You may remember the times, when the most you could do with your cellphone was a call. With their size you could use it to pretend you were right in the battle calling for reinforcements through this distinctive-looking device either. Pretty much everything else was done through other single-function electronics. Then you could text, calculate, schedule, browse, transfer from just one piece of equipment and the list went on. But many of these tasks required vast amounts of screen space to accommodate needed information in a comfortable manner.
Since then there has been constant evolution of multi-functional handsets to come with ever bigger screens among other and the ultimate goal of the PDA had been presented.
There were other temporary solutions to increase productivity and usefulness of those handsets like sliding QWERTY keyboards of many sorts, desk stands, hardware buttons and real estate to make holding the device more comfortable. Some of them still are trying their way into the market, some are more or less standard, but in my opinion they all are secondary in productivity to the visible content area. In case of today – the built-in screen.
In a few words, the bigger the better and we can clearly see that throughout the years and there’s a simple case to be made that even basic text editing and web browsing is done optimally on the biggest screen size you are able to carry with you. For many years, the only useful device you could do those activities efficiently was a laptop, especially small ultrabooks and that is still the case for many, yet you can bring them with you only on so many occasions. The smartphone, on the other hand, is always with you. The main reason for that are obviously its compact dimensions. Nevertheless, the market leaders act as if the biggest possible screen in the smallest conceivable enclosure is just behind the hardware buttons, over-sized borders and big speakers.
Since the first iPhone from 2007 I’ve been a big proponent of big screens and I’m going to make a case here for the most important design principle in a perfect touchscreen smartphone. It does not warrant success as you’ll see in the following list of devices, but it greatly improves the overall ergonomics. Much more so than anything else. Let’s start from the beginning.
The palmtops were alright, but their screens left much to be desired and we’ll start from the true father of touchscreen smartphones – the original iPhone from 2007. It had a 3.5”, capacitive touch display, formerly a rather unique technology. The most important feature of this phone in this article is its screen to body ratio: 52%. At that time it was cutting edge, but let’s see how the market evolved. The next two versions were iPhone 3G and 3GS, which both had this ratio at 50.9%. It measured only 115.5 x 62.1 x 12.3 mm.
So it stayed at a similar level for approximately 2.5 years. But in 2010 people slowly started realizing that phones don’t have to stay at similar size to the old “dumb” phones and the bigger the screen the better the experience with browsing, watching and even typing. In January 2010 the first true iPhone competitor was launched from then virtually non-existent Android environment – HTC Google Nexus One. It got rid of all the sliding keyboards and other gimmicks its predecessors had and focused on touch screen smartphone experience. It clocked in at 54% of screen to body ratio with a 3.7″ screen. Its dimension were as follows: 119 x 59.8 x 11.5 mm, so even with a slightly bigger screen it was narrower. This probably gave a hint to other manufacturers, because then, in March of the same year, launched the first Samsung Galaxy S with a whopping 4″ screen and 58% StB ratio with dimensions: 122.4 x 64.2 x 9.9 mm. Not much bigger, but with a much bigger screen and much thinner profile, which made keeping it in a pocket much more comfortable. It was at that time that some people (mostly iPhone proponents and some media editors that couldn’t get their heads wrapped around an idea of smartphone evolution according to demand and not their reviews) started arguing that bigger smartphones are “too big”. Yet, as you will see, now the same people laugh at a 3.5″ or even bigger smartphones calling them unusable. Nevertheless, since that day, iPhones never caught up in this race, but we’ll still compare them to the best ones just for comparison’s sake.
Then, old limits became nothing. Designers and engineers started to race to the holy grail of the biggest and most usable touch screen smartphone, improving their software to fully utilize more space. Just a couple of months later the first phablet was introduced – the infamous Dell Streak with unheard of at that time 5″ screen. To this day this seems like a middle ground, an optimum for most people. However, with StB of 58% it was 152.9 x 79.1 x 10 mm and it was simply too big for too many people. New phones are much smaller with similarly sized screens. In October of the same busy 2010, Android ecosystem brought to us another marvel called HTC Desire HD with 4.3″ screen and at that time amazing StB of 62.9%, which made it much more comfortable to browse than competition at not so much bigger dimensions of 123 x 68 x 11.8 mm, which is practically the same size as Galaxy S, except for thickness. All this happened, while iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S barely made any progress in that department staying at the same tiny 3.5″ form factor and marginally improving StB to 54% until halfway through 2012.
Fast forward to 2013 and the mean StB of flagships is now over 70%. For example, Samsung Galaxy S4 at 72.3% or LG G2 at impressive 75.9%. Thanks to this, it surpassed the display size of the old Dell Streak having a 5.2″ one, while taking up significantly smaller footprint and being thinner at 138.5 x 70.9 x 8.9 mm. How about the father of all smartphones? Well… In 2012 iPhone 5 had a 4″ screen and StB at paltry 60.8% and in 2014 iPhone 6 got a very nice bump to 4.7″ (and 5.5″ in the Plus version), but at a below average ratio of 65.8% (67.8%). If even Apple moves to a bigger form factor this tells you a lot. There was even a not so successful, however incredibly efficient design from Sharp – Aquos Crystal with 5″ screen and ratio at record breaking 78.5%, which made it the smallest 5″ smartphone in the world ever – 131 x 67 mm. Just a little chubby at thickness of 10mm. Even though, using a phone that lacks the top bar is pretty remarkable, not to mention it’s portability compared to other phones.
To this date these figures are mostly unchallenged unfortunately. The only smartphone worth mentioning is the newest Xiaomi Mi Mix with 6.4″ screen and StB of 84%, which makes it comparable to 5.5″ iPhone 7 Plus. The software improved, the processing power is higher, however these always do. When it comes to physical design it never is so obvious, which way to go and while every feature of a smartphone is important for its overall value, the screen estate in combination with StB are the most visible and helpful changes in smartphones since the introduction of the first iPhone. The market corrected the physical size of the smartphones to a huge degree. The screens grew from 3.5″ to 5.5″ with a smaller (now) form factor of 4.7-5″. This is a change of 34-57% depending on current smartphone’s size. But compared to the size of the iPhone the diagonal of the phone itself, thanks to more efficient chassis designs, changed only by 18.5-28.5%. Therefore the biggest factor in mitigating the big screen in your phone that enables it to fit in your pocket are small bezels. And I can still see a lot of it on phones’ top and bottom. I can appreciate front-facing speakers, front-facing camera and some physical buttons. But if you give me a choice of a bigger screen on the same footprint I won’t miss them at all. My perfect smartphone is a 6-inch with no bezels. It always was since the day I saw the Dell Streak 5 and I got that this is the way to go. I just didn’t believe that manufacturers will waste SO MANY years on getting there one step at a time instead of going all in and getting rid of those pocket-filling bezels. Hopefully, we’ll see these kinds of designs before we move to folding screens, holograms and such.