I analysed data of more than 7000 models of smartphones, PDAs and similar gadgets. I restricted my research then to only 4096 of those, the ones released after the initial announcement of the original iPhone, circa January 2007, to observe the trends in the modern smartphone industry.
The data refers to released models, and doesn’t directly refer their sales in the market or consumer preferences.
Screens are getting bigger
Lets look at the average screen size. It took five years for the average screen size to get from 3" to 4", but only two more to get to the current average of 5".
It took five years for the average screen size to get from 3" to 4", but only two more to get to the current average of 5"
What is big
“Big” is totally subjective to a person’s likes, hand size, culture or even fashion awareness. But, observing the data divided at the 4.5" point, we have a better understanding of the trend.
If we take a closer look at only the last two years, we see an astonishing trend towards 4.5" and bigger screens. Smartphones with 4.5" screens or more were ~10% two years ago, now they represent ~80% of all new models.
Smartphones with 4.5" screens or more were ~10% two years ago, now they represent ~80% of all new models
This is most likely due to manufacturers being able to create devices with smaller bezels, the need of bigger batteries and general specification warfare.
Not only screens
A screen is the biggest defining item of a smartphone’s total size, but bezels around the screen are needed to grip the device, place buttons, cameras, speakers, microphones, and even some still have physical keyboards, thus adding to the overall size. Now the trend of overall size is upwards, but modern smartphones first got smaller before they got bigger again.
For comparison, a 4" iPhone is ~72 sq. cm (~11 sq. inches). Manufacturers always were driven to make cellphones, both dumb and smart, smaller and lighter, until the software landscape was dramatically changed in 2007-2010, when a new era of computing and networking pushed them to rethink what a whole computer in a pocket should do.
Bezels are getting smaller
A couple months ago I published this chart, which shed some light into a until then obscure metric for most people, the screen-to-bezel ratio of a handful of selected and popular smartphones.
Less bezels allow for bigger screens without increasing the size of the device, but, at least with today’s technology, a minimal bezel is required for usability. To add historical perspective, we can observe this ratio in percentage points, i.e: how much of the front of a smartphone is just screen.
In these regards we are observing, Samsung seems to lead the pack. The original Galaxy Note, with 5.3" was deemed too big, or at best: a niche phone. Even started a new category named the phablet.
The average screen size of a new non-Samsung smartphone when the 5.3" Note was released was 3.8"
The average screen size of a new non-Samsung smartphone when the 5.3" Note was released was 3.8". Less than three years later, most OEMs are making their non-phablet flagships in the 5" or more category.
Did Samsung skate where the puck was going? was it mere luck due to a more of a throwing spaghetti to the wall and see what sticks maneuver? We will never know for sure, but the data is clear: Samsung went bigger before the market went bigger.
When Samsung started shipping Android smartphones, their screens sizes jumped. Their first, the I7500, was a 3.2 inches phone with a huge bezel, released on April 2009. Before Android, Samsung made tiny screens.
Not implying that bigger screens are better or worse, Apple does lag in this trend. Apple started in the 3.5" screen size when the market average was 3.2", and remain there, only to get a 4" screen iPhone when the market average was 4.3", Apple went from lead to lag.
The average smartphone screen size when the original iPhone was launched was 3.2", when the iPhone 5 launched, it was 4.3"
I won’t argue with rumors, so what would Apple do is not something I can predict, but Apple has a generally lower screen-to-bezel ratio due to hardware constraints in the iPhone such as the home button in the lower bezel, making an iPhone with a even bigger screen harder to grip with one hand, compared to a Samsung or LG device with similar screen size.
Smartphones and their screens are getting bigger while bezels recede. We can’t know where the trend will go in two years, but seems more likely to stabilise around 5"-5.5" than to go back to lower than 5" values.
About the author
My name is Alex Barredo, please consider following me in Twitter at @somospostpc