The Disturbing Trend Toward Enormous Cell Phones

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Feb. 14 2012 6:52 PM

The Rise of the Enormo-Phone

A disturbing trend toward gargantuan devices like the new Samsung Galaxy Note.

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The Samsung Galaxy Note

Courtesy Samsung.

The Samsung Galaxy Note is the largest smartphone ever built. Or perhaps that’s not strictly correct, given that the Note is being marketed—including in this Super Bowl ad—as more than just a smartphone. I think it’s supposed to be a combination phone, tablet PC, cafeteria tray, and full-body riot shield.

According to its spec sheet, the Galaxy Note is 3 inches wide and nearly 6 inches long. If those measurements sound like they were cribbed from a Craigslist Casual Encounters ad, I suspect that’s exactly what Samsung is going for. The Galaxy Note is the comic culmination (I hope!) of an awful new trend in the phone business: an effort by manufacturers to top one another with ever-larger phones. This trend goes against all reason. A larger phone is more trouble to carry around than a small one, it’s harder to hold and use with one hand, it usually gets worse battery life, and when you put it up to your ear, you’re liable to get swept up by a strong gust. There’s only one way a big phone outshines a small phone, and for a certain segment of the market, it’s crucial: When you whip a phone as big as the Galaxy Note out of your pants, some dudes will think you’re a god. 

The Note hasn’t been released yet, and I haven’t tried it out. Any day now, I’m hoping to see a freight truck pull up outside my house bearing a review unit. The Boy Genius Report’s early assessment, though, isn’t promising: “You will look stupid talking on it, people will laugh at you, and you’ll be unhappy if you buy it.”

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My own run-ins with gigantic phones have left me similarly unsatisfied. For a few weeks last year, I used the Galaxy Nexus, which is also made by Samsung and is meant to be Google’s flagship Android phone. Until the Galaxy Note landed, the Nexus was reportedly the largest smartphone sold in the United States, measuring 2.7 inches wide and 5.3 inches tall, about 38 percent larger than the iPhone (2.3 inches by 4.5 inches).* I found the Nexus too big. Not comically so, and not terminally so, but just enough to be uncomfortable.

According to one study, the average human male hand is 3.3 inches wide, and the average female hand is 2.9 inches. If you stretch out your fingers you can accommodate something much wider, as they say in spam subject lines, but still—there’s only so far you can open your hand before it starts to feel funny. The Galaxy Nexus is right on that line, and for some people it might be over. So too is the Motorola Droid X, the Motorola Droid Razr, the HTC Titan, and probably the Lumia 900, Nokia’s much-anticipated new Windows Phone. These devices are all about 2.6 to 2.8 inches wide. When you go back to a normal phone after using something so large, you wonder what on earth you were thinking. Why were you blinded by size?

To people who haven’t been studying the market, phone inflation will come as a surprise; after all, not long ago everyone wanted small phones, not big ones. What happened? Like all things in the electronics business, the source of our newfound interest in bigger devices lies partly in fashion, partly in competition, and partly in engineering. Back in the 1980s, when cellphones first came out, they were all huge. Remember Gordon Gekko’s enormous phone? That was a Motorola DynaTAC, which, in 1983, became the first cellphone to go on sale. It was 13 inches tall, 3.5 inches wide, and 1.75 inches thick. It looked ridiculous, but it sold for $4,000, so anyone who held one tended to look awesome. (It’s basically the same effect as with designer clothes.)

Over the next couple decades, the primary engineering challenge in the industry was to shrink electronics to make phones smaller—which meant that each new, more expensive, and consequently more lusted-after phone was tinier than the last. Around the turn of the millennium, though, phones reached their smallest possible size. Theoretically, you could make a phone much smaller than the human hand—a hilarious Saturday Night Live sketch explored this possibility—but for the most part, manufacturers settled on designs that conformed to the body’s natural size. The iPhone, which pushed Apple’s competitors to abandon buttons in favor of touchscreens, seemed to set a uniform ideal for the industry. For a few years after its release in 2007, most other top-of-the-line touchscreen phones (including the Nexus One and the Motorola Droid) mimicked the iPhone’s size.

But homogeneity caused a problem. I’ve argued before that smartphones—even the iPhone—have reached the limits of industrial design. They’re all just thin slabs of glass, which makes each one look pretty much like every other, especially since most of us hide our phones in ugly cases. As the smartphone market has become more competitive over the last couple of years, manufacturers had to do something to distinguish their devices from the rest of the pack.

At the same time, the cost of LCD panels shrunk, so it became cheaper to make phones with larger displays. There’s also a theory that bigger phones allow manufacturers to make certain technical improvements. Daring Fireball’s John Gruber says that big phones allow for faster 4G cellular data chips, and blogger Jin Kim says that big screens allow Android to increase display resolution without shrinking on-screen button size. (The reasons for this are technical.) Given all these incentives, the direction for phone makers, especially those hawking Android phones, was obvious: To make your gadget stand out, you had to go big.

I bet that more than a few readers will chime in to say that they love their giant phones. They’ll say they don’t have a problem getting their hands around these monsters, that all those inches fit quite comfortably in their pockets, and that when they turn on their devices, the huge picture is glorious. I believe these guys, and I don’t begrudge them their enormo-phones; whatever floats your boat, I say.

But I will point out that the iPhone remains, by far, the best-selling smartphone in the world, and it has never deviated from its original dimensions. It’s time for Apple’s competitors to take a lesson from this success and realize that bigger isn’t necessarily better and that a phone’s utility decreases as its screen inflates. In other words, be a grower, not a shower.

Correction, Feb. 14, 2012: This article originally stated that the Galaxy Nexus was 13 percent larger than the iPhone. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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