Dave Michels
Dave Michels is a Principal Analyst at TalkingPointz. His unique perspective on unified communications comes from a career involving telecommunications...
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Dave Michels | October 21, 2011 |


Smartphone and Tablet Screens: Does Size Matter?

Smartphone and Tablet Screens: Does Size Matter? It's the classic trade-off--everyone loves a larger, clearer, sharper screen--until they attempt to pocket the device

It's the classic trade-off--everyone loves a larger, clearer, sharper screen--until they attempt to pocket the device

The next big debate in smartphones is clearly going to be if size really matters. The new crop of smartphones have some seriously large screens--almost suitable for a home drive-in theater. The new Nexus Prime by Samsung has a 4.65-inch 1280720 Super AMOLED HD display. The Samsung Galaxy S II on T-Mobile sports a 4.3 inch screen. The new Motorola Droid RAZR feaures a 4.3 screen. Too contemporary? In, 2010 Verizon released the Droid X with a screen size of 4.3-inches.

It's the classic trade-off--everyone loves a larger, clearer, sharper screen, an absolute delight to look at and work with--until they attempt to pocket the device (is that a super AMOLED screen in your pocket, or...). Exactly how portable should a portable device be? It isnt just size either--the larger screens consume more power. Smaller screens win on logic, but logic doesnt stand a chance against desire.

It is a similar issue with tablets, where we are seeing the 7" and 10" battle lines. The Cisco Cius screams portability with its 7" screen. The Avaya tablet device, with an 11.6" display, includes the word "desktop" in its name. Clearly tablets are not intended to be as portable as smartphones--they go in a briefcase or purse instead of a pocket. But 7" tablets can fit in large pockets on jackets and other garments, and that seems to be an attractive "mobile" feature.

Smartphones clearly are portable devices. We stare at them for significant portions of the day--wherever we happen to be. Screens in general are getting larger--televisions, home theaters, computer desktops--why should the device we stare at the most be excepted? Polycom recently announced a telepresence soluton for Android devices...does it matter on a tiny screen?

The iPhone crowd thinks the whole matter is silly. Tablets are 10" (actually 9.7") and smartphones are 3.5". If there was a compelling reason for a choice, then Apple would offer it. They point to ergonomics and conclude that any smartphone screen larger than 3.5" can't be comfortably managed with single hand operation.

I tried out the Samsung Galaxy S II at the T-Mobile store and specifically tested one handed operation. I found it comfortably manageable. In fact, since the normal apps such as the phone keypad had enlarged keys, it was easier to dial numbers without error. Because of the dreaded store-security cord, I could not perform a pocket fit test. (I really enjoy retail experiences: Treat everyone like a crook and then wonder why online sales are booming--but thats a different post.)

The iPhone crowds dont have screen envy, but everyone else does. The Android phones are competing for largest, sharpest screen. More and more of the units support HD video on the screen as well as HDMI-out ports. The screen size provides a differentiating feature in both in-store comparisons and online reviews. It's an easy way to distinguish an Android device from what is otherwise largely a commodity market.

On that note, all this talk about Android fragmentation is interesting, but the majority of Android phones on the market are pretty darn similar. Processor, memory, and 4G differences are important, but certainly not as visible as screen size. Keeping the screen the same as the prior model is just silly because new models are supposed to offer more. Screen size is not really part of the fragmentation issue. PCs and Macs support lots of screen sizes, and most iPhone apps work fine with iPad and iPhones despite screen size differences.

Smartphones are getting bigger and tablets are getting smaller--are the product categories going to morph into one? Smartlets? The key factor is what the device (and screen) is used for--those that actively use their smartphones to consume visual media (books, movies, the web) will greatly appreciate a larger screen. So much that an iPhone may be out of the question--too much of a downgrade. Or, are the Android phones compensating for something?

Screen size is part of the speeds and feeds battles--this is where Apple generally loses. However, the adage about losing battles and winning the war seems to apply. Apple is crying all they way to the bank with its inferior screen size and 4G limitations. If it was a big enough issue, Apple would address it. Right now, demand is impressively strong. New iPhones seem to be an annual event, and the company has been very effective at planned product life cycles. Big screens are forecasted.

It isn't just a matter of screen size vs. portability, it is also a matter of iPhone vs. Android et al. Of course, thumb length and pocket size are considerations too. A lot to consider; it takes a big picture perspective to figure it all out.

Dave Michels is a frequent contributor and blogs about telecom at PinDropSoup.


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