I’ve been following a disturbing trend over the last few years as the Android platform (and now WP7 as well) matures. Smartphone screen sizes just keep growing and growing, and they don’t seem to want to stop. I have a number of issues with smartphones that have overly-large screens. It pains me to see that, while Android is known for giving users many choices, it’s nearly impossible to get a reasonably-sized flagship phone. For me, for a smartphone to be a ‘smartphone’ at all, and not a tablet, it has to be easily usable with one hand. Of course then the definition of smartphone/tablet will change from person to person, because our hands are not all the same size, however, there is certainly a finite limit for everyone where a phone will become too big to be comfortably used with one hand.
I’m currently testing the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. So far it’s been a rather wonderful phone, and I recently wrote this on Google Plus:
I’ve been using the iPhone for 3 generations. Right now I’m testing a Galaxy Nexus. If they made the same exact phone in a size that’s actually comfortable for one-hand use, I might call myself an Android convert. Curse you 4″+ screens and the awful fad that you are!
For me, the 4.65″ screen on the Galaxy Nexus is just too big. I constantly have to shuffle the phone around in my hand because Android places the two most frequently used aspects of the interface (the menu buttons and the notification drawer) at opposite ends of the phone. The size of the phone and the required shuffling means that I’ve got a poor grip on it, and I’ve been rather worried about dropping it during use. Again, those with larger hands will not have the same issue at 4.65″, but at some point they will run into the same problem.
Android Handset Screen Size Over Time
To show the trends of Android smartphone screen sizes over time, I compiled screen size and release date data from 155 smartphones from five major manufacturers (Motorola, Samsung, HTC, Sony, LG). I’d like to thank PDADB.net for their comprehensive release date info. (click to enlarge graphs)
As you can see, since the introduction of the 3.2″ HTC Dream / G1, screen sizes have consistently increased. Today we’re seeing 4″, 4.5″, 4.7″, 5″, and even 5.3″ smartphones! A simple projection (seen on the main chart) suggests that before 2013 is out, many handsets will have 5″ screens, while the flagship phones of that time may have even larger screens (if this trend continues) of 5.5″ or perhaps 6″.
With a slope of 0.0016, LG is increasing its Android smartphone screen sizes the most rapidly of these five manufactures. Despite pioneering some of the largest phones on the market at certain points in the timeline, Motorola is actually showing the slowest rate of increase in Android smartphone screen size with a slope of 0.0009, but of course this isn’t very far off from the leader!
Why is This Happening?
A good question to ask is what’s prompting the growth in screen size. It seems natural for manufacturers to have experimented with screen sizes as the platform grew legs. Different screen sizes are a point of differentiation for an Android phone manufacturer — a way to stand out in a sea of similar options. Bigger screens were also an easy way for companies to try to beat out the iPhone on features, even if the ‘bigger is better’ argument doesn’t hold much water in this case. Now it seems to have turned into a snowball effect whereby manufacturers are trying to one-up each other to have the biggest screen in town (all the while, Apple has stuck with 3.5″ since the introduction of their handsets). You wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve heard the phrase “biggest and baddest” when marketers are referring to a new Android phone. They use this phrase as though bigger is always better, but I must say — when it comes to comfortable one-handed smartphone use — it is not.
Where Does It Stop?
My question is this: where do we draw the line? As I mentioned, despite variations in hand sizes, everyone reaches a limit of comfortable one-hand usability at some point. I don’t have the raw data to back it up, but I believe that Android smartphone screen sizes are rapidly surpassing the maximum size for comfortable one-handed use by the average Android customer. None of this is to say there aren’t advantages to having a larger screen (particularly when it comes to media viewing), but given that people much more frequently use their smartphones for apps rather than media viewing, the argument for surpassing a users one-handed comfort zone to provide a better media experience is a poor one.
It’s not so much that screen-sizes are increasing (the chart clearly shows that other sizes are still available), but the bothersome fact is that it’s near-impossible to get a flagship phone unless you’re willing to buy one of the massive phones on the market. If you want a phone that comes in a size that’s comfortable for one-handed use, you have to be willing to settle as a second-class Android citizen — the only options available to you will likely have slower processors, less RAM (and may be based on an older platform) than the newest and biggest flagship phone currently on the market.