Don't super-size my smartphone

Paul Ockenden doesn't understand why people want smartphones with giant screens

Paul Ockenden
12 Jul 2012

Has anyone else noticed what’s been happening to top-end smartphones recently? They’ve started to get big – really big.

Comedian Dom Joly used to do a sketch with a giant spoof Nokia phone (funny the first few times you saw it), but if smartphones keep growing at their current exponential rate, it will look more like prophesy than parody.

It’s certainly true that with a bigger phone you’ll often get a bigger screen, and with a bigger screen you’ll see much more of a web page without having to pinch and zoom. But do people really want that at the expense of carrying around such a huge, heavy lump of tech in their pocket?

To sidetrack a little, I collect watches – especially those with fascinating movements. For years I’ve been collecting all kinds, some very old, some brand new, but a few years ago I stopped collecting new ones. Why? Because the fashion in high-end mechanical wristwatches from premium manufacturers such as IWC, Zenith and Breguet shifted towards huge monstrosities that just looked silly on my skinny wrist. They were all churning out watches with 50mm+ case diameters, and they were often quite thick too.

It's as though mobile manufacturers are frantically revising their spec sheets upwards in order to win a game of smartphone Top Trumps

Thankfully, that particular fashion pendulum has swung back and case sizes have become sensible again. During that annoying period, manufacturers thought they knew what customers wanted – big watches – and focused solely on them, while ignoring the substantial number of us who preferred something more discreet. I feel that the same thing is happening now with smartphones.

I realise this trend for huge phones isn’t welcomed by everyone, because when I recently asked on Twitter whether people liked the current trend for such monsters, I received lots of replies saying how much people hated them. I saw messages such as: "Spot on. It will be interesting to see whether Apple bucks the trend with the iPhone, but I doubt it," from @garleton; "Couldn’t agree more about the latest big phones. I’m tempted by the Sony Ericsson mini Android phone for that reason," from @MuPhi; and "A phone has to fit in my jeans' change pocket. More important to me than number of cores, screen resolution etc," from @bigajm.

This little bit of research wasn’t scientific, but I believe that last tweet adequately sums up how many people are feeling. It's as though mobile manufacturers are frantically revising their spec sheets upwards in order to win a game of smartphone Top Trumps, rather than making the phones people want. They don’t appear to realise that more cores or more pixels don’t necessarily make a better phone.

It isn't as if such mega-phones bring larger batteries that will last for longer, because their increased size usually brings extra bells and whistles, all of which eat up power: that bigger screen requires a bigger backlight and touch sensor; the higher screen resolution means more pixels to push around; and that in turn means the GPU will be sucking more life from the battery. The trouble is that fashion dictates phones that are larger in the two visible dimensions, but there’s still a desire to have them thin, so battery capacity inevitably suffers.

I recently witnessed HTC's official Twitter account proudly retweeting a couple of folk who claimed they’d managed to get a full day's use out of their HTC One X phones, as if this were some kind of epic win. Wow! A whole day without a trip to the charger! I'm sorry, but in my book a full day is the absolute minimum one should expect from a smartphone, and the fact your device can just about stagger through a real-world day is hardly something to be proud of.

HTC's vice president of product strategy, Björn Kilburn, recently said that customers consistently prefer thinner phones, even if that svelte profile involves shorter battery life. Yet when the Android Authority website ran a poll of visitors, 68% said they wanted better battery life compared to only 4% who wanted a thinner phone (the remaining 28% wanted both, of course).

This is big-watch syndrome all over again: the manufacturers believe they know what we want, and can probably produce carefully crafted research to support their marketing strategy; meanwhile, we who live in the real world dream of powerful yet easily pocketable phones that can go two or three days on a single charge. I don't know about you, but I can't wait for the pendulum to swing back.

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