The other day, I ran across a discussion which piqued my interest – it was about the rumoured upcoming Nexus 6, and a supposedly leaked picture showed it placed next to an LG G3, dwarfing it’s size. The G3 is no small fry, having a 5.5″ screen and generous dimensions, but the mystery phone made it look positive miniscule. That got me thinking, we’ve come such a long way from the early smartphone days, having 3.5″ iPhones/HTC Heros and 3.7″ Nexus Ones, nowadays anything less than a 5″ screen is considered small.
Whatever the final Nexus 6 figure is at isn’t important, the question is – What’s next? Where does it eventually end? Everybody more or less agrees that a larger screen is better to use, but not everybody is willing to sacrifice by carrying a larger device. Thus, a fine balance must be struck – screen size vs physical size vs manufacturing.
Screen Size Only
The first question that I wanted to answer was, just how have screen sizes changed over the years? To do that, I pulled out nine of the best-selling high-end smartphones, and graphed their absolute screen sizes over the years. Chances are, if you ask anybody what the top smartphone is, it’ll be on this list. The trend is as you might expect, a steady upwards march. Most of the phones clustered around the 5.2-5.5″ screen size mark, but the interesting thing I noticed was the slowing down of this increase.
For example, the vaunted Samsung Galaxy Note remained steady at 5.7″ for the past two years, same with the Xiaomi Mi, and Sony Xperia Z. The Samsung Galaxy S5 has only increased 0.1″ in the last interation, a far cry from it’s earlier increases. It would seem that manufacturers have decided, presumably based on sales figures, R&D and feedback, these are the optimum sizes for their products. The massive phones such as the Sony Xperia Z Ultra (6.4″), Galaxy Mega (6.0″) and Huawei Mate Ascent (6.1″) have been on the market for nearly 1.5 years, but have not gained mainstream popularity like the phones listed. You can view a list of all 5.9″+ phones here. I only recognised a few of them.
In short, the average screen size for the best selling smartphones has increased from 3.8″ in 2010, to 5.2″ in 2014. A trendline that follows this reducing average closely indicates that it’ll taper out at around 5.4″. Without the iPhones, which exist in their own dimension, let’s call it 5.5″ or so.
Does this seem reasonable? From personal experience, yes definitely. I find the 5″ Nexus 5 to be the optimum sized phone, but it can still fit a bigger screen. A bit smaller (like the 4.6″ Xperia Z3 Compact) is more comfortable, and slightly larger (like the 5.5″ OnePlus One) is still quite usable. Anything above that, and it becomes unwieldy. The general consensus from people I’ve asked also fall in this range. The size has historically been increasing, but it appears that we’ve reached the peak … size. Our hands just can’t handle any bigger, not unless there’s some breakthrough.
Physical Size Is Important
However, it’s important to note a few things. The most important of this is that smartphone size isn’t directly correlated with physical device size. You can have small phones that have small bezels and squeeze in an immense amount of screen space for the size, like the Z3 Compact. There are also phones that do the opposite, big bezels with a big footprint, but a smaller screen size, like the iPhone 6. The 6 is a full cm taller than a Nexus 5, but yet it has a smaller screen. Likewise, it towers above other similar-screened 5.5″ devices, even taller than the 5.7″ Note 4. Blame the symmetry.
Therefore, to calculate the true comfort or pocketability factor, we will need to ignore screen sizes, and instead concentrate on the physical size. This is easy to do, all smartphone manufacturers release dimensions of their devices, so I plotted them into a graph. The top half shows the trend in increasing footprints/surface areas of the devices. The bottom half shows the march towards thinner devices.
It appears that physical phone sizes increased up until late 2013, at which point they’ve remained stagnant. Some phones like the Xperia, Note and Xiaomi Mi have actually reduced physical size, whilst keeping the same screen size – technological progress. Some phones like the Note, have squeezed in larger screen sizes in less space.
The vast majority of phones appear to fall in between the 90-110cm^2 range for surface area, it’s safe to call this zone ‘normal’. This includes all of the phones listed above except for the huge phones, like the Note, the iPhone 6 Plus and the rumoured Nexus 6 phone. It’s safe to call this zone ‘large’.
It’s also interesting see the rate of increase, it’s generally quite gradual, usually 0.1-0.4″ per year/iteration. Only 4 times in the lineage of these phones has surface area drastically increased: Xiaomi Mi2=>3 (4.3 to 5″ screen), Moto X to Moto X2 (4.7 to 5.2″ screen), Nexus S to Galaxy Nexus (4 to 4.65″ screen) and iPhone 5S to 6/6+ (4 to 4.7/5.5″ screen). These are all very large increases.
Most of the current devices fall in the 8-9mm range. Some, like the Xperia Z and iPhone, are thinner. Until physical size, most people can agree that a thinner phone is usually better, as far as pocketability goes.
I also did a separate calculation for the total size/volume of the devices. That is, the Height x Width x Depth. This yielded some strange results, because it doesn’t account for things like curved backs or grippy or rounded sides. These are all measures manufacturers have taken to make phones more comfortable to hold. I’ve found phones which are thinner, but with sharper rectangular edges to be more uncomfortable, than a thicker, but more rounded phone. There are many other factors which determine holding comfort, even things like the ‘balance’ of a phone, or how top-heavy it might be.
It’s important to note here just how much of a difference some of these measures make. No less than four of the phones on the list have rounded backs (One, G3, Nexus, Moto X). It could be argued that slight curved edge of the Note and S5 also help with the feel of the phone, not to mention the rounded edges of the iPhone 6. Phones like the OnePlus, which I found comfortable have a curved back. In short, it’s the edge of the phone that matters more than the depth at the highest point, and that’s something that manufacturers don’t list, so we can’t graph it.
I included this graph below anyway, but as you will probably determine yourself, some of the results do make sense (like the iPhone 4/5 being the most easy to wield), but some don’t (like the Moto X being as hard to hold as the Galaxy Note). There’s clearly more credence to surface area being the determining factor for comfort, rather than thickness. To that end, take the below graph with a grain of salt. What it doesn’t show is the relationship of surface area with screen size, that’s a trade-off that individuals will have to figure out themselves.
Nexus 6? Or Shamu?
Based on the picture linked at the start of the article, the Shamu placed next to an LG is 7.4% taller and 14% wider. This would place it at 157 x 85mm, give or take. It also matches up with this report. Of course, all of this is still rumour, we don’t know for sure, but it’s fun to speculate. This makes it 10% bigger than a Note 4, 27% bigger than a Z3, 30% bigger than a One M8 and 40% bigger than it’s predecessor, the Nexus 5. For reference, 7mm taller than a Note 4, and the same height, but 7mm wider, than an iPhone 6+. That’s positively monstrous. No wonder it’s called Shamu.
However, if it were to maintain the same physical volume, it would need to be less than 7.7mm (around the depth of an iPhone 5). This is quite unlikely to be the case, especially based on Motorola’s past designs.
So where does that leave the Nexus 6? It’s way out of what the traditional Nexus has been – a massive jump in physical size and screen size, putting it well outside of what one could call a ‘normal’ sized phones. It’s even larger than the largest mainstream phones. Which brings me to two theories.
The first is that the Motorola Shamu was never intended to be a Nexus 6. It was conceived back when Android Silver hadn’t yet been killed, an alternative to the Nexus program – a premium of premium options. Once Android Silver was scrapped, it’s possible they re-purposed this device to use as the Nexus 6. The second theory is that Motorola just wants to shake things up, and under Google’s guidance, they saw the future as very large 6″ devices.
Of course, it’s also quite possible the phone pictured isn’t the Nexus 6 at all, but some other large Motorola device. I’m a huge fan of Nexus devices, having owned three over the years, but this is just too much phone.
So there you have it, based on historical and current trends in smartphone manufacturing, we can state with reasonable confidence the following:
* Mainstream premium smartphones will gradually encroach on the 5.5″ screen size for the foreseeable, all else being equal. If bezel sizes are able to be shrunk, it’s possible that 5.5-6.0″ screens will be the norm.
* Physical footprint must remain around or under 120cm^2 to be pocketable (ie. Not much bigger than a Galaxy Note 4). Bigger than this and it becomes awkward for the majority of people. There could be material/texture/shape improvements which offset this.
* Bezel sizes are there for front sensors, cameras, earpiece and palm support, so it’s probably not realistic to reduce them to zero, but there’s still room for improvement (see Part 2). We should see close to 80% efficiency in the mainstream in the next year or two.