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It Is Time to Embrace Big Screen Phones

Gordon Kelly


It Is Time to Embrace Big Screen Phones

meCES has always been an event for the faintly ridiculous (just look where it takes place) and the 2013 show was no different. Ultra High Definition 4k screens were promoted with no solution to content and astronomical prices, virtual reality glasses were pushed years ahead of practical viability and phones are now ridiculously thin when any sane consumer would rather they had a few more millimetres and decent battery life. Then again what is currently being derided in many quarters as the most ridiculous trend of CES 2013, 5in smartphones, is actually one of the most sensible. But to understand it requires a fundamental change of perspective.

phone usage

Why is a smartphone a 'smartPhone'?

'Smartphone'... 'smart-phone'... the name is so misleading advertising standards really should step in and hunt down those responsible because the emphasis is completely wrong. Just look at the ingredients: a sat nav, MP3 player, PMP, web browser, digital camera and mobile phone are combined and the term 'phone' is the one that is kept. Time for a reality check.

Back in June 2012 O2 reported making phone calls had become only the fifth most popular activity on a smartphone. Above it came web browsing, social media, listening to music and playing games, suggesting 'smart-any-ending-but-phone' would have been a better name. In fact phone calls are predicted to drop even further with emails, texting, video and eBook reading all just a few minutes behind daily phone usage in the research. Quite simply the device in your pocket is a small computer that just happens to make phone calls and it even does this badly due to the number of competing antennas inside which enable its wide ranging functionality. These days we should simply use the term 'mobile', after all position ('desktop', 'laptop') hasn't done badly so far.

Grand S

Five Star

Which brings us back to the five inch handsets unveiled at CES. The Sony Xperia Z, Huawei Ascend D2 and ZTE Grand S (above) all took centre stage and will be joined by the HTC M7, LG Optimus G2 and possibly the Samsung Galaxy S4 when they are officially unveiled at Mobile World Congress next month. They can hardly be described as phones and we shouldn't worry trying to shoebox them as such. Just look at the details: commonalities other than their screen size include Full HD 1080p resolutions, quad core processors, LTE support and while Huawei admitted its D2 was a little chunky (9.4mm thick, 170g) both the Xperia Z and Grand S are substantially slimmer than a 3.5in iPhone 4S (7.9mm and 6.9mm vs 9.3mm) and roughly the same weight (circa 140g). Each is light years on from the once comical Dell Streak.

Why have mobiles gone in this direction? Easy: they are designed to specialise at the things O2 explained we do most at the expense of phone calls. In fact they will be better at everything on O2's list with the debateable exception of texting. Manufacturers have made mobiles in response to our usage habits even if we hadn't recognised them yet. Calls were already beginning to take a back seat, enlarging handsets just expedites it.

Hello! I'm in the library. The LIBRARY!

Or will it? When critics attack ever larger mobiles the most common stereotype harks back to images of the giant phone sketches from Trigger Happy TV with a comically oversized handset held up to our ear looking ridiculous while we are obnoxious. Tackling the obnoxiousness remains a challenge, but on the move – where large mobiles are most inconvenient – headsets and earphones with integrated mics are now prevalent.

At home we have these options as well as switching to the speakerphone. Putting a phone to our ears has never been ideal, it leaves us one-handed with arm ache and is nothing to be held onto at the expense of progress. Again bigger phones simply expedite this.

Look ma, one hand!

If there is a genuine criticism of this shift to larger screen sizes, however, it is the inability to use them with one hand. The counter argument once more is this is only really a nuisance on the move, but it is inconvenient nonetheless. Still the solution should come this year through smartphone companions: second screens which deliver key notifications and control of core functionality. And interestingly the most popular form factor for such a device looks to be the humble wristwatch.

The demand for such a product is certainly there. Kickstarter records were shattered when Pebble's "e-paper watch for iPhone and Android" set a funding goal of $100,000 and received $10,266,845 and we were highly impressed in our preview of fellow Kickstarter success story the MetaWatch with a full review due in a few weeks time. An Apple 'iWatch' is also expected before the end of the year, I'm Watch has set pulses racing and it can't be long before the major manufacturers unveil competing smart watches for their Android handsets.

Of course long term the vision is even more ambitious as devices move from our wrists to our eyes like Google Glass. It is only then that big phone screens will disappear, as will the need for their screens entirely, as they become small computers left in our pocket or bag streaming all their information to us and delivering months of battery life at a time.

Size Matters

Until then though 'mobiles' will simply keep getting bigger as manufacturers cater towards our primary uses and the so-called 'phablet' becomes normal as ever thinner, lighter mobiles with larger footprints creep to within an inch of tablets. Perhaps when they eventually bend we will fold them...

All of which leaves us suddenly questioning where Apple fits into this? Arguably the company which invented and inspired the modern computer-which-happens-to-make-phone-calls seems somewhat out of touch as it lectures about the length of our thumbs and touts the 4in iPhone 5 as "the biggest thing to happen to the iPhone since the iPhone". In fact even the brand which pushes the fading 'phone' aspect of the device to the forefront may soon have a detrimental effect.

But of course Apple is right. The iPhone 5 is the biggest thing to happen to the iPhone since the first iPhone. The trouble is a much bigger thing happened to everyone else...

Gareth Byrd

January 14, 2013, 9:51 am

I carry a 7 inch tablet nearly everywhere with me. I can't be alone in wanting a short fat mobile, with long battery life, good call quality, maps and music. The problem is there will be no plaudits at launch whilst the media is obsessed with larger higher resolution screens and faster processors.


January 14, 2013, 12:20 pm

One thing against 5" phones is that they are harder to use one-handed, and surely that comes close to stopping them being 'mobile'.

The problem is that people still get confused between size and resolution. I do want a 1080p+ resolution, but have it in <5" screen size.

Paul Brasington

January 14, 2013, 5:13 pm

I'm with Gareth - more or less. I have a Nexus 7 and found myself thinking what I now use my smartphone for ... calls of course, email and messaging when away from Wifi, a couple of mobile-oriented apps (ie maps and train times), and PIM functions (all using Google tools) - and I wouldn't need this much if I could have a duplicate SIM in the Nexus ...


January 14, 2013, 5:16 pm

Exactly my reasons for getting a Galaxy Note (phone). I already had a mobile phone, a Nokia 1100. So if all I wanted/needed was a mobile phone, well, I already had one. And to be honest I hardly ever used my mobile phone. Paradoxically, that was the justification for a Galaxy Note.

Gordon Kelly

January 14, 2013, 7:03 pm

Chris you'll find I have a section specifically dedicated to the "one handed" problem... and solutions ;)

Gordon Kelly

January 14, 2013, 7:05 pm

I think that's viable, but calls are mostly taken now through Bluetooth headsets and earphones/headphones with inbuilt mics. Nearly all phones ship with them and there are many (much better) third party ones too. Carrying a separate phone is actually more bulkier and inconvenient than one of these accessories I'd say.

Gordon Kelly

January 14, 2013, 7:06 pm

That's the problem in a nutshell: multiple contracts. Again I think a 5/6in phone (at least until 7in tablets have call functionality) is the solution with a simple headset or earphones with integrated mic. It's simple, portable and doesn't require more cash going to networks.

Paul Brasington

January 14, 2013, 8:11 pm

Yes I think I could go with that ... probably more the 6in because I'm a writer and do a lot on the Nexus (with a Bluetooth keyboard) ...


January 15, 2013, 9:55 am

I couldn't actually disagree more - I like having a separate device for watching media, emailing, web browsing/shopping and playing games on (which has it's own battery), so I've got a Nexus 7 for that.

If I'm actually going to call someone, text someone or generally just keep a device on me to allow me to contact people and be contactable then I want it to be smaller. Currently I've still got my HTC Desire S because I haven't seen another phone on the market that offers what it does. I'd definitely agree that something around the 4" (the HTC One S and Galaxy S2) mark is completely feasible for a phone, but 5" and above is just too much in my opinion.

Also your remark about most people making calls via headsets or some sort - have you got any metrics to back that up, because I doubt it is true.

Alexander Gödde

January 15, 2013, 10:00 am

The multiple SIM question is something that operators can easily solve, e.g. o2 Germany offer up to three SIMs on the same contract, which can share the data allowance.
I'm always surprised that other operators don't offer this. It's the main reason I'm staying with o2, despite their often patchy network coverage.

Alexander Gödde

January 16, 2013, 12:45 pm

Regarding one-handed use: how exactly is a wrist-watch going to solve that problem? You need one wrist to wear it and position it so that the other hand can operate it. That just doesn't work when you're e.g. holding on to a strap on a bus, or carrying some shopping - both of which I'd say are standard cases for one-handed use.


January 16, 2013, 2:32 pm

Can you stop propositioning our readers please Gordon?

There's is a lot of discussion about people having a 7 inch tablet and a seperate, smaller, phone. A 7 inch tablet isn't (easily) pocketable whereas a 5 inch phone (and a 6 inch just about) is. This is the major selling point to me of big screen phones. I can be productive (and unproductive with games, music, movies etc) without carrying around too much or needing a bag.

Nathan Chu

January 19, 2013, 11:56 pm

I have a nexus 7 as well, and i havent picked up my phone for at least a month now. with the nexus 7, 1.3 ghz and quad core tegra 3 graphics absolutely rules out my galaxy 2


January 21, 2013, 11:32 am

I think it's less about just embracing large phones and more about embracing that people have different needs and different sized hands. Just because I wear size 10 boots doesn't mean everyone else should too, right?

I'm lucky enough to be able to use a large screened phone with ease but some of my friends aren't able to do so and they shouldn't have to sacrifice comfort just to get the latest technology.

I also have no idea how wearing a smartwatch solves the problem of a phone being too large to use with one hand. That just means you're juggling a phone that's too big for you and a watch. I am intrigued by the oncoming smartwatches though and will see if they might be useful for me when they appear.

I'll also admit I have no idea why people want 1080p displays in anything under 7" screens. My phone has 341ppi and even when I look closely at it I don't see pixels! Why shove a 440ppi screen in there when the main consequence of it will be a hit in battery life rather than a visibly crisper screen?


January 21, 2013, 1:36 pm

I know a guy that carries Galaxy Note II and a separate small phone with him. Most of the time using Note II.
Me - I need to make 1 phone call a day, the rest is internet, so I'm good with 720p 4.7inch.
But why aren't they "innovating" by using those sensors I once saw on a chinese phone, invincible sensors placed on the edges of the phone, so that UI would know exactly where my fingers are and dynamically adjust UI to make it easy for one-handed use when needed, for example by bringing controls closer to my thumb?

Gordon Kelly

February 15, 2013, 10:06 am

The article should make this clear: a smartwatch gives you at a glance information on your wrist so you don't need to take a big screen phone out your pocket and free up two hands to use it every time it buzzes.

It isn't about creating content on a watch, it is about viewing alerts and being able to decide whether they are worth responding to... I suspect many either won't need a response at all (such as reminders) or don't need an immediate response.

Gordon Kelly

February 15, 2013, 10:09 am

I don't think that's actually a disagreement, rather than an alternative option - which is perfectly valid! A tablet and tiny phone option makes sense but a 7in tablet and 5in phone in your bag makes no sense whatsoever. The idea is to replace the need for a tablet.

Gordon Kelly

February 15, 2013, 10:13 am

I suspect because it would be quite disorientating for the average user to have the UI continually move around them. UIs are designed to put things in naturally convenient positions for our fingers (eg the switches in landscape and portrait mode) and more than that would require a lot of trial and error (you moved your thumb to a different place on the bezel so which item of the UI should it guess you want moved closer?).

Gordon Kelly

February 15, 2013, 10:16 am

Since this article was written you'll see talk of an Apple iWatch has exploded so it seems the smartwatch is going to be a significant new sector so we'll see if your doubts are answered. The one phone and one tablet argument is prevalent, but it requires two contracts and the charging of two devices. It's an option, but an expensive one.


February 15, 2013, 10:37 am

Hmmmm - I'm not convinced about that to be honest. 5" is too big for a phone (granted, this is personal opinion - I've got pretty big hands and yet I can't stretch my right thumb from the bottom right to the top left of the screen on a device that's over 4.7" [it is an uncomfortable stretch on the Nexus 4 but it is just possible] therefore the phone requires shuffling in the hand or two hands to use. In that scenario I'd say the the device fails at being a phone). But 5" is too small to be a useful tablet too - you definitely can't type on it (by which I mean you can't type on it like you would a computer, you're still using your thumbs - where as on the Nexus 10 and iPad I can touch type - I can do it on the iPad Mini too, it is a bit of a pain on the Nexus 7 keyboard due the reduced height of the keys [which in turn is due tot e 16:9 aspect ration]) and even though it could have a monster resolution so you can view websites, you still have to pinch zoom to read the text comfortably.

It just seems a bit of a farce. I reckon the Windows 8 phones from HTC (the 8X) and Nokia (the 920) or the Galaxy S2/ Desire HD have probably got the optimum screen sizes. And by that I mean specifically the screen size, not the resolution.

David Trotter

February 18, 2013, 6:32 pm

As you said, it's just about getting used to things. My S3 felt huge in my hand when I first got it, now it feels quite compact and I'm ready to go larger. With my old 3.7" phone I used my 10" tablet loads, since getting the S3 I rarely use it. I recon there's room in my pockets to go all the way to 6 inches

I don't agree with the comments about 1080p screens on smartphones. When I used a Note 2, the screen was noticably less sharp than the S3 - same number of pixels. So with a big screen like that I think 1080p will be really nice. I don't think it really hits batty life that much these days.

Looking forward to watches that connect to your phone... could be very convenient as long as they get all the design right. Plus it will tell the time without getting your phone out of your pocket! brilliant


February 24, 2013, 3:30 pm

"Apple ... Arguably the company which invented and inspired the modern computer-which-happens-to-make-phone-calls"
Only someone taken in by the apple marketing machine would believe that apple invented the smartphone...

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