When it comes to smartphones, size matters

Is the iPhone 6 big enough? In recent years the market has made it clear that bigger is better, at least up to a point. Apple's new devices, launched this week with much fanfare, have startled some longtime fans but are still downright conservative compared to the competition.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

How big should a smartphone be?

Now is the opportunity when all the amateur comedians in the audience can throw out their punch lines.

All done? Good. The correct answer is, “That depends.” And increasingly, the market is responding, “Bigger than my last phone, please.”

You can actually follow the trends in smartphone size with a wonderful new online visualization tool called Mobile Device Size, which lets you see images of smartphones (old and new) proportionally sized next to one another. I put together this selection of flagship phones, old and new, from a variety of vendors. The resulting image makes a striking point about just how conservative Apple has become in its design decisions around the iPhone.

Image credit: MobileDeviceSize.com

That image is almost impossible to decipher on the page here, so I encourage you to go and look at the original. (I’ll wait.) Meanwhile, we can continue the discussion using this slightly modified two-row version, which is easier to decode on this page.

Image credit: MobileDeviceSize.com

At the far left on the top row are the iPhone 4 and iPhone 5S, which look puny compared to everything else in this lineup. The iPhone 6, which occupies the third slot on the same row, is just catching up in size to flagship phones like the Google Nexus 5 (from LG) and Nokia’s Lumia 930 (the international version of the Verizon-only Lumia Icon.

Top-of-the-line Android devices like the Samsung Galaxy S5 and the HTC One M8 are still bigger than average. And the iPhone 6 Plus, which is positively ginormous (a word I read over and over in tweets and reviews of this new device), is a mainstream phablet, tucked between the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 and the Lumia 1520

Only a year ago, Apple was bragging that the 4-inch Retina display on the iPhone 5S was “just right.”


Today the only Apple customers who can get a device that small are bargain hunters willing to settle for last year’s model, with none of the new hardware features of the iPhone 6.

The lesson of the market is clear: The more time we spend staring at smartphones, the more we discover that bigger is better, at least to a point. There’s more room for data, and the bigger display is easier on the eyes.

The biggest complaint I hear about the new iPhones is from the most fervent iPhone fans, like Slate's technology editor Will Oremus, who long ago learned to operate their phone in “one-hand mode.”

I’ll pause here once again for your easy punch lines. Go ahead, get it out of your system.

You’re done? Good.

This iPhone 5S television ad from 2013, starring Jeff Daniels, praises the iPhone 5S because you can use it with one thumb (“a dazzling display of common sense”). It was a whopping 4 inches, compared to the 3.5 inches of earlier models.

Apple has added a clever mode to the new 6-series iPhones to help make that mode of operation easier, but at some point the laws of physics take over and your thumb just won’t stretch far enough.

An entire generation of iPhone early adopters learned to take advantage of those small screens by cupping the device in one hand and using one thumb to do everything. It’s not unlike the early BlackBerry users who actually would develop carpal tunnel syndrome from their two-thumb typing skills.

Apple has clearly placed a very large stack of chips on the Bigger option, and you bet against them at your own peril. If you’re an expert at one-handed iPhone operation, it is a matter of two years, tops, before people start looking at you with the same bemused expression they give someone who whips out an old-school BlackBerry in 2014.

Editorial standards