For Smart Phones, How Big is Too Big?

There's a new breed of tech one-upmanship in town: smart phone screen size. Although Apple has decided to focus on quality and higher resolution with the iPhone 4's 3.5-inch Retina display, other handset makers are pushing the boundaries of what's pocket-friendly with screens that measure 4, 4.3, and even 5 inches. There certainly are benefits to having extra real estate on a phone, but consumers have to wonder whether it's worth the trade-offs. What is the sweet spot? How big is too big?

The HTC HD2 from T-Mobile was really the first ginormous smart phone out of the gate in the U.S., sporting a 4.3-inch display. To help justify that size, the carrier preloaded the phone with Transformers 1 and 2 and a Blockbuster app for downloading more flicks. Next came the Android-powered Evo 4G for Sprint, and just recently the Motorola Droid X for Verizon Wireless, both with the same size screen. These devices play up the entertainment angle as well, the Evo 4G with YouTube HQ and Sprint TV and the Droid X with its own BlockBuster and NFL app.

But there are other perks to having a billboard in your pocket.First, surfing the web feels much more desktop-like, to the point where I've found myself using the iPad less at home and during my commute. Touchscreen typing is also more comfortable; I've been making much fewer errors on the Droid X than I did on the 3.7-inch Droid Incredible. Interestingly, switching to the 3.5-inch iPhone 4 has felt somewhat claustrophobic at times, especially when trying to type in portrait mode. Having that extra space also comes in handy when using your smart phone as a GPS navigator. Games, too, tend to be more immersive on a larger screen, though Android's selection pales in comparison to the iPhone thus far.

The flip side to these bigger slabs is that they take up a lot more room in your palm and in your pocket. I've shown the Droid X and Evo 4G to friends, family members, and coworkers, and the reaction seems to be split down the middle: half of those surveyed really like the idea of having a larger display, while others say they wouldn't want to hold one of these supersized phones to their head to make calls. Some of these detractors also say one-handed use is too difficult.

While all of the devices I've mentioned measure a svelte 0.4 to 0.5 inches thin, they're significantly taller, wider, and heavier than old-school smart phones. For instance, the Droid X has a 5 x 2.6-inch footprint, compared to 4.3 x 2.4 inches for the BlackBerry Curve 8530. It's about as tall as a soda can. Weight difference? 5.5 vs. 3.7 ounces. A 4.3-inch–screen device isn't ridiculous, but you definitely know it's in your pocket. In fact, when given the choice between toting the Droid X or the iPhone 4 on a recent weekend trip into New York City, I choose the latter because of its more compact size (and better camera).

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Earlier this week I had a chance to speak with Fared Adib, Sprint's vice president of product development, and he shared that the 4.3-inch size chosen for the Evo 4G wasn't random. Based on focus groups and Sprint's own research, Adib says this is the upper limit of what consumers will accept—at least for now. This comment makes the impending arrival of the Dell Streak even more intriguing. It features a mammoth 5-inch display. During a recent tech conference tech pundit Walt Mossberg quipped that it felt as though he was holding a waffle to his head.

Yes, the Streak is a phone, but Dell is positioning it more as a tablet for a reason. Still, some who have previewed the gadget say they would have no problem carrying it everywhere. My biggest beef with the Streak is that it has the same resolution (800 x 480 pixels) as its smaller competitors. Meanwhile, the 3.5-inch iPhone boasts a pixel count of 960 x 640. My guess is that consumers will warm up to these tweeners more once Google rolls out Android 3, which is rumored to support 1280 x 760 pixels. That's netbook territory, and having more pixels means being able to see more content from your apps, documents, and web pages.

So what's the sweet spot? For me it could be 4 inches, the size of Samsung’s Epic 4G (also 800 x 480), part of the company's Galaxy S series. Granted, I'm somewhat biased toward this phone because of its dazzling Super AMOLED technology. During my brief hands-on preview the picture was so bright and crisp and the contrast ratio so high, that the screen actually looked bigger than its relatively "small" size might suggest. It's almost like having an HDTV in your pocket, which is fitting since Samsung plans to roll out a Media Hub for downloading movies and TV shows. Though some might consider the Epic 4G's slide-out keyboard to be overkill given its 4-inch screen, it weighs only 5.5 ounces. Last year's 3.7-inch Motorola Droid weighed 6 ounces. That's progress.

As smart phones gain in size and capability—1-GHz processors are becoming the norm on the high end—consumers will likely gravitate toward those models with displays that are the biggest and brightest when they're in the store, not unlike what occurred with notebooks several years ago when glossy screens first hit the scene. Then again, no one seems to be complaining about Apple's super-sharp 3.5-inch Retina display (with the exception of early reports of yellow bands, which we haven't noticed). I say bigger can be better, but a large screen needs to be paired with more pixels and easy access to premium movies and video to make the extra bulk worthwhile.

Editor-in-chief Mark Spoonauer directs LAPTOP's online and print editorial content and has been covering mobile and wireless technology for over a decade. Each week Mark's SpoonFed column provides his insights and analysis of the biggest mobile trends and news. You can also follow him on Twitter.

Mark Spoonauer
Responsible for the editorial vision for, Mark Spoonauer has been Editor in Chief of LAPTOP since 2003 and has covered technology for nearly 15 years. Mark speaks at key tech industry events and makes regular media appearances on CNBC, Fox and CNN. Mark was previously reviews editor at Mobile Computing, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc.