2010s Smartphone Screens are the New 1950s Tail Fins

I don’t know who this Dustin Curtis guy is (I’m sure he returns the favor), but he’s absolutely right. The ever-larger screens on (non-Apple) smartphones are ever-less ergonomic and ever-more ridiculous.

image from Dustin Curtis

The bigger the screen, the more impossible one-handed operation becomes.

It’s another case of companies getting into an arms race over “who can make the biggest x” without any regard to why. Where have we seen this before?

If they’re going to make phones with ever-bigger screens, they should take care to design the UI to improve one-handed use, as suggested by Itai Vonshak‘s awesome Emblaze UI design:

Thumb-centric design

Itai works at Palm now, btw 🙂

H/T to my friend Jon Tzou for sending this my way


And the best tweet ever on the subject comes from Sebastiaan de With:


28 thoughts on “2010s Smartphone Screens are the New 1950s Tail Fins

  1. Hmmm, screen size is being treated like penis size? Well, four or five inches does sound about right for the average Android user. I’m more of an iPad user myself 🙂

  2. I think we will al find that in good time, smartphones and laptops screen size will converge. If you think about it, a smartphone should really be the size of a laptop screen – because it’s bigger and you can fit more stuff on. Ok so it might hurt your wrist a bit holding it one handed, and it might give you a sun tan when you make phone calls, but it makes sense. Plus, they need to reach a size where if you put your phone on your lap, you can use it as a table. Tt makes total sense. I think the argument that they will be too big is naive. People will wear backpacks to carry their phones. They will also grow strength in their wrists as we evolve. It’s like how doorways used to be a lot smaller in the old days, because people were shorter. We will find that in years ahead people will have much stronger wrists, much bigger pockets and backpacks, and much longer thumbs. Those who design and plan for this inevtable evolution will be the true leaders.

    • There are 2 kinds of apps: 1-handed and 2-handed. Until we get more hands this is likely to remain the case.

      Your 1-handed app is made for a 3-4 inch screen. We call these “phone apps,” or “widgets.” Your 2-handed app is made for a 9-10 inch screen (or 9-10 inch window, which is just a virtual screen.) We call them “PC apps,” or “full-size apps.” The code is already out there, the interfaces are already out there, this is very unlikely to change.

      Notice that there has never been a graphical PC with a smaller screen than the original Mac from 1984. The developers of full-size apps did not consider a 7 inch PC. The developers of phone apps were not considering a 5 or 7 inch screen. So a device that has a 5 to 7 inch screen is going to run phone apps, but blown up. You’re not getting much for your lack of pocket space.

      Also, although iPhone has a smaller screen than many Android phones, iPhone has more pixels, more information. If you hold it a little closer, you get more out of it than an Android phone, but it still fits in your pocket.

      The only thing I disagree with here is I like fins on cars. Give me great big fins. But there’s no way I’d carry anything other than an iPhone and an iPad. That is the replacement for the desktop phone and desktop PC of yesteryear.

      • No way man, tablets will just get bigger. Ultimately, in the long term I think mobile phones should be the size of doors. That way, they will fit lots and lots of stuff, and they will open up to total virtual environments, as well as being phones.

  3. Let’s consider this. The consensus seems to be that Apple’s 3.5″ size is perfect. My hands aren’t very big but I’ve got quite long “piano” fingers. I found operating an iPhone with one hand troublesome. And believe me, there are people with hands half the size of mine.

    Now, I don’t see that as a problem. I loved my iPhone and I switched to an Android phone with a 3.2″ screen which I also loved. The android phone was perfect for one-hand use; better than the iPhone. But would I recommend that size over 3.5″ or even bigger? No, I wouldn’t but that depends on personal preferences.

    Bigger than 3.5″ phones have been around for quite some time (as have smaller sizes) and have been successful. Samsung sells lots of them and people like them as well. The thing here is that Apple does what it believes is best for most people. I’ll admit they’re 99% or more right in that as well. What a lot of people seem to forget is that in the smartphone market, this leaves a lot of space open; which Apple won’t cover. Let’s just be thankful we can choose who makes our phone and what software it runs.

    Let’s say the iPhone is like a puppy. Everybody likes puppies, don’t they? Sure they do! It’s just that given the choice, some people might prefer a kitten.

  4. Aaah! In your third picture, is that how people hold it? I never could figure out what the fuss was about.

    I hold mine in my hand, not laying on my fingers. (The back is so slick, I’d definitely drop it.) The biggest problem for me is not reaching across, but reaching the near side: I’m not multiply-jointed enough to be able to tap the near-lower corner at all.

    So Dustin Curtis’s circles look wrong to me. When holding it in my left hand, anything in the bottom-left quadrant is difficult-to-impossible for me to reach, while the rest of the screen is fine. I guess I’m just holding it wrong.

    • Yeah don’t worry over time your hand will change shape and your fingers and overall dexterity will transform to be able to handle enormous screen sizes.

      • Big screen sizes aren’t a problem. It’s the *near* 1″ that I can’t reach, on any device. In fact, a bigger screen is better for me, since it means a larger percentage of the screen is reachable.

  5. The smartphone concept marries two different things – something to hold to your ear, and something to look at in your hand. If you require them to be one device, workable sizes probably range from 2″ to 4″. If you split the “smartphone” into a headset (which can clip on your ear) and another device, the second device can be whatever size you’re willing to carry around (and needn’t be used one-handed).

    • Actually, for a lot of users, one-handed operation is a definite plus, even if you never hold it up to your ear. Not everyone wants (or needs) to use a handheld computer one-handed, but there’s a definite advantage to the ability to do so.

      Personally, if Apple offered two devices, one with a 3.5″ screen and the current device width, and one with a 4″ (or so) screen and a large profile similar to some high-end Android handsets, I’d pick the 3.5″ one without much thought. Anything bigger doesn’t fit comfortably into the pocket I store it in, and feels awkward when held in one hand, even if I’m not poking at the screen with my thumb. (They also look ridiculously large to me every time I see someone pull one out of their pocket–even the iPhone 1 looked kind of oversized to me–but maybe that’s just me.) For my use, 3.5″ seems to be pretty close to the ideal size.

      I suppose they could reduce the border around it to increase the screen size without increasing the device size, but then you run into usability issues with objects near the edges of the screen–you might be able to display a movie or picture bigger, but your UI needs to add that same sized border to be comfortably usable.

      Anyway, I’m sure there are people who actually have use for and want a 4″ palmtop device, rather than just thinking it looks better in the store display. Others probably really do want a 3″ (or smaller) device. I’m not either, and I think Apple made the smart choice with 3.5″, but it’s good that some Android handset makers are there to supply devices to those who want them.

    • No you can’t split, we must converge everything. phones and laptops and tablets and doors will all become the same thing. We will then prove that Apple has been wrong all along.

    • The iPod Touch is by far the best selling iPod — over 60 million at last count. They rarely, if ever, are used as a phone by holding them up to the side of your head. (I know they can do video calling, but I’m not sure if they can do audio-only calls or not, but at least it’s not a common use case for them.) So apparently there’s at least some people who are interested in paying money for this size device.

  6. You are right. The same thing happened with laptops (I mean, wtf would you want a 21″ laptop for?). This whole screen size debate will go away and all sound silly like the 50’s as soon with gadgets that can project a full-resolution image to the inside of glasses, or even in the eye itself. I don’t think that tech is so far away, and it will finally take away the need to drag around ever-larger gadgets.

    • ” (I mean, wtf would you want a 21″ laptop for?)”
      …for stationary home usage/office, without having a dedicated office space, and possibility to stove it away. That is how I use my 18″ laptop, and I agree, it is not designed to be carried around 🙂

  7. Apple will definitely make it, but only if it is the best it can possibly be in it’s class by a longshot: if it works impeccably: if it’s form augments it’s function. That stands for Any device. Just wait for it. They are probably already working on it. They started on the iPhone when? If you can say anything about Apple you can say this: Good Work. Why? Because the work is good.

  8. I’m sure there’s a philosophically correct screen size, but I don’t think having a 4-5 inch screen is a bad idea at all. Something that’ll fit your jacket pocket but doesn’t require an electron microscope to operate.

    Ever since I began needing reading glasses, I’ve been increasingly annoyed having to dig them out to use my phone. Not to mention using the phone as a navigation device when driving. Placing the device far enough for the image to be sharp, leaves me with a screen the size of a matchbox. It’s a good thing navigators talk.

    Also, I wish they’d make one where you can set font sizes properly like on an Linux desktop.

    And no, I don’t want to own every screen size out there. One phone and one pad max. Wouldn’t mind being able to make calls on the pad, though.

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  10. Well put.

    I don’t think the problem is with larger screens. Apple have a larger screen iPhone (I know, a reckless thing to say) and that’s the iPad. The benefit of a larger only comes into play when you’re talking about considerably larger screen. That’s what makes the iPad so amazing. It’s a huge touchable screen!

    On the topic of the iPhone. I believe a smaller body, not a bigger screen is what they should be aiming for.

    Despite having large hands, I often find reaching for extreme opposite corners quite a stretch. In fact, it becomes tiresome during longer sittings; it feels a lot like repetitive strain injury. Additionally, I find that I have to pivot the phone in my hand while simultaneously reaching for the corner with my thumb. This pivot momentarily turns the screen away from view, at time when I need to be certain of what I’m about to action. These issues are further compounded when you consider that it has become an iOS UI convention to place almost all primary actions in the upper corners.

    That’s the bottom line. Going larger will only make this issue worse, and I think you agree with that. So let’s stick with the 3.5″ screen and work to reduce the collateral structure.

  11. Saying an iPhone 4,27″ screen wouldn´t be ergonomical is stupid. The width of the new iOS5 split keyboard for iPad thumbs says it all. People who argue that you can´t reach all corners of a 4,27″ screen while also claiming that that´s the reason Apple sticked with the 3,5″ screen, will have to admit that they also can´t use Apple iOS5 split keyboard for iPad thumbs.
    The split parts of the keyboards (meant to be used by your thumbs) are wider than an iphone screen, but you also need to take the huge ipad bezel in to account.

    The complete 4,27″ screen, like the one on Samsungs Galaxy S2, can be easily reached with your thumb; especially when you keep the phone not in the palm of your hand but let it lie 50% in your palm and 50% on the base of your fingers

  12. My personal thoughts:

    True, 3.6″ is too big to handle it comfortably single-handed, WITHOUT shifting the phone in your palm here & back. However, it is not something that is undoable, nor a deal breaker to me (with my SGS2, and it’s 4.25 screen). It seemed huge after switching from original Pre(-), also no denial here – pocket is not it’s most comfortable place…

    4.2″ vs 3.6″ – actually, I did this excersise today, coincidentally, comparing the screen area of SGS2 and Pre3 (same resolution, but they feel so differently – depth of blacks & contrast of S-AMOLED+ has definitely a lot to do with it), measuring their linear dimensions, and calculating the surface area difference, the result was that SGS2’s (4.25″) screen is 142% the size of Pre3’s (3.6″). Well, that is some perceivable difference, 42% of extra surface area.

    But definitely, we are approaching similar territory here (diminishing returns), as with digital cam’s sensor’s resolutions, (once passed 5MP) – further increasing 4.25″ screen to 4.9″ (same linear increase as from 3.6″ to 4.25″ ) would yield a lot less percentage area increase.

    Personally, I think that 3.7-3.9″, 640×960 (twice the linear resolution of the original Pres), would be a sweet spot. And 7″ tablet, to accompany this on the go – ideally, with a similar ~250++ PPI screen resolution.

    All these above remarks regarding phone apps designed to such and such screen size in general are true, with one (immensely important for me) omission: READING. Which is one of the most important use cases for the smartphone, IMHO – and 4.2″ 800×480 is definitely better for reading than 3.6″, same resolution (or higher res, nonetheless).

    Also, I am not sure if the requirement of single-handed operation for a touch screen phone is not a little bit artificial one, for the vast majority of “casual” users – probably, it will be even more natural for them to hold the phone in one hand, and use it’s UI with the other hand.

    Personally, I think that higher battery drain from the bigger screens would concern me more than the requirement of comfortable single-handed usage,


    • Errata:
      first line:
      “True, 3.6″ is too big to handle it comfortably single-handed, ”
      should be:
      “True, 4″++ is too big to handle it comfortably single-handed, “

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