Mobilified Rant: Stop the madness of the monster phones!

Mobile Sep 04, 2011 No Comments

It has to stop.  No, really.  It has to stop.  What could I be referring to?  The mammoth, monster, gigantic phones.  Over the last two years, we’ve seen an explosion of screen sizes in smartphones that is unquestionably out of control.  Two years ago, the largest screen size of note on the market was the 3.5” LCD of the iPhone 3G.  The most high-end Android phone was the HTC Hero with a 3.2” screen.  Yes, the HTC HD2 was a 4.3” Windows Mobile monster on T-Mobile, but nobody cared about that.  More on that in a moment.  Just months later, the Motorola Droid would hit the market and change the game for Android and the entire phone landscape as a whole.  It actually had a 3.7” screen, but that wasn’t considered all that important.  It just had a slightly larger screen.

It was 2010 that changed everything.  In February, HTC and Sprint introduced the HTC Evo 4G.  The Evo was the HD2 screen and most of its design repackaged as an Android superphone.  It was an interesting jump, to say the least.  Hardly anything 4” or above had even been announced, but all of a sudden Sprint was dropping this mammoth phone on the public.  Did it have more to do with the fact that HTC had already made this screen and resolution for the HD 2?  Probably.  Why was the HD 2 so big anyway?

As Steve Jobs so clearly put it in his D8 appearance last year, when you throw out the stylus and intend for your phones to be operated by a finger, you have to throw out your UI and rebuild it (i.e. bigger) for the precision of a finger.  Microsoft was late in doing this, which is why the OEMs like HTC at the time had to figure out a way to make a Windows Mobile phone work with a capacitive screen.  The answer?  Make it absurdly big so that people can actually hit all those X boxes and all the small elements in Windows Mobile.  The result was the last major Windows Mobile 6.5 phone to be released: the HTC HD 2.

That’s all fine and good for Windows Mobile, but the biproduct of that experiment was that the concept of a bigger screen fit very well with the Android arms race that was just taking off.  Build a bigger phone and you may stand out more in the store.  Sure, it will be a bit large for most pockets and ultimately not comfortable for most hands, but that’s all stuff the consumer has to worry about after the purchase.  The larger screen size had an even bigger benefit in that it masked some of the failings of the Android operating system at the time.  In Android 2.1, the accuracy of the screen digitizer and software was often lacking.  All of the available keyboards were terrible.  Make the screen and all the targets bigger and it will be easier to type.  For people with large hands, the iPhone was never comfortable to type on and a number of them felt more at home with these larger screens.

Of course, when the Evo came out, it was matched spec-wise by current devices like the Nexus One and the Droid Incredible, both of which sported 3.7” screens.  After all, isn’t Android all about choice?  Well say goodbye to that concept.  Samsung’s premier line for 2010 was the Galaxy S.  The 4” Super AMOLED screen on the Galaxy S was considered by many to be a sweet spot of sorts.  Unfortunately, the device manufacturers couldn’t have cared less about customers who found 3.7-4.0” to be ideal.  The Droid X came out in August 2010 with a 4.3” screen and was even taller than the Evo in total size.  But the real madness didn’t begin until this year.

For starters, there hasn’t been a single premier device released this year smaller than 4”.  The Droid Incredible 2 was a fine device that was bumped up to 4” from its previous generation, but it is hardly the latest and greatest in smartphone technology.  No, the premier lines this year are the Samsung Galaxy S II, the Motorola Photon, the Droid Charge, the HTC Evo 3D, the HTC Sensation and the Droid Bionic (still to come).  All of those phones are 4.3”.  What was considered giant and niche last year is now the standard high-end phone.  When Samsung released their oddly-positioned Infuse on AT&T with its 4.5” screen in the spring, everyone laughed at them taking it to the extreme.  No longer.  The T-Mobile and Sprint versions of the Galaxy S II are sporting the same 4.5” screen.  The rumored Nexus/Droid Prime is also expected to have a 4.5” screen.  That’s right, the next flagship “Google experience” phone is going to be 4.5″.

And it’s just getting madder.  HTC just announced a 4.7” Windows Phone and Samsung just introduced their absurd 5.3” Galaxy Note device.  While some people who have handled the devices claim that the edge-to-edge screens and thinness of these phones makes the phones easier to handle than you might think, don’t be fooled.  That’s still 4.7” of real estate that you have to interact with.  Last I checked, notifications in Android and Windows Phone were both handled at the very top of the screen.  Of course, for Samsung this isn’t as much of a problem since they’re including what everyone wants: a stylus.

The madness has to stop.  It seems obvious by now that Apple is going to introduce a slightly larger-screened iPhone in month.  What you won’t see is them stepping anywhere near 4.3 or 4.5”.  And yet, something tells me their phone will still run really fast and have great battery life.  If you want that on an Android device, looks like it’s time to start working on hand stretches and stylus technique.

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