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Jumbo smartphones: Is bigger really better?

Ever feel like you're living in Alice in Wonderland when it comes to buying a new smartphone? Either I'm shrinking or these new phones are growing.

In this edition of Ask Maggie, I offer some advice for buying a new smartphone that doesn't require a crane to hoist it up to your ear. And I explain why Nokia's new 41-megapixel technology is on such a lame OS.

Dear Maggie,
I've been using the iPhone since it first came out and have not looked back until recently. Now I'm considering switching. But I've run into a huge problem, every new phone is too big for my personal taste.

I would like the latest greatest flagship device, but it seems that every manufacturer is in an arms race to see who can put the largest screen possible into a phone. I get why some people want a bigger screen, but I don't.

For one, I use my phone almost exclusively one-handed and find a screen larger than 4-inches is uncomfortable to hold for any length of time. Second, they do not fit comfortably in my pants pocket where I carry my phone; even my iPhone creates a bump in some pants. Finally, I do not watch videos on my phone so I don't "need" a huge screen. I also am fine reading and playing games on my iPhone. In fact, after I upgrade I will probably keep my iPhone 4 to use as an iPod Touch.

Nokia's Lumia 900.
Nokia's Lumia 900. Bonnie Cha/CNET

As of right now I am waiting for the release of the Nokia Lumia 900 Windows Phone on AT&T at the end of March. I know it has a 4.3" screen but I want to at least hold it first. If I am turned off by that I may look to get a Lumia 800 unlocked. Are there any other phones you know of with 4" screens that may be out soon?

I currently have AT&T, but I am not bound by an early termination fee. So I could switch to either T-Mobile USA or Verizon Wireless if I had to. I just don't see any compelling devices right now that have a reasonable screen size. If I can't find something in this size, I guess I'll just wait for the new iPhone.

Thanks for your help,

Dear Randy,
I have also noticed that most of the hot new smartphones coming on the scene are gigantic. The Samsung Galaxy Note is of course the largest. This so-called Phablet is a cross between a tablet and a smartphone with a screen size of 5.3 inches. When I first saw it at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, I felt like I was in one of those novelty stores where every item is over-sized. I wanted to put on extra big sunglasses and hold my extra-big smartphone to my ear.

Samsung Galaxy Note

The Galaxy Note is more the exception than the rule when it comes to large smartphones. It is extra-large. But on the whole the size of smartphones has increased from a quite comfortable 3.5 inches toward 4.5 inches and beyond.

The Nokia Lumia 900 that you mentioned is 4.3 inches. Motorola's Droid Razr also has a 4.3 inch screen. The Samsung Galaxy Nexus is a whopping 4.65 inches. And the newest smartphones to announced are even bigger. At Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last week, HTC announced the new HTC One X, which will be available on AT&T later this spring, with a 4.7 inch screen. And Chinese manufacturer Huawei introduced the Ascend D Quad with a 4.5 inch screen.

Each of these phones is considered top of the line. The latest devices have quad core processors and will run Google Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. The Nokia Lumia 900, Motorola Droid Razr, and Samsung Galaxy Nexus all operate over 4G LTE. And many of these phones have advanced cameras.

But why are they all so big?

Part the reason that these devices are so large may be because of the technology they support. Some people have suggested that LTE design requirements may demand a slightly bigger footprint. The same might go for quad-core processors. These devices may require bigger batteries to handle the newer technology.

But it's also because these devices are designed to offer more media consumption. These bigger smartphones with faster processors and speedier network connections are designed for people watching video, reading magazine articles and playing games on their phones.

"The availability of LTE networks so that people can watch a lot of video has created this larger is better phenomenon, particularly in the U.S.," Jo Harlow of Nokia told me in an interview at Mobile World Congress last week. "So that is why the Lumia 900 is bigger. But at the same time we're getting a lot of feed back on the Lumia 800 that it's the perfect size."

Indeed at 3.7 inches, the Lumia 800 is slightly bigger than the 3.5 inches of an iPhone. And it seems to be a great size for folks who don't want the oversized screen.

I asked Nokia's Jo Harlow why, if the Lumia 800 is such a great size, it's not offered here in the U.S. for a subsidized price by a carrier. Right now, you can only get the Lumia 800 unlocked, which requires users to pay full retail for the devices. All she said is that the company is working on it.

"We're continuing to look at offering different size phones and screens," she said.

There are other smaller-sized smartphones offered in the U.S. But they won't have the same very high-end specs that the larger smartphones have.

For example, the Samsung Galaxy S Blaze on T-Mobile has a 4-inch screen. HTC also recently announced the HTC One V, which has a 3.7-inch screen.

Samsung Galaxy S Blaze

But as you point out, these devices don't have all the top specs. For instance, the Samsung Blaze does have a 1.5GHz dual-core Qualcomm processor and 5-megapixel camera. But it's being released with Google Android 2.3 Gingerbread instead of the Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich operating system.

The HTC One V is running is a 1Ghz, single-core Qualcomm S2 processor, compared to the dual processor on the HTC One X.

That said the specs on these devices are nothing to sneeze at. In fact, Kevin Packingham, senior vice president of product innovation for Samsung Mobile, told me in an interview that the specifications on these devices are better than the top of the line devices introduced a year ago.

"The phones with the bigger form factor are the ones getting most of the attention right now," he said. "But there are plenty of great smartphones with better specifications than you could get a year ago in the mid-range."

While Harlow and Packingham agree that there will be always be a market for the bigger devices, they also agreed that there is a segment of the market for whom bigger is not better.

And Harlow even suggested that there may be a way to design smartphones in the future so that they can have bigger screens without taking up more space.

"I think in the future you'll see displays on phones continue to get bigger," she said. "But the footprint of the device itself won't get larger. We're already seeing this happen in TVs, where the border or frame of the TV goes away so that more space is used for the actual display screen."

So what should you do?

My advice to you is to check out some of these "lower-spec'ed" devices. The Samsung Blaze may lack Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich out of the gate, but the other specs are top notch. Also I suspect that if you can wait a few months, more devices, including some of the "mid-range" smaller smartphones, will get Ice Cream Sandwich too.

If Windows Phone is what you desire, your choices will be more limited. I'd suggest checking out the Lumia 900 when it's released later this month. See if you like the feel of the device in your hand. You may not hate the 4.3-inch size so much. The Lumia 800 is an option. It will work over AT&T's network, but it will cost you.

Since it's not subsidized by AT&T, you'll have to pay full retail for it. Personally, I think that you since you have to get cell phone service with any device, you might as well sign up for a contract and get a subsidized phone rather than pay full price for a device.

Another option for you is to get the Nokia Lumia 710 on T-Mobile. It has the 3.7-inch size screen you like. And even though it's not the top of the Lumia line, it has some strong specs, including a 5 megapixel camera. And the other nice thing about this phone is that it's only $50 with a two-year contract from T-Mobile USA.

The Samsung Blaze and HTC One V are also coming to T-Mobile. So you might want to consider switching carriers if any of these devices strike your fancy. But keep in mind you should only switch carriers if T-Mobile offers suitable network coverage where you live and work.

I hope this advice was helpful. Good luck with your search!

41 megapixels is a lot of megapixels!

Dear Maggie,
I thought the 41- megapixel camera that Nokia introduced this week at Mobile World Congress was really cool. But why in the world did they introduce it on Symbian? I thought that OS was dead. It would have made way more sense to me if they had put it on a Windows Phone device, right? And will it be coming to the U.S.?

Smartphone Junkie

Dear Smartphone Junkie,
I think you are expressing the same sentiments that a lot tech journalists felt when Nokia announced the PureView 808 last week in Barcelona. The 808 PureView does look like it has some very cool technology.

Nokia 808 PureView
Nokia 808 PureView: A megapixel monster Kent German/CNET

When Nokia announced the 41-megapixel 808 PureView smartphone at Mobile World Congress, CNET's associate editor Lynn La said "it is a phone that has so many megapixels, its megapixels have megapixels."

The technology, which was five years in the making, lets you zoom in and out of the picture without distorting the image.

You are correct that Nokia has staked its future on Microsoft Windows Phone. Going forward, most of its smartphone development will happen for Windows Phone devices. But Symbian isn't dead yet.

In fact, the company still has lots of Symbian devices in the market. And it plans to continue selling Symbian devices in many areas of the world. But I agree with you that it seems strange to introduce such a cool and innovative feature on a platform that the company has said will eventually be phased out. In fact, I would have guessed that it would introduce a new feature on the Meego platform before Symbian.

Anyway, I asked Jo Harlow, executive vice president of smart devices for Nokia why the 41-megapixel imaging technology is on this particular device and not on a new Windows Phone.

"This is really hard technology to accomplish on a phone," Harlow told me. "We have been working on this imaging technology for five years. And to get it into Windows Phone requires a lot of hardware and software adaption. We wanted to get this technology to market as soon as we could. That's why we decided to commercialize it on Symbian first."

She added that Nokia only made the switch to Windows Phone less than a year ago. The current version of the software Windows Phone 7.5 Mango had already been in development when Nokia formed its partnership with Microsoft. So it was not able to innovate much past getting a solid smartphone out the door in 2011.

But Harlow said the imaging technology will likely end up in other Nokia Windows Phone smartphones.

As for where the device will be sold, it seems that Nokia is focusing sales of 808 PureView globally with the exception of North America. According to the device's home page, starting in May it will be available to customers in Europe and just about everywhere else around the world except the U.S. This makes sense given that Nokia hasn't had much of a smartphone presence in the U.S. for years. Right now, the company is focusing attention on getting its Windows Phone devices established in the U.S.

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. The column now appears twice a week on CNET offering readers a double dosage of Ask Maggie's advice. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.