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Do we really need more giant phablets?

May 9, 2014

Giant phablet phones seem to be all the rage these days. Everywhere you look you see people walking around with these huge suckers attached to the side of their heads. But are larger screen phones really better? And what about those of us who might…gasp!…actually prefer smaller screens? I can’t help but feel that perhaps the big screen phone trend has gotten completely out of control among phone manufacturers and their customers.

Android: Land of the phablets
Android phones have long had much larger screens available than the iPhone. Android phablets have actually been an important reason why some users have switched from the iPhone to Android. Many people really do prefer phones that have 5-inch and up screens. Android phone manufacturers have certainly answered that need by pumping out a ton of phablet sized phones that go as high 6-inches or so. Wow, that’s almost like having an iPad mini in your pocket!

Conversely, Android has lacked a lot of options for those who prefer smaller screens. This has resulted in a reverse flow of some users from Android to iPhone for the iPhone’s smaller screen and more compact profile. It’s not that there aren’t any smaller Android phones, but the selection pales in comparison to the huge range of phablets available. And the smaller Android phones often don’t seem to match their larger counterparts in terms of sheer horsepower.

Giant Phablets

Are we all doomed to walk around with giant phablets sticking out the side of our heads?

Image credit: iDownload Blog

iPhone: Large screens coming soon
In the past Apple has made it clear that one-handed use has governed its approach to the iPhone’s screen size. The original iPhone was a great example of this with its 3.5-inch screen. However, this appears to be changing with rumors flying that the next iPhone will come in two sizes: 4.7-inch and 5.5-inch. Usually you have to take rumors like that with a grain of salt, but they have become so pervasive that there is little doubt that bigger screen iPhones are on the way.

This has left some iPhone users that prefer the smaller 4-inch screen worried that they will be left out in the cold when the iPhone 6 finally arrives. To date there is no clear answer from Apple about this issue. This is no surprise since Apple is famously tight-lipped when it comes to disclosing its product plans. We won’t really know until Apple formally announces the iPhone 6 products, but the rumors and worries will continue in the meantime.

While I would prefer that the company keep the 4-inch option, I seriously doubt that they will. It’s much more likely that the iPhone 5S was the last hurrah for the 4-inch screen size, and there’s not much iPhone users who like smaller screens can do about it. I can’t see Apple offering three different iPhone sizes, though I suppose they could if they really wanted to. They could call the 4-inch version the iPhone mini, the 4.7-inch one iPhone Air and the 5.5-inch version the iPhone max or something like that.

Does size really matter in smartphones?
I think smartphone size does really matter to a large degree for individual users. Some really need or want a larger screen, while others very much prefer a smaller phone that fits in the hand with a screen that facilitates one-handed use. Some people have larger hands, while others have much smaller ones that make larger phones difficult to handle.

One of my friends is a very big guy, with correspondingly large hands. He eventually fled the iPhone for a much larger Android phone simply because he needed the larger size. It was much more comfortable for him to hold and use. He is waiting patiently for Apple to release larger iPhones and he may switch back when that happens.

The problem for phone manufacturers is trying to figure out the right size options to bring to market. I think we can write off any screen under 4-inches these days, I doubt we’ll ever return to seeing 3.5-inch screens being widely available for Android or iPhone (yes, you can buy the iPhone 4S but it’s aging fast and it’s days are numbered). The phone manufacturers have to have a large enough market to produce smaller phones. As much as I hate to admit it, I’m just not sure such a market exists if everybody is screaming for larger screen phones.

My guess is that in the future 4.7-inches or so will be the smallest phones available. There may be a few odd duck devices here or there that are smaller than that, but they will probably end up being pulled from the market eventually. This would be very unfortunate since the people with small hands and those who simply prefer smaller screens will be stuck buying the larger size phones or desperately clinging to whatever smaller phone they happen to own right now.

Weight also matters in smartphones
It’s not just size that matters though, it’s weight. I wrote a column a while back called “Why I prefer the iPod touch to the iPad and iPhone.” In that column I explained why the lighter iPod touch was so much more useful to me than the heavier iPhone, iPad or iPad mini. My perspective is quite different since most people would probably prefer the larger screen even if it is significantly heavier.

When I brought up the issue of smartphone and tablet weight with some friends, I was pretty much mocked for caring about it. Apparently there is some sort of link with larger, heavier devices and manliness. I guess they considered me a bit of a wimp for preferring lighter devices. Hey, what can I say? Lighter is simply better for me.

But weight really is important if you read on your device, like I do. Even a phone or tablet that weighs another 20 or 30 grams can be noticeably heavier if you are holding it for any length of time, no matter how strong you are as a person. Picture yourself laying on the couch reading on your smartphone. Would you rather have a lighter device or a heavy one to hold in your hand?

I have seen comments in online forums and blogs by some users that mentioned how they either didn’t care or preferred heavier devices. I’m somewhat flabbergasted that anybody would want a heavier device. It just doesn’t make sense to me since a lighter device is also more comfortable to carry with you. If a mobile device manufacturer can shave off a significant amount of weight while still preserving performance then I’m all for it and I think most other people would be too.

Why I prefer smaller and lighter phones
For me a mobile device is meant to be just that: mobile. That means I should be able to easily fit it in my pocket and it should weigh as little as possible. It should also fit into my pocket well and not peek out or otherwise look obtrusive. Some of the phablets are so big that they would either not fit well in a pocket or they would look ridiculous sticking out. And forget trying to wear skinny jeans with some of those suckers! There’s no way you can fit them in those kinds of pockets.

I also need a device that I can hold for long periods of time and that will not constantly have to be moved back and forth between my hands. As a former owner of an iPad mini and an iPad Air, I just never found the larger screens on those devices to be worth the extra weight. True, those are tablets not smartphones but the same principle applies. The bigger the screen, the heavier the device.

I also have a rather unique situation at home. I live with two parrots, one of whom thinks that smartphones are toys to be played with and the other who loathes any kind of mobile device and actively tries to destroy them when he can. So when I have one or both birds with me, I really need to use my device with one hand. There’s just no way to manage a bird or two, while holding onto a larger screen device and trying to read.

As I said, my situation is unique but I’m sure there are other people out there who also have their own reasons for liking smaller, lighter smartphones. Maybe we’re all a bunch of luddites or weirdos who just refuse to jump on the larger screen bandwagon, but that’s okay. Everybody is different and no two users have the exact same needs.

My hope is that smartphone manufacturers remember that we are out here and that we would like to be able to buy phones with smaller screens instead of the giant phablet monstrosities that seem to be everywhere these days.

What’s your take on this? Tell me in the comments below.


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4 Responses to Do we really need more giant phablets?

  1. dragonmouth on May 16, 2014 at 2:36 pm

    A larger phone means more room for electronics which in turn means more features.

    “I explained why the lighter iPod touch was so much more useful to me than the heavier iPhone, iPad or iPad mini.”
    James, you’d never make it on the street. How many windows can you rattle with an iPod Touch? You can’t break dance to an iPod Touch. For that you need a Ghetto Blaster the size of small refrigerator. Yoou ought to go to the gym more often and work on your upper body strength.

    • Jim Lynch on May 16, 2014 at 2:38 pm

      Bah! You sound like some of my friends who said more or less the same thing. I told them off and so same goes for you! :p ;)

  2. Brian Masinick on May 15, 2014 at 5:38 pm

    You have a point. Something that goes up alongside your head ought to be small. There was a trend, going from the really big, early cell phones to the much smaller ones, probably bottoming out around the time of the LG enV, which was really a nice feature phone, compact in size, good phone quality, and some Internet access. It had real keys, too. It seems to me that something like that or even simpler than that still has value. I notice that most of my older senior friends, especially those in the 75-90 age (and there are a LOT more of them living these days, thankfully), those friends tend to use technology only when they have to.

    Some of them have gone to phones and tablets, not because they really want to do so, but because if they want to communicate to their children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, they have to learn to text message. To me that’s sad. As much as I enjoy technology, I’ll drop it any time I can be with those I really care about.

    For me, having a 4.5-5″ phone, but no larger, is about right. It can do everything I need when really out and 100% mobile. If I’m gonna need to do some typing, but not too much, I can always bring along my seven inch Nexus 7 tablet. For anything more than forum writing, short messages at that, a real keyboard is necessary. My Gateway 17″ portable is good for my every day stuff, but if I’m going to be away, I opt for my 14-15″ Lenovo laptop instead; it’s much lighter to carry around. Neither have very good battery life; having the charger and AC current is virtually mandatory. I can use a Chromebook, which is fine for typing, but it’s less convenient if there is much copy/paste activity; I find it clumsy for that; maybe there are some techniques I can pick up to be more effective in those techniques.

    I can’t see carting around 2-3 devices either. So if I am traveling out of town, it’s the phone and the Lenovo laptop; if I am local, it is usually just the phone, and I’ll add the tablet or the laptop only if absolutely necessary; I travel light whenever possible, plus I’m out and about to be with and to do things with people, not to be glued to some electronic prison cell! Yes, in this world, it’s important to stay “connected”, but to me, 24×7 connectivity is neither necessary nor desirable. I avoid situations that require that except for rare circumstances. Connectivity, communication – yes. 100% availability at all times, no, I value my personal life and personal freedom far too much to consider that.

    • Jim Lynch on May 15, 2014 at 6:46 pm

      I hear you on the need for a real keyboard. I can thumb type a bit when necessary, but it’s hopelessly slow compared to using a keyboard. I can only deal with thumb typing for short periods of time.

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