Oversize Novelty Phone: Why Are Android Phones so Big?

Android vs. iPhone, Part Two

This is part two of a multi-part series comparing iPhone and Android. (Part one covered Android’s advantages over iPhone.) I’m discussing only phones, not tablets, and focusing on the core of the smartphone user base. That’s a broad demographic, but excludes the inevitable niche users for whom some unusual factor trumps anything I discuss here. (And it’s worth remembering that may include you.) Enjoy.

In March 2013 I switched from iPhone to Android; not because I wanted to, but because we’d decided to build Emu for Android first – and as QA tools go, it’s hard to beat daily personal use. I wanted the best Android phone I could get: fast, up-to-date, compact, with a high-quality, high-resolution screen. Something to replace the iPhone I was leaving.

“Up-to-date” went out the window fast: Verizon didn’t sell anything with the latest version of Android (4.2), released four months previously. Indeed, many new Verizon phones still run 4.1 – now eight months obsolete.

After some research, I went with the Motorola Droid RAZR HD. The screen is gorgeous: not simply for its size, but for its pixel density and clarity. It’s an attractive, solid piece of hardware. And it’s fast. (Other reasonable options included the Samsung Galaxy S III, the Motorola Droid RAZR Maxx HD, and the somewhat older Samsung Galaxy Nexus. All are about the same size.)

I returned it a week later. It’s strange that I need to point this out, but I use my phone on the go – looking up local businesses, checking maps, responding to texts – and I had trouble using the RAZR HD one-handed. And the phone didn’t fit in my jeans pocket: the top poked out. When I biked to work, it stabbed me in the gut every time my right leg came up. Motorola – along with Samsung, HTC, and the rest – has sacrificed mobility for a giant screen.

The Droid RAZR M’s industrial design isn’t elegant: plastic case, exposed screws, floppy SD card door.

I exchanged the RAZR HD it for its little brother, the Motorola Droid RAZR M. Its industrial design is sloppy. It’s slow. (I routinely find myself counting to five while apps come up.) It has limited storage. And its screen is really disappointing. It’s a big bigger than an iPhone 4S, with a slightly lower-resolution screen; but the display quality is low. Like many older Android phones, it has a sort of halftone pattern that makes everything look jagged. And, it’s difficult to see in sunlight.

Simulation: the Droid RAZR M’s screen (and that of many Android phones) vs. better displays.

So why the RAZR M? Because it’s the only reasonably modern Android phone Verizon sells that will fit in my pocket and supports easy one-handed operation.

Other compact Android phones are on the way: The Galaxy S IV Mini, the HTC One Mini, the Droid Mini. But like the RAZR M, these will be lower-end versions of their larger cousins: lower price, low-resolution screens, slower processors, less storage. And still bigger than an iPhone 5.

Why so big?

This isn’t just frustrating, it’s odd: usually, smaller means better. Consider the original RAZR, or the StarTAC before it. The MacBook Air. The laptop itself. Even stranger, this bigger-is-better phenomenon is limited to Android. The iPhone 5 isn’t appreciably bigger than its predecessors. Nokia makes gorgeous, compact Windows phones, as does HTC. Why is Android different?

Android and iOS are in head-to-head competition for the entire smartphone market; realistically, they don’t have radically different target users. But if device manufacturers got it into their heads that Android users liked bigger phones, the belief might be self-sustaining: See? No one’s buying the small, underpowered phones! They must only want the bigger ones!

I suppose it’s possible that Android requires more processing power, and thus bigger batteries, than Windows Phone or iOS. Maybe an Android phone has to be big to be fast. For instance, Android apps are written in Java, which, like a web browser, requires an extra layer of computation between software and hardware.

It seems improbable, given Google’s renowned engineering chops. Yet, as I count to ten waiting for Chrome to come up, I can’t help but wonder. My iPhone 4S is snappy and responsive. The RAZR M was released a year later; its processor runs at 1500MHz vs. the iPhone’s 800MHz; and it has twice the RAM. Granted, you can’t just compare MHz across processor lines; but this comparison of the 1.7GHz and 1GHz versions of the two processors suggests the RAZR should be faster across the board, sometimes significantly so.

Let me be clear: this is speculation. I am not qualified to compare the resource requirements of two operating systems. But on paper, it looks like the Droid RAZR M should be faster than the iPhone 4S. When instead it’s noticeably, painfully slower, I have to wonder about the biggest remaining variable: the OS. What if you can’t make an Android phone that’s fast, compact, and has acceptable battery life?

Larger Phones: Better for Some?

Different users have different needs. Different needs yield different product goals. Not everyone needs a compact phone. In many cultures, women’s clothing is too small to accommodate any size phone, so “pocket-sized” is a useless metric. And not everyone uses their phone while walking around, or even walks around all that often. If watching movies is more important than compactness, then a larger phone makes sense. If great sound is a priority, then additional speaker bulk is justified.

I do question whether those product goals are really achievable. No device that qualified as a phone can provide an immersive movie-watching experience. The same is true for any speaker you can cram into a phone. So while you can optimize for mobility, the best you’ll get by prioritizing media-viewing is a huge compromise.

And while more pixels means greater productivity in theory, it’s not so simple in practice. Because of how mobile apps are built, much of that additional real estate goes toward making things bigger rather than increasing information density. The result? Things look a hell of a lot better on an HTC One than they do on my RAZR M, but there isn’t more information onscreen.

Side-by-side comparison of Emu’s chat screen on an HTC One and a Droid RAZR M.Proportionally, content is the same size on both. The HTC One has more information onscreen, but only because the RAZR M’s button bar (pink rectangle) is rendered onscreen while the HTC One’s is part of the hardware. (The RAZR M has room for a hardware-based button bar; it might have to forego one of the two Verizon logos, two Motorola logos, or 4G LTE logo.)

Ultimately, I’m not suggesting every phone needs to be pocket-sized. But the current situation is just bizarre; and further, I suspect smaller phones will meet the needs of more smartphone users than larger phones.

Developing for Giant Phones

You can’t solve hardware problems with software, but you can mitigate them. Even if you disagree with most of this post, I suspect you’ll agree that optimizing apps for one-handed operation is a good thing.

Some of Android’s defaults do just the opposite. The easiest, most standard place to put screen-level controls is in the “action bar” at the top of the screen. Thankfully, it’s not difficult to move them elsewhere. In designing Emu we’ve put frequently-accessed elements at the bottom of the screen, and read-only or rarely-used ones at the top.

To facilitate one-handed operation – especially on large screens – we’ve put commonly-accessed features near the bottom of the screen in Emu.

Gestures can help too: as I mentioned in my last post, Gmail’s slide-from-the-edge gesture to access your mailboxes avoids a trip to the Up button at the top of the screen.

Next Time on Android vs. iPhone

The problem is choice: Android’s endless customization epitomizes the way in which an overabundance of choice can reduce product quality, usability, and user satisfaction.