galaxynoteHere’s a GigaOm article by Kevin C. Tofel looking at why smartphones are getting bigger and bigger, in seeming reversal of the trend of technology making things constantly smaller. It used to be that the iPhone’s 3.5” screen was considered the ideal size for smartphones. The iPhone was made that size because it was the largest the phone could be for most people to be able to reach all corners of the screen with their thumb when holding it in their hand.

But screen size crept up to 4 inches, now 5-inch screens are considered normal for many people. The Sony Xperia Z Ultra tips the scales at 6.44 inches, which is barely smaller than the 7” size that is generally considered the smaller bounds of a mainstream tablet. Such larger smartphones are often called “phablets,” a remarkably silly neologism that always makes me picture the Beatles using tablets.

Tofel ties this size increase to the increased capabilities of smartphones thanks to better hardware and better network connections. People want to do more with their smartphones—in many cases, the same things they would use a tablet for—or a PC, before tablets came around. And so smartphones are growing to be more like tablets, with sufficient screen real-estate to do whatever the user desires. And as Bluetooth technology has grown ever cheaper, being seen holding something the size of a small dinner plate up to your ear is no longer as much of a concern. The only real limitation is how big of a pocket you have…and for the really huge phones, there’s always a case with a belt clip.

One of those things people do more with their smartphones could include e-book reading. And a 6” screen is certainly better than a 3.5” one for that!

I’ve always held that the line between “smartphones” and “tablets” really is an artificial distinction. A smartphone is exactly a small tablet-form-factor device with a cellular voice and data connection built in. For that matter, the first derisive comments about the iPad were on the order of “It’s just a big iPhone.” They use the same operating system, whether that’s iOS or Android, and can run many of the same apps. When tablets got 3G data access the distinction became even less meaningful. About the only thing you can do with a smartphone that you can’t with a tablet is make actual phone calls, and Voice over IP apps can even make that less of a problem.

I just wish that smartphones were not so much more expensive than tablets. The Nexus 7 tablet starts at $229 for the 16-gig version. The Nexus 5 phone starts at $349. Apparently sticking a cellular voice doohickey inside costs a lot.


  1. Well, you could compare them to see the difference on cell costs. Google charges $80 to upgrade from the WiFi-only to the LTE Nexus 7, and Apple charges $130 to upgrade the iPad Air.

    I know I certainly read on my phone a lot, and I really appreciate the larger screen with some content (although I haven’t gone past 5″) … but I used to read on the Palm OS devices, so I’m probably not a good sample.

  2. The distinction comes when you try to hold ‘it’ in your hand and up to your face. The iPad mini is just a tiny bit too wide for that.

    Feature sets also need adjusting. A smartphone is primarily a phone and is designed with that in mind. A tablet that works as a phone has a different design philosophy. I’m not sure a hybrid would work as well as something more specialized.

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