Mobility

Does size really matter?

Jack Wallen challenges smartphone and tablet manufacturers to reconsider their priorities when it comes to design of mobile devices.

Of all the questions surrounding mobile devices, I believe one that deserves more attention than it gets is "Does screen size really matter?". When manufacturers release teasers for upcoming devices, one of the first pieces of information shared is the size of the screen. With many new iterations of so many devices, it's all about bigger and bigger and bigger. This evolution of the smartphone and tablet has, in my opinion, created a problem—one that needs to be addressed.

With every release, manufacturers hope to find the elusive sweet spot—that form factor which combines the perfect size for both functionality and form. We want a smartphone that will fit perfectly in our hands, but also allow plenty of screen size for viewing media. But too many times, manufacturers are way off the mark. Take, for example, one of the most powerful smartphones on the market—the Droid Turbo. Of all devices, this one has the best combination of performance and battery. However, try to fit that baby in your front pocket and see how long before its size and heft start to become a nuisance. Or, if you have smaller hands, try to manage that or the LG G3 with one hand. Good luck.

On the contrary, the petite Motorola Moto X wins, hands down, for size but lacks the power and battery life found in more flagship-level devices.

From my perspective, what is happening is device manufacturers are focusing too much on the size and resolution of the screen and less on the practicality of the device. Seriously, who needs 4K video on a smartphone? No one. Who needs ambient light or 3D sensors? No one. What we do need on our mobile devices is:

  • The sweet spot of sizes
  • Plenty of battery life
  • Power to multi-task
  • Reliable connectivity
  • Plenty of storage
  • App/service integration

You cover those points and you'll win big. Of those points, only two seem to be problematic:

  • The sweet spot of sizes
  • Plenty of battery life

It is generally considered that the sweet spot of sizes lies within the 4.7-5 inch range. Anything below that is too small and anything above is too bulky for practical usage. The two devices that really nailed this are the iPhone and the Moto X. Both phones offer the perfect blend of manageable size and viewability. The HTC M8 comes very close, but the length of the device can make it clumsy with one-handed usage.

To me, one-handed usage should be the single litmus test for device designers. If you cannot comfortably control all aspects of a device with one hand, there is something wrong with the design. A similar test could be applied to tablets: If you can comfortably type with the device in landscape mode (while gripping said device by the sides), you've nailed the form factor.

Thing is, manufacturers aren't paying enough attention to this particular detail. Their idea of "bigger is better" fails to take into consideration the fact that the devices are best displayed in users hands, not on retail displays. Yes, it's fantastic to see manufacturers really pushing the boundaries of manufacturing with these devices, but they must be functional. It is imperative that the design of smartphones and tablets hold a function over form mentality. Bring your best materials to the table. Pump the performance beyond that of the desktop. But never assume the best way to entice consumers is to make the screens bigger and bigger and bigger.

Of course, I get it—the ideal size is relative. To someone with massive ET fingers, a phablet is a smartphone done right. To someone with hands like me, a phablet is nothing more than a two-handed jaunt down impossible lane. But between that 4.7-5.0 inches there's plenty of room for just about any size hand. And I don't want to hear any manufacturer say they cannot pack enough power in that form factor—not when Samsung and Apple have already done it and done it well. And considering bezels have shrunk to nearly disappearing, there isn't much wiggle room on the device casing. This might be one instance where the logic behind Samsung's Galaxy 6S could come into play. Instead of increasing the size of the device...wrap the screen around the sides and gain an extra half an inch. Manufactures could get even trickier and extend the upper and lower boundaries of the screen. In fact, the entire front face of the device could (should?) be bezel-less screen and nothing more. You've then managed to shrink the device enough to keep viewable size up and physical size down.

Not that I have the answer for a problem that has plagued smartphone designers for years. I do, however, believe the answer to the question, "Does screen size matter?" is conditional. If a larger screen size cuts down on the practicality of a mobile device, then the size doesn't matter and consumers will opt for a smaller screen over a more practically sized device. If you manage to pull off a larger screen while not compromising the practicality and usability of the device, then size does matter and people will flock to your smartphone.

You can throw in every conceivable bell and whistle ever developed for the mobile landscape, but if your form factor precludes practical usage, then you have designed a failure. No matter how powerful your CPU, no matter that you offer 4K video and audiophile-pleasing sound—if your device isn't sized right, you may as well scrap it.

My personal favorite device is the second generation Motorola Moto X. I've left it for the Droid Turbo, the LG G3, and the HTC M8—only to return to it every single time. The Moto X is the perfect combination of viewability and portability. I can watch Youtube videos and drop it into my pocket without hindering my ability to walk and sit.

I understand this is a very relative and personal matter. Not everyone wants a device in the 4.7-5 inch range. Some do like the 5+ inch size device. But manufacturers should not be forgoing usability and practically just in the hopes that a larger, 4K-ready screen is really what consumers want. Truth be told, what we really want is a powerful smartphone that doesn't push the boundaries of portability and one-handed usage.

What do you think? What is your ideal when it comes to smartphones and tablets? Has any one manufacturer nailed this (or are you still in the hunt for perfection)?

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About Jack Wallen

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website jackwallen.com.

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