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What Is the Smartphone Screen-size Sweet Spot?

Screen size has become one of the leading questions that consumers face when considering a new smartphone.

What Is the Smartphone Screen-size Sweet Spot?

Jan 22, 2014 11:06 AM,
By Jason Bovberg

In many ways, the smartphone market is still evolving. Although the industry, not too long ago, seemed to be settling on two OSs—Apple’s revolutionary iOS and Google’s open-source, copycat Android—consumers are beginning to realize that there are fascinating options beyond the typical iOS-like whack-a-mole interface that defined the touchscreen smartphone in its youth. Perhaps more dramatically, there’s also the question of screen size. Early industry leader Apple seemed to focus the market on the 3.5in.-to-4in. display of its iPhone, but now—more than ever—screen size has become one of the leading questions that consumers face when considering a new smartphone, and now the relatively tiny-screened iPhone is seeming increasingly like an antique. What’s the smartphone screen-size sweet spot?

The first time I really became aware that the sky was the limit where screen size is concerned was when Samsung debuted its Galaxy Note two years ago. I tested a Galaxy Note, and although the screen real estate (5.3in.) was revelatory at the time, the unit was comically large as a smartphone. Holding that thing to my ear as a phone made me feel downright silly, as if I was holding a tablet to my ear. And holding it in one hand for texting proved problematic: I have fairly large hands, and even my hand was stretched to discomfort when trying to thumb-type. But still, the mere existence of the Galaxy Note told me that the question of screen size for smartphones was far from settled.

Rather than bifurcate into two extremes—Apple’s small iPhone and Android’s gigantic Galaxy Note—the market has begun exploring many different intermediary screen sizes. It’s a good thing, too, because clearly smartphones are becoming more and more capable every year, and consumers are using them as much for web browsing and high-end photography as for simple communication. Today, high-profile smartphone companies such as Samsung (now the most profitable smartphone vendor), Nokia, HTC, and Sony are all exploring varying screen sizes in an apparent attempt to find the most pleasing compromise between hand comfort and maximized image.

In my home, we use smartphones from a couple of those alternatives. I use the Nokia Lumia 928 Windows Phone, which is just about perfect for my hand size at 4.5in., and my wife uses the Samsung Galaxy S3 Android phone, which works great for her at 4.8in. More than a couple times now, friends with iPhones have noticed our phones and commented on our much-larger and much-brighter screens. It’s worth mentioning that these friends place a high priority on their ability to use their smartphones for Internet browsing and photography. Our photographer friend is now convinced that it’s time to switch from her iPhone to the forthcoming Nokia Lumia Icon, which promises a brilliant 5in. screen and a 20-megapixel front-facing camera (not to mention those superior Nokia photography apps and the Windows Phone’s dedicated photo-shutter button). In both cases, our friends expressed a lot of frustration with Apple’s now archaic screen size, as well as with the relative lack of brightness in the famed Retina display.

Apple has never been a company you’d describe as a follower. Until recently, that is. Last year, the company released its iPad mini as a sort of reactionary response to a market that was seeing great success with smaller-sized Android tablets. And this year, its production of variably colored iPhone 5C devices was a direct response to other manufacturers’ popular and colorful handsets. The iPad mini has proven to be a successful venture, but the iPhone 5C experiment has been less so. In both cases, cracks are showing in Apple’s formerly sterling reputation as a tech innovator, and a belated move toward larger iPhone screens might widen that crack—a catch 22, considering that it’s one of the more necessary evolutions the iPhone has ever faced.

Seemingly every time I visit my local consumer-electronics superstore, I see a senior citizen taking the plunge into the latest iPhone (heck, my own dad—with his increasingly poor vision—elected to go with iPhone), despite it being arguably the most difficult-to-read screen on the market. I will always be fascinated by the public’s tendency to simply buy into what’s trendy, no matter the cost, and no matter that the market is flooded with alternatives that are in many cases better and cheaper. That’s perhaps a larger topic for another day, but it’s particularly relevant to a discussion of smartphone screen size. Because of a perception of quality based on marketing, phones with small screens are selling in the highest numbers to an audience of consumers who would benefit most from a larger screen.

Apple is in danger of losing its hold on the perception of quality and innovation. It’s still a sharp company, to be sure, but its closed-off ecosystem is far too often a hindrance to its ability to move forward. There’s the feeling that the company is coasting on its aging reputation. A larger-screened iPhone is a no-brainer, and the fanbase will gobble it up, but Apple is falling behind in other smartphone features, too, such as camera optics (hardware) and social-media integration (software). How often can Apple be a follower before beginning to see its market share erode?

Regardless, the industry continues to experiment with many different sizes of smartphones, even venturing into a new “phablet” arena, loosely incorporating those devices between 5in. and 7in. that are simply too large to fully manipulate in one hand. There is a screen size for everyone, from the demurely digited to the ham-fisted. Perhaps the answer to the question posed by this article’s title is that there is no one answer. Everyone is different.

My buddy—a self-proclaimed Apple fanboy—insists that his iPhone’s 4in. screen is perfectly suited even to his larger-sized hands, for the simple reason of “hand feel.” Anything larger, he tells me, loses that magic ratio between usability and readability. “It also fits perfectly in my pocket,” he says. On the other hand, my wife insists that her 4.8in. screen is “ideal,” despite the fact that she has smaller hands. Her Android phone also offers, to her, the perfect fit and weight for her needs. Everyone seems to be in the midst of a love affair with their phones, and I guess that’s as it should be, considering the expensive, long-term contracts we must sign in order to obtain them. We better love them, right? We have to justify them.

Still, there must be an average size smartphone that is the ideal, and more and more, it looks as if the industry is focusing on the 4.5in.-to-5in. range for that sweet spot. Not coincidentally, rumor has it that Apple is exploring a 4.7in. iPhone. Oh, Apple. You follower, you.

Will you be first in line, or will you be exploring other options? What’s your screen-size preference?

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