially those with fascinating movements. For years I’ve been collecting all kinds, some very old, some brand new, but a few years ago I stopped collecting new ones. Why? Because the fashion in high-end mechanical wristwatches from premium manufacturers such as IWC, Zenith and Breguet shifted towards huge monstrosities that just looked silly on my skinny wrist. They were all churning out watches with 50mm+ case diameters, and they were often quite thick too.

It's as though mobile manufacturers are frantically revising their spec sheets upwards in order to win a game of smartphone Top Trumps

Thankfully, that particular fashion pendulum has swung back and case sizes have become sensible again. During that annoying period, manufacturers thought they knew what customers wanted – big watches – and focused solely on them, while ignoring the substantial number of us who preferred something more discreet. I feel that the same thing is happening now with smartphones.

I realise this trend for huge phones isn’t welcomed by everyone, because when I recently asked on Twitter whether people liked the current trend for such monsters, I received lots of replies saying how much people hated them. I saw messages such as: "Spot on. It will be interesting to see whether Apple bucks the trend with the iPhone, but I doubt it," from @garleton; "Couldn’t agree more about the latest big phones. I’m tempted by the Sony Ericsson mini Android phone for that reason," from @MuPhi; and "A phone has to fit in my jeans' change pocket. More important to me than number of cores, screen resolution etc," from @bigajm.

This little bit of research wasn’t scientific, but I believe that last tweet adequately sums up how many people are feeling. It's as though mobile manufacturers are frantically revising their spec sheets upwards in order to win a game of smartphone Top Trumps, rather than making the phones people want. They don’t appear to realise that more cores or more pixels don’t necessarily make a better phone.

It isn't as if such mega-phones bring larger batteries that will last for longer, because their increased size usually brings extra bells and whistles, all of which eat up power: that bigger screen requires a bigger backlight and touch sensor; the higher screen resolution means more pixels to push around; and that in turn means the GPU will be sucking more life from the battery. The trouble is that fashion dictates phones that are larger in the two visible dimensions, but there’s still a desire to have them thin, so battery capacity inevitably suffers.

I recently witnessed HTC's official Twitter account proudly retweeting a couple of folk who claimed they’d managed to get a full day's use out of their HTC One X phones, as if this were some kind of epic win. Wow! A whole day without a trip to the charger! I'm sorry, but in my book a full day is the absolute minimum one should expect from a smartphone, and the fact your device can just about stagger through a real-world day is hardly something to be proud of.

HTC's vice president of product strategy, Björn Kilburn, recently said that customers consistently prefer thinner phones, even if that svelte profile involves shorter battery life. Yet when the Android Authority website ran a poll of visitors, 68% said they wanted better battery life compared to only 4% who wanted a thinner phone (the remaining 28% wanted both, of course).

This is big-watch syndrome all over again: the manufacturers believe they know what we want, and can probably produce carefully crafted research to support their marketing strategy; meanwhile, we who live in the real world dream of powerful yet easily pocketable phones that can go two or three days on a single charge. I don't know about you, but I can't wait for the pendulum to swing back.

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User comments

Björn Kilburn? From Kilburn and The High Roads?

By c_webb31 on 12 Jul 2012

Completely Agree

I've got a Galaxy S2. The screen size is just about the upper limit for me. Tried an S3 and it's just too big. However I'd also be more than happy to trade a couple of mm of thickness so that I could have a bigger battery that easily lasted a couple of days.

TBF I think Motorola have the right sort of idea with the RAZR MAXX.

By jeffl69 on 12 Jul 2012

I think it come down to a choice of devices from full desktop computers down to none-smartphones, all of which are compromised by a number of factors, which combination of devices you choose depends on what you personally consider important and what you consider worthy of compromise.
For me I have a powerful desktop computer at home and work and a Nokia 6301i which is small has good voice quality and sends messages, the battery lasts two weeks. I compromise on mobile internet and email which is fine because I have a computer are work and home and if I am not in one of those places I am normally driving. I am tempted to get a 7” tablet, which to me fits nicely between the two in my eyes.

Others will choose a laptop and small Smartphone, some will have desktop replacement, tablet and 3” Smartphone because it suits their need.

On a completely separate point, don’t forget that about of the population carry around a bag meaning big screen phones do not pose a problem.

By PhilGQ on 12 Jul 2012

htc titan = 2 days

wp7.5 juice efficient os and two days easily from a 4.7 inch screen. and it fits in my jeans pocket though i'm not a supermodel size zero :-)

By sihaz2 on 12 Jul 2012

Why are keyboards for Americans only

I fully agree with the objection to outsize overly thin phones, and would like to add a call to bring back keyboard phones. There are a vast number of nearly identical phones out there, and yet nothing to replace my Touch Pro 2. The Americans have a choice of high end keyboard phones, so why are they not available in Europe?

By tirons1 on 12 Jul 2012

Not sure you're on the winning side

I work in a relatively non-techie industry (finance), and I can tell you that, far from being unpopular, big screen phones (4.3"+) are a ver common site these days. I know of four people that have bought the S3 in my department alone (total size of 11), with a couple of One X, with the rest being various incarnations of the Iphone.

My wife has an S3, purely because she liked the big screen. I tried to push her down the Apple route, purely due to the amount of times she has lost her phone, and the wireless cloud backup that the Iphone performs every time it's plugged in.

I personally use a 4s, and whilst I'd appreciate an extra half an inch of screen size, that's really the max I'd want.

I realise that all of the above is purely anecdotal, but I really think you're doing exactly what you accuse the phone manufacturers of doing; pushing your own views as those of the general consumer.

By Lemax on 13 Jul 2012

You choose

Fortunately you are free to choose the size YOU want. I have been the proud owner of a Samsung Galaxy Note for some month now. I love it, best piece of electronics I've ever bought. Finally a smartphone which allows you to do everything and read anything with ease. A large screen is great for navigation, ebooks, the web, emails, pictures, movies, sms etc. Actually I would be happy with a screen just a bit bigger, e.g. 5.5". The phone fits perfectly in my shirt and jeans pocket, so what's the problem? It was the same studpid discussion about TV screen sizes. I now feel that my 46" screen is too small. at the time of purchase, all the experts whined about too large screens for the living room and recommended 32-37" screen for most situations. With my Note I don't need a tablet to read books and watch youtube.

By Menzo on 13 Jul 2012

I like my Samsung Galaxy SIII and I mainly use it to read news, twitter, facebook or newspapers so a phone with a big screen is definitively ok for me. I barely use it as a phone anyway so the bigger the better. I chose a phone with a bigger size consciously and I am more than happy with it. It all depends on how and for what one uses a smartphone. HTC if I am right is coming out with an HTC X One S possibly a small variant of their HTC X One like they did for HTC Desire...but correct me if I am wrong..

By aralerm on 13 Jul 2012

I've also noticed this trend towards bigger phones. When I do get a new phone it won't be bigger than the Samsung Galaxy S 2. I have no need for a larger screen, I can read and view a 3.5" screen quite well. I have a friend who is visually impaired who currently has an HTC Desire and said it's the best phone she's ever had. She'll be upgrading to an HTC One S because, according to her, the One X is too big.

And although I walk with a bag, my phone is often in my pocket for easier access, rarely in a bag. If manufacturers want to make bigger phones, fine, but not all of us want them. We still want/expect a quality phone with a smaller screen; smaller doesn't have to equate with "budget phone".

By Noe80 on 14 Jul 2012

I suspect this is a case of the public saying one thing whilst doing another. Everyone is saying phones are getting too big but, when contract renewal comes up and they go down to the phone shop they are dazzled by the shiny shiny. After all, the Samsung SIII is one of the biggest selling phones ever and I see loads of people walking around with 4"+ phones. The thing that concerns me is the shrinking choice. You either get a high-specced big phone or a low-specced small phone. There doesn't seem to be much in between. I have a 3.5" phone at the moment and that is the maximum I can live with. I'll soon be looking for a replacement but most 3.5" phones now have low-res screens, little RAM, few have SD Card slots and they tend to have older (ARMv6) CPUs.

By Bassey1976 on 16 Jul 2012

Horses for courses...

I have an htc 7 Mozart (battery recharge ever 3 to 4 days) and an htc Sensation, which usually manages a couple of days between charges, unless I get carried away with games.

That said, the Mozart can't talk to our Exchange server (borked certificates on the server and support staff saying "but it works on the iPhone"), so I was looking for an alternative and I'd probably go for the Galaxy Tab 7 2.0, if I get a choice.

I get about 2 calls a year on my company phone and have made about 3 calls in the last half year - so I redirect calls to my private phone and only need to carry the Mozart in case I get an SMS (2 in the last 12 months).

By big_D on 16 Jul 2012

If a phone won't comfortably fit in my hand or my change pocket, it's not for me. That may be why I still have my four year old iPhone 3G. Sure, the battery doesn't last a week to ten days anymore (more like 3 to 4 days only now, original battery). The rounded contours of the sides mean it fits in my pocket very comfortably, it's a pleasure to hold, and while my eyes are in need of stronger glasses that's hardly the phone's fault! I do wonder though for how many people the larger phone screen is just an excuse to go and get their eyes tested? For some reason, vanity precludes some people wearing glasses to see better.

By SwissMac on 16 Jul 2012

I agree with Menzo

This isn't the "big watch" phenomenon - there are genuine use cases for the bigger screen. For me, my Galaxy Note is my ebook reader, video player, MP3 player, email/SMS/Facebook device, portable games player, stills & video camera and my torch. Oh yes, I sometimes get and make telephone calls on it too, being 6'3" it doesn't look ridiculous in that role. In fact, the size of the device makes all these things easier on the big screen, it also means it's got a big battery to do all this through the day. With a significantly smaller phone, I'd have to run a tablet too, and even 7" ones don't fit in a pocket. So, for me, this current "fad" for big phones is perfect, and I hope they remain an option even if the world swings back to smaller ones again.

By aeonturnip on 16 Jul 2012

iPhone 3G battery lasting 10 days. Without calls and with everything turned off, yes.

SwissMac, seeing as how you obviously don't receive or make any calls, or use your phone for browsing (Anandtech reports 3hr battery life for the iPhone 3G in use), why not just get a Nokia E61? The battery on there (without calls or waking the screen, like how you apparently use your iphone) can last for over 2 weeks. And when it finally dies you can simply pop open the case and change the battery. Or does vanity preclude the use of anything other than a shiny, fruity device?

By TheHonestTruth on 17 Jul 2012

Options?

Why cannot the phone manufacturers offer different 'backs' for their phones; moving from very thin with a low capacity to thick with a high capacity?

I'm sure this has been done with several classes of device already. (Laptops and cameras to name but two.)

By qpw3141 on 17 Jul 2012

@qpw3141

A very good idea. Motorola do this in the states, but as usual we just get the high fashion option.

By tirons1 on 17 Jul 2012

@TheHonestTruth

I get around 2 - 3 days out of my iPhone 3GS, 2 days out of my htc Sensation and 3 - 4 out of the htc Mozart.

I don't play a lot of games on them and I don't browse much, just e-mail on the move and playing audio books and podcasts.

By big_D on 18 Jul 2012

@qpw3141

One of the reasons that my Sensation lasts 2 days is that I have a high capacity battery in it. You can find them on Amazon for most models.

Some of the Samsung ones are thicker and come with a new back plate.

By big_D on 18 Jul 2012

People buy the size they want

It's quite simple, if you don't want a phone with a big screen then don't buy a phone with a big screen. One of the advantages of Android and WP7 handsets is that unlike Apple there are a range of sizes so you can choose whatever suits you best. I could understand an article complaining about an Iphone being too big as there currently is only one model each generation but for others I don't really.

As for why we have increasingly big phones it's because people want them, simple as that. The Galaxy Note is a prime example, its massive 5.3in screen left reviewers a bit puzzled and it was expected to be a niche phone. Roll on nearly a year and it's been a big seller with more phones going towards its size. I bought a Note on release and never regretted it, I always found tablets pointless as they're too underpowered for the size so the Note gives me a more usable alternative that fits in my pocket. I've never had any trouble putting it in any of the pockets I put my previous phone in (a Nokia N900) and it does have a much bigger battery over the S2 to counter the larger size which gives it better batterylife. It's a superb device for reading webpages, watching videos and showing pictures making even the S2 which seemed big in its time appear a bit small and cramped.

I don't think the Note is for everyone but I'm glad we get the choice - I can have a huge screen and those that don't want it can choose a model with a smaller screen.

By JohnMcL7 on 20 Jul 2012

I upgraded to the Galaxy SIII from a Blackbery Bold 9650.

I put an Otter Box on the SIII immediately and I think that it is a great size, because it fits in my pocket easily and still has a very good size screen.

I don't need anything bigger and if I do, I'll get a tablet, but I don't see that in my future.

So, I agree that larger phones are not going to interest me, but they may interest some and as long as manufacturers build devices to fit the needs of the general public, I don't really see a problem.

By GradyPhilpott on 20 Jul 2012

Thank God for Choice

Why write in such details about a "problem" with such an easy solution.

I would love to have a large screen phone. Makes life a lot easier for people like me with big hands and fat fingers.

They Samsung Galaxy phone with the 4.5 - 4.7 inch screens are a lot lighter than the iPhone4S by the way and the battery lasts for 48 hours with judicious use.

In the end, I am glad that there are more people who are happy with the choice than those who aren't.

If you want a smaller screen on your iPhone, buy the 4S. It's a great phone. If you want the larger screen, buy the 5.

By MostlyNerd on 21 Jul 2012

You don't have to buy a bigger device, you can always remain with your current device, nobody is forcing you to supersize your phone.
Choice is a good thing.

By nicomo on 24 Jul 2012

Choice?

No one is trying to sell me a slider keyboard phone. There are vast numbers of nearly identical phones, but that is it. My TouchPro 2 remains unreplaceable.

By tirons1 on 25 Jul 2012

Choice

My wife got the Wildfire S, when I came to start looking they were no longer available. Even second hand Desire S are in the £80 to £90 bracket. In the end I picked up a special offer of the Desire C @ £10 a month with calls, texts & data, which is a) hard to beat at this price point & b) does all I need, email, facebook, eBay, as well as the usual functions.

By roberttrebor on 28 Jul 2012

Portability is key

Agree with the article.

I don't have a smartphone but would like to have one, one that is not a pain in the arse to carry around say on a night out.

Having said that I'd also like to have , well, just a phone. One that you can talk on, and text on, and nothing else, just as long as its stylish. Bit more difficult to get now though.

And how about dual sims.

By Hound_of_Culann on 31 Jul 2012

I just wish they would get it right!

I looked at the Sony Xperia S to replace my ageing HTC Hero, but it was just too big! The Xperia P on the other hand is just about right for me. I prefer a bigger than average - whatever that is - phone because I need glasses to read, hence the reason to upgrade to a larger screen yet bizarrely there still doesn't appear to be a way to increase the text size in Gmail or the included memo pad, which surely defeats the object of having a bigger screen in the first place? It's a vast improvement on the Hero, but give us more zoom functionality and we just might not need those supersized screens.

By coolcity on 2 Aug 2012

Choice of other features

Lots of words already on the plethora of choice of screensize, phonesize etc.
What about choice of phone signal reception capability and extra battery life. Is it just me or is it remarkably difficult to find choice in this area.
And the latest PCPro labs test ignored testing a smartphone's phone capabilities completely! Doh!

By farndalebarry on 7 Dec 2012

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Paul Ockenden

Paul Ockenden

Paul is a contributing editor to PC Pro specialising in smartphones, mobile broadband and all things wireless. He's technical director of a combined IT and marketing company, which works on websites and intranets for several blue-chip clients.

Read more More by Paul Ockenden

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