In the previous article, I investigate just how far smartphones have progressed in physical and screen dimensions. We know that we’re bumping up against the maximum physical size that humans are willing to carry, which appears to be around 120cm^2 of surface area (around a Note 4). It also appears that nearly all the flagship devices are tapering off towards this size, and the commercial failure of larger devices points to a public perception that there really IS a limit to how big we want these things.
The logical question then is, how are manufacturers still able to increase screen sizes? Nearly everybody would agree that a bigger screen is more enjoyable to use, but only some of us are willing to sacrifice the bulk and size of a larger phone to achieve that. However, there are ways around this, it’s not so cut and dry – rounded corners, rounded backs, grippier textures, thinner edges, all measures to improve the ‘comfort’ and ease of holding smartphones.
How much screen can your device really fit?
If you look at your phone now, depending on the model, you’ll probably notice the screen only takes up a proportion of the front surface. After running through some calculations, I found this percentage (which we’ll refer to as screen % efficiency), varies massively from phone to phone. Some phones are horribly inefficient, where nearly half their surface area is NOT screen. Some are extremely efficient, where only 25% or so is ‘wasted’ to things like speakers, cameras, sensors, buttons, empty space and the like.
Let’s for a moment lock the physical size of the device. Just assume that everybody is using the device which they are physically as comfortable with as they would be. I then calculated what would be the absolute maximum size of screen that could fit on the existing flagships, in the exact same physical size, if the bezel was zero and every last mm was taken up with screen. Unrealistic, but have a look:
HTC One M8 – 6.4″ screen
Galaxy Note 4 – 6.8″ screen
Galaxy S5 – 6.3″ screen
LG G3 – 6.5″ screen
Nexus 5 – 6.1″ screen
Nexus 6 (Rumoured) – 7.0″ screen (!)
Xiaomi Mi4 – 6.1″ screen
iPhone 6 – 6.0″ screen
iPhone 6+ – 6.9″ screen
Moto X 2014 – 6.2″ screen
We can only dream of course, but you can already see that the disparity between ‘potential’ screen size and ‘actual’ screen size. Those movie-style props where people are holding transparent phones that have edge-to-edge displays are still a long way off, but we’re gradually getting there.
How has bezel size been progressing?
The next step then is to have a look at just how much manufacturers have been improving efficiency. Let’s plot the same phones as we did in the previous article. This graph is clear as day – manufacturers are pushing hard to improve size efficiencies. They know that people will only put up with bigger physical sizes for so long.
One interesting thing to note here is that the Galaxy S4=>S5 and Galaxy Note 3=>Note 4 transition has led to poorer efficiencies, even while actual screen sizes have increased or remained the same. This is because physical size has increased disproportionately, for whatever reason. Maybe larger batteries, or more sensors. We can also see that the iPhone, which has always had horrible efficiency ratios, gradually catch up, but the iconic symmetric layout, with the large home button, still holds it back.
From the graph, we can also safely say that ratios below 65% or less (where 65% of the frontal area is screen), can be classified, by today’s standards, to be fairly poor. The majority of devices float around 70-75%, and a few exceptional cases like the LG G2/G3 and Sharp Aquos exceed this. If you observe them you will notice extremely slim or non-existent bezels. They look good and it’s functional.
Where to from here?
It’s still early days, as far as space usage goes – the main obstacles in improving screen efficiencies is finding a place for sensors, camera, buttons and so on. The Galaxy phones still allocate physical space on the device for a home button, as do the iPhones, which takes up precious frontal area.
I’d like to see size efficiencies improve in the next year or two beyond 80%, approaching 90% or so. At those ratios, we’d be able to use 6″ screens on phones that are no bigger than today’s flagships like the Galaxy S5 / HTC One, in a thinner body. That would truly be a no-compromise solution – we can have our cake and eat it too.
And the mega list (which I’ll try to update regularly):