Phone Sizes

When larger Android phones originally started appearing, iPhone users in particular had quite negative reactions to the trend. BGR’s Jonathan Geller wrote:

The phone is too big. You will look stupid talking on it, people will laugh at you, and you’ll be unhappy if you buy it. I really can’t get around this, unfortunately, because Samsung pushed things way too far this time.1

Linking to Geller’s article, Gruber added:

Hard to believe how much promotional effort Samsung and AT&T are putting behind this thing.

I’m not even going to link to what the Loop had to say,2 but you can do a Google search for «galaxy note» and restrict it to the site to get an impression.

(For reference, the original Note had a 5.3-inch screen. Gruber now thinks that Apple will introduce an iPhone with a 5.5-inch screen, and the regular Galaxy S5 is now at 5.1 inches.)

The interesting thing is that there are a lot of iPhone owners out there for whom — relative to the size of their hands — their iPhone is already bigger than the Galaxy Note was for the men who wrote those articles. It didn’t occur to those authors that their hands were probably larger than most women’s hands, and that the experience they had with the Note wasn’t altogether unlike how many women feel while using their iPhones today.

In that context, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that the Note turned out to sell well — after all, in relative terms, a lot of iPhone owners were already using very large phones.

A person with small hands holding an iPhone 5, and a person with large hands holding a Galaxy Note 3; relative to the hands, both phones look similarly sized

On the left, a friend of mine holding her iPhone 5S. On the right, me, holding my Note 3 (that’s a 5.7-inch screen). The iPhone 4 was a bit smaller than the iPhone 5S shown in the picture, and the original Note was a bit smaller than the Note 3 shown in the picture, so a comparison of the 4 and the original Note would look similar.

Here’s another comparison.

A picture of my hand, holding a Note 2; a person with smaller hands holding an iPhone 4S; me again, holding an iPod touch. While the iPod touch and the 4S have similar sizes, relative to hand size, the 4S looks almost the same size as the Note 2

On the left, I’m holding a Note 2. The middle picture shows Ashley Bischoff holding an iPhone 4S. On the right, me again, holding an iPod touch that is about the same size as the iPhone 4S.

A phone’s size is relevant in two respects: relatively and absolutely.

In relative terms, the larger a phone and the smaller someone’s hand, the harder it is for them to use the phone, particularly if they’re using only one hand.3 Men’s clothing is also often bestowed with larger pockets — or pockets at all — which make it that much easier to carry large phones.

But a phone’s size is also relevant in absolute terms. Larger screens can show more content, and they can display content at larger sizes. And your hand size doesn’t matter when you’re using your phone for things like watching movies, reading books, taking notes, or editing images.4

Many people are drawn to larger phone sizes, but larger sizes only useful up to a point—an expansive screen can do more harm than good if the phone becomes too large for someone to use.5 The size at which that happens depends on the individual person.

That’s why phone size is such a difficult topic. It depends on you, and it depends on what you do with it. I’m glad that Apple is about to introduce a larger phone,6 but I also still believe there are people who would benefit from an additional phone that’s even smaller than the 4S.

Addendum

Via Ashley Bischoff, an article by Zeynep Tufekci outlining some of the issues that phones designed for man-sized hands can cause:

Since officials often claimed that tear gas was used only on vandals and violent protesters, I wanted to document these particularly egregious circumstances. Almost by reflex, I pulled out my phone, a Google Nexus 4, which I had been using on this trip as my main device, sometimes under quite challenging circumstances.

And as my lungs, eyes and nose burned with the pain of the lachrymatory agent released from multiple capsules that had fallen around me, I started cursing.

I cursed the gendered nature of tech design that has written out women from the group of legitimate users of phones as portable devices to be used on-the-go.

I cursed that what was taken for granted by the male designers and male users of modern phones was simply not available to me.

I cursed that I could not effectively document how large numbers of ordinary people had come to visit a park were being massively tear-gassed because I simply could not take a one-handed picture.

I especially cursed that I could not lift the camera above my head, hold it steadily and take a picture—something I had seen countless men with larger hands do all the time.

I’m 5 foot 2 inches on a good day and my hands are simply not big enough for effective one-handed use of the kind of phones that I want to use for my work.

Increasingly, on the latest versions of the kinds of phones I want to use, I cannot type one-handed. I cannot take a picture one-handed. I can barely scroll one-handed—not very well, though. I can’t unlock my phone one-handed. I can’t even turn on my phone one-handed as my fingers cannot securely wrap around the phone while I push a button with a finger.

Continue reading.


  1. As an aside, I don’t understand the amount of hostility in the tech industry. It’s almost as if a tech company releasing a product you don’t want were tantamount to a personal attack on your character. These are multinational corporations who couldn’t possibly care less about us. I don’t think they deserve the kind of (negative or positive) emotional investment that we tend to have in them. back

  2. It’s not hard to guess. back

  3. This also depends on the OS. For example, while Android phones have a back button below the screen, iPhones have the back button in the worst possible position for people holding their phones in their right hand: in the top left corner of the screen. That’s one of the reasons I think that a physical back button is a good idea, despite of the drawbacksback

  4. Which is why there are a lot of women with small hands who love phones with large screens. I’m absolutely not saying that all women want phones with small screens. What you do with the phone has a huge effect on what kinds of tradeoffs you’re willing to make. back

  5. Samsung tried to square this circle by adding a ridiculous tiny-screen mode to the Note 3. Their intention was to allow you to interact with the phone in a way that made the UI more easily reachable with one hand but still allow you to use the full screen when you wanted to. Needless to say, I don’t think it ever caught on. back

  6. One of the reasons why I’m not carrying an iPhone anymore is because I want a much larger screen. back

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