Smartphones: When is 'big' too big? (Smartphones Unlocked)

This year, both the size of smartphone screens -- and demand for them -- will continue to balloon. But at some point, they'll pop.

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I've handled a lot of oversize smartphones in my years as a reviewer. That's a bit of a trick statement, I'll admit, since both handset screen sizes and our perception of them as large or small have grown throughout the years.

Today, phablets like the 5.7-inch Samsung Galaxy Note 3, 5.9-inch HTC One Max , 6-inch Nokia Lumia 1520 , and 6.3-inch Samsung Galaxy Mega aren't merely outliers giving niche users the come hither. They form a fully fledged type of XXL smartphone, a category that's only getting bigger.

To appreciate just how much perception has shifted, we've got to think back. The original iPhone wowed with its then-vast 3.5-inch screen. Before Apple's all-touch achievement entered the scene, the industry had never seen a cell phone screen so large, and with such a roomy virtual keyboard.

Fast-forward three years to 2010, when Dell made headlines (but not many sales) with its unprecedented 5-inch Dell Streak. It was the industry's first real phablet, though its screen size was ahead of its time and it suffered from feature and design flaws.

These days, a premium smartphone with a display measuring smaller than 4.5 inches is a point of suspicion or frustration (ahem, iPhone 5S). A 5-inch screen is the new normal, even as users and reviewers lashed back against ever-larger "jumbo phones" just a handful of years ago.

Clearly, there's a market for smartphones so large they spill into tablet territory.

The case for jumbo phones
There are several good reasons why jumbo phones are taking off, and it isn't only because of supply.

  • Visual over audio: As people rely on smartphones more for computing than for calls, the viewing experience takes priority. The larger the screen, the less you squint to see complex images and video action.
  • Pixel power: Higher-resolution displays can deliver fine detail and rich color. Of course, larger panels have long existed for TVs and even tablets, but the difference here is that you need more pixel density when viewing the smartphone about 6 inches away from your face.
  • Hardware support: A larger screen is a power-hungry screen that requires a higher-octane processor and a large enough battery to fire up a wider field of pixels fast enough and bright enough. The design must also be a svelte fit for pockets.
    Big phones are here to stay. From left to right, the Samsung Galaxy Note 3, Nokia Lumia 1520, and HTC One Max. Josh Miller/CNET
  • Building bridges: Buying one large smartphone is cheaper than buying a tablet and a smartphone. The price point is also significant if you're purchasing both devices without a carrier subsidy, for the full retail price.
  • The stylus adds a third dimension: Samsung's Note series invented a different kind of two-in-one device by imbuing the Note with a pressure-sensitive stylus that can draw, click, hover, and capture screenshots. Some aftermarket S Pen models, as they're known, can also digitally erase.
  • Underlying tech makes it easier to use: Biggo phones can be hard on the paws, and frustrating when you try to use them one-handed. Bluetooth headsets help balance out the phone-to-ear ratio, as well as outlier attempts like the HTC Mini+ companion device . Software considerations to shrink the keyboard and push it to one side also help, as do better voice recognition and gesture controls to bypass the typing and tapping.

Who's buying
Interestingly, Samsung found that the people who wind up buying and using the company's phablets come from a wider swatch of society than it initially suspected. Marketing campaigns targeted business users for productivity, creative types who wanted a bigger canvas on which to draw, and an older audience who craved larger lettering on a bigger screen.

"The reality," Ryan Bidan, director of product marketing for Samsung's mobile US branch, told CNET, is that the supersize screen is "a lot more accepted and a lot more prevalent than even we thought it would be...We saw a huge amount of adoption by [just] about everyone we sell phones to."

Bidan also noted that disparate motivations drive different markets. In some Asian countries, the stylus makes it easier to quickly jot notes in written characters, and a collapsible antenna in some models (like Asia's versions of the LG Optimus Vu series ) makes it possible to watch TV shows.

In other regions, a phone like the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 will be popular because of screen size alone. In others, still, Samsung found that the high-end specs and large footprint make the phone a status symbol for the well-to-do.

Not only Android
Perhaps because of Google's openness and Android's reputation as a playground for developing new features, phablets have run Android until very recently.

Nokia and Windows Phone have now leaped into the tablet fray together. New software support in Windows Phone 8 Update 3 fine-tuned the smartphone OS for a 6-inch screen, including adding a third column for icons, and presenting even more content on a page.

A stylus can add extra functionality to a large-screen device. Sarah Tew/CNET

For its part, Nokia unveiled both a premium and midrange gigantor, the Nokia Lumia 1520 and Lumia 1320 , respectively. Nokia is counting on the global thirst for extra-large screen size will help move sales along .

It's especially useful in the mobile game of Keeping Up with the Androids that the Lumia 1520 is the first Windows phone to run off a quad-core processor.

The popping point
Smartphone sizes are increasing, but even red-hot trends require checks and balances.

Every time a phablet lands on my desk to review, I look at it and think, "No freaking way. That monster is simply too big." Inevitably, my smaller-size hands stretch awkwardly trying to grip, navigate, and type.

What's more, large phones are hard to jam into my back pocket, and if I try to make even a quick call without a Bluetooth headset (which I invariably do) I suddenly feel like a munchkin in an ordinary world. (Of course, those with bigger hand and bigger pockets may have found a Goldilocks category).

Yet, a few days -- and maybe even a few hours -- are all I really need to start appreciating the gifts of a more expansive screen. Web sites become easier to read and movie trailers more inviting to watch. I may be more likely to grab a phablet with stylus to jot notes in a meeting than my old-school pen and paper notebook. (Yes, you heard me.)

As much as I relearn to love the phablets' screen size, they will never be completely comfortable for me personally to use one-handed, something I find I do quite a lot. I do think there's a place for these large-screen crossovers, both financially and featureswise, but there is also an upper limit to how big these phones should grow.

The good news is, we probably won't see too many 12-inch tablets masquerading as cellies, at least not so long as portability is still an essential part of the smartphone's appeal. Ask an expert analyst, like Jon Erensen, Gartner's research director for mobile and semiconductors, and he'll tell you that the 6- and 7-inch range is the magic number.

Seven-inch tablets are proving small enough and light enough to tuck into purses and even into some roomier pockets, and cheap enough for consumers to consider instead of a smartphone -- or vice versa.

"You wouldn't have both a large phone and a small tablet," Erensen told CNET. "Screen size growth will slow down."

That's good news for lovers out there of the sumo screen, who should expect to see much more innovation and development in this space.

The bad news? The awkward term "phablet" isn't going away anytime soon.

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Smartphones Unlocked is a monthly column that dives deep into the inner workings of your trusty smartphone.

About the author

Jessica Dolcourt reviews smartphones and cell phones, covers handset news, and pens the monthly column Smartphones Unlocked. A senior editor, she started at CNET in 2006 and spent four years reviewing mobile and desktop software before taking on devices.

 

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