Smartphone Screens: How Big is Too Big?

I head up the Consumer Devices group at Current Analysis, where we have two complementary products: data – we track product pricing, availability, and specs – and analysis – our assessment on how competitive various products and initiatives are. I recently had a client ask a question that crossed both: how many smartphones today have super-sized screens, and how big is too big? (I warned them that the answer would make a great SlashGear column.)

The data answer is simple: 13% of the smartphones at the four national carriers in the U.S. have screens 4" or larger.

The analytical answer is a bit more complicated.

When discussing screen sizes, I don't think you can ignore the elephant in the room – Apple – which limits its product line and does a lot of thinking and experimenting before launching anything. Apple believes that 3.5" is the perfect screen size, and they've sold over 100 million iPhones with that screen size, so it's hard to argue that they're widely off the mark. But I will say that as long as you keep the dimensions small with minimal bezel and a thin case I think you can comfortably go to 3.7" without any negative impact on holdability whatsoever. If you asked me what the ideal screen would be, a high pixel density 3.7" display would be it.

Screen sizes of 4" – 4.3" push the limit of what is comfortable to hold — and cross that line for many consumers. While this size is too big for some users, it does appeal to people looking for the biggest possible screen. There can also be retail marketing benefits to this screen size: these devices stand out on the shelf, and poorly trained retail sales staff often gravitate to them as hero devices (even if smaller screened devices are more technically sophisticated).

With this size display, case thickness and tapering matter as much as the display size itself: HTC's 4.3" Thunderbolt and Samsung's 4" EPIC 4G (which has a sliding QWERTY) are both bulky, while the 4" Sony Ericsson XPERIA X10 is quite manageable.

Above 4.3" is too big. I have seen a phone with a 4.5" display in an exceptionally thin case that almost works, and the retail marketing bump it will get is probably significant. However, its size excludes half the population (how many woman will want to carry a phone that large?) so I would consider it a niche size at best.

The 5" devices I've used are not only too big, they are also too small. Once you get beyond the 4 – 4.25" size, the promise is that you'll get a better browsing experience. But browsing doesn't really get better until you hit at least 7", and you need to get to 9" before you can comfortably see a whole page without scrolling (or squinting) in portrait orientation.

Devices with a 5" display are not just uncomfortable to hold to your face as a phone, they make you look a bit ridiculous when doing it. However, 5" does offer a significantly better media and navigation experience than 4", so dedicated GPS devices with 5" screens make a lot of sense. For example, Samsung's 5" Galaxy Player (which I played with recently) could make a lot of sense if Samsung makes it easy to get movies and TV on the device.

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