by Al Sacco

Next big thing in smartphones might be small

Apr 22, 2016
AndroidConsumer ElectronicsiPhone

Early smartphones were huge, so manufacturers scrambled to shrink them. Then came the phablet movement. In the future, phone size won’t be the focus and the emphasis will shift to internal improvements and additions.

During the past few years, high-end smartphones have grown progressively larger. But that wasn’t always the case.

In the early days of smartphones, mobile devices were already colossal. The word “brick” was often used when describing the first BlackBerry phones, and early Palm Treos were weighty enough to injure a toe if you dropped one on your foot. In the mid-to-late 2000s, phone manufacturers focused on packing more and more features into smaller, thinner and lighter handsets.

samsung galaxy note s pen Samsung

Samsung’s original Galaxy Note and S Pen stylus

Then, in the early 2010s, phone makers changed directions and gradually increased the size of their phones, mostly to provide more screen space. The first Samsung Galaxy Note, which was released in September 2011, exemplified this movement.

Today, nearly five years after the Note release, thin is still a priority, but few popular device makers produce phones that are larger or even much lighter than their previous generations. The new thing is to incrementally decrease the overall size of phones, while maintaining or even increasing display size.

So what’s next?

Too big, too small and just right (for you)

No one-size-fits-all approach works for smartphones today, and that’s a good thing; it means more consumer choice. Even Apple — king of the “You’ll Want the Phone We Want You to Want and You’ll Like It” approach to product design — now offers a variety of shapes, sizes and colors for its once-static iPhone. And the company’s recent decision to release a new, smaller iPhone that looks like an old iPhone [ Find it on Amazon *What’s this?* ] flipped the history of phone evolution inside out.

Speaking, err, writing of Apple, the iPhone 6s Plus is now at the tippity top of the large device spectrum. At 192 grams, the iPhone 6s Plus is heavier than any other current-generation phone I’ve used. In comparison, the Motorola DROID Turbo 2 with a massive 3,760mAh battery weighs 169 grams (12 percent less than the iPhone 6s Plus) and the Galaxy S7 edge with a 3,600mAh power pack weighs 157 grams (18 percent less). The 6s Plus is also significantly longer (158.2 mm) than both the Turbo 2 (149.8 mm) and GS7 edge (150.9 mm), even though all three phones have similar or identical display sizes. (I’d bet anything that come next fall, Apple’s “iPhone 7 Plus” will be smaller overall and just a tad lighter than its chunky older bro.) 

Exceptions exist, of course, and on the other end of the gamut are devices such as Posh Mobile’s quirky new Micro SX240, which as the name implies, is really, really small. In fact, the Android phone is the “market’s smallest smartphone device.” I don’t know if it’s the smallest, but it sure is one tiny pixy of a phone.

posh mobile micro x s240 android smartphone Posh Mobile

Posh Mobile Micro XS240

Less focus on size with future phones

Gimmicks like Posh’s SX240 aside, the immediate future of smartphones won’t look all that different than today’s phones, at least from a size perspective. The displays on phablets are big enough for the majority of users, and it’s unlikely that phones will get much thinner — at least in the immediate future — due to the need to include addition components, such as wireless charging coils.

Device manufacturers will always strive to make phones lighter, but the big challenge there is again the battery. Today’s phones use more power than ever, and they need more battery life. That means larger power packs and often more weight. The Samsung Galaxy S7 edge, for example, is more diminutive overall than the GS6 edge+, but it weighs about 4 ounces more than its predecessor, due in no small part to the GS7 edge’s 20 percent larger 3,600mAh battery. 

Smartphone displays will continue to get higher resolution and more brightness enhancements, but they won’t likely get much larger than 5.5 inches or much smaller than 4 inches. In other words, the focus will shift away from size and toward other tweaks, such as power-management enhancements, faster radios, improved cameras, port consolidation and durability.

For a while there, the maxim bigger is better ran amok in the smartphone world. Before that, phone makers just wanted to build devices that didn’t require you to wear ridiculous holsters to carry them around. Moving forward, the emphasis will be on internal components, and though the shapes and sizes of tomorrow’s phones may morph in aesthetic ways, the most significant modifications will be under the hood. The days of pushing size boundaries, both large and small, have gone the way of the Treo.