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Mobile Phone Design: How Big Is Too Big?

Mobile phones used to be huge — bricks, really. As semiconductor and battery technologies improved through the end of the 20th century, mobile phones thankfully became smaller. But then things changed.

Infographic: The evolution of cell phones (Credit: c3a9poca, Brazil)

Infographic: The evolution of cell phones. Click to view original image. (Credit: Época, 2011)

As illustrated by the infographic, above, early mobile phones such as the Motorola DynaTAC 8000 were big (13 inches/33 cm long and 3.5 inches/8.9 cm thick), due in large part to their battery. Fortunately, moving away from sealed lead acid batteries to NiCad, NiMH and Lithium-ion chemistry enabled these devices to shrink significantly while simultaneously offering longer talk and standby times. The flip or clamshell phones available at the dawn of the 21st century were significantly smaller by comparison (approximately 3 inches/8 cm long and less than an inch/2 cm thick), easily hidden in the palm of the hand.

Then came the smartphone. I remember when the first Palm Treo and RIM BlackBerry were released. At more than 4 inches (11 cm) long and 2.3 inches (5.9 cm) wide, they seemed huge by comparison to the svelte clamshell and candy bar designs of the time. Of course, smartphones had to be larger to accommodate a reasonably-complete physical keyboard that could be operated by the fingers of an average human. However, seeing people hold these new bricks to their ear to carry on a conversation seemed odd.

Is it a phone or is it a tablet? (Created with

Is it a phone or is it a tablet? (Created using

The growth of the mobile phone didn’t stop there. The Apple iPhone, despite shedding a physical keyboard in favor of a touchscreen, was larger than a BlackBerry. The iPhone 4S and 5 grew larger still. Samsung upped the ante last year with the Galaxy S III at 5.4 inches (13.6 cm) long and 2.8 inches (7.1 cm) wide, but only 0.34 inches (8.6 mm) thick.

Even though the Galaxy S III was a very large phone, it was still visibly a phone. Tablet computers, such as the Google Nexus 7 (7.8 inches/20 cm long) and Apple iPad (9.5 inches/24 cm long), were clearly larger. But that gap didn’t last long.

Welcome the phablet, a portmanteau of the words “phone” and “tablet”. These hybrid devices, beginning with the Dell Streak and continuing with devices such as the Samsung Galaxy Note (pictured above in white), were sized in between large smartphones and small tablets. They are convenient for tablet-like media consumption and sharing while still being able to fit into pockets and purses.

This year at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, one could argue that the trend of ever-larger mobile phones has finally jumped the shark. At the event, Asus introduced the Fonepad, a 7-inch tablet that is similar to the Nexus 7 (also made by Asus) and still able to be used as a phone. As though making a phone that is the same size as a tablet wasn’t enough, Samsung went over the top with their release of the Galaxy Note 8. Although you can hold it up to your ear to make phone calls, with an 8-inch (20 cm) screen can it still be called a phablet? What’s next, a phone with a 10-inch (25 cm) screen?

What do you make of this design trend? Are phone manufacturers just getting caught up in a feature race in the same way camera manufacturers did with increasing megapixels (to the detriment of image quality)?

Extra: Mobile phone maker HTC may be seeing the writing on the wall with their “Mini“, a small extension handset for the HTC Butterfly, also known as the HTC Droid DNA.

(Featured image credit: Rwxrwxrwx/Wikipedia)


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