Smartphones are phones – devices for one-handed use on the move. They are also devices for consuming information. The restrictions on size by the former, and the requirements for screen real estate by the latter leave a gap between two ideal sizes – and mean that there is currently no device that spans the entire range of uses.
When looking at today’s super-sized touchscreen slabs, one-handed use doesn’t seem to have been a consideration in their design.
This is puzzling in a way. Be it taking a call, hammering out a quick answer to a text, changing a track or checking a map – I want none of these core activities to be restricted to situations where I have both hands free. A mobile should be that – able to integrate seamlessly into mobile use, without the need to pause and put down things before operating it. This, of course, puts restrictions on the size of the handset – which, after all, is mainly determined by the screen size. Anything up to 3.7″ is comfortable for me personally, up to 4″ doable, while something like the 4.3″ of the SGS II is already a stretch. With screen sizes beyond that it’s no longer possible to reach every part of the screen with the thumb. They require two-handed operation. The modern superphone, at 4.7″, is already firmly in that territory of two-handed operation.
But then there are good reasons why screen sizes have grown so much. Browsing the web, watching video, reading books, playing games – most modern uses of our smartphones benefit immensely from more screen real estate.
Small screens limit the amount of information that can be displayed. Even with high resolution displays, they are only a small window on the information space, a frame into which things have to be crammed. It’s not possible to read desktop websites without problems, video remains an at-a-distance experience, and they can’t really replace an eBook reader.
Large screens fix this problem – but not really at the 4.7″ of the modern superphone. Sure, things get better at this size, but the crampedness doesn’t really disappear. They are just a halfway solution. To make the crampedness disappear, we need to add another bit of screen size. My guess would be another .3″ at least. At another .6″, i.e. a 5.3″ diagonal, at the latest, the frame no longer dominates the content. EBooks are a joy, movies acceptable, and the vast majority of desktop websites work without a problem. And while one-handed operation is no longer possible, every adult should be able to comfortably and securely hold a phone with some screen size between 5″ and 5.6″ in one hand.
So, for the time being, there is a 1″ split between mobile phones that really fit the name by allowing one-handed operation, and mobile handheld devices that allow fully mobile, unrestricted information consumption. The current form factor of 4.7″ superphones trades in the former without really achieving the latter.
I say for the time being since I still hope for the flexible screens and other new display technologies that have been promised to us for seemingly ever. Given these, there is a chance for a device that adjusts for either use without compromise. I’m waiting for a future compact mobile that has a screen that unfolds or unrolls to a larger size when needed. Until then, I guess I’ll be using and carrying two devices.