Switched On: The fit and the pendulum

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

In the pre-smartphone era, the industry focused on making cell phones smaller. In the 2001 movie Zoolander, the title character played by Ben Stiller uses a humorously diminutive flip phone closer to the size of a Bluetooth headset than the StarTAC it parodies. But if the movie were being made today (IMDB lists a sequel slated for 2014), the fictional male model might hold up an iPad 2 or Toshiba Excite to his head: particularly since 2010, phones have been expanding to accommodate their sprawling displays.

Once upon a time, phones such as the 4.3-inch HTC HD2 and EVO 4G seemed wall-like. But those dimensions are workaday now, especially compared to the likes of the 4.5-inch Samsung Infuse, the 4.65-inch Galaxy Nexus and the 4.7-inch HTC Titan. These, too, will soon be dwarfed by the 5.3-inch, AT&T-bound Galaxy Note -- the very definition of that unfortunate moniker, phablet. That amply sized Android phone might be dismissed as a fringe device à la the ill-fated Dell Streak, but Samsung clearly had enough confidence in its potential that it forked over the sum required to promote it with a Super Bowl commercial.

Of course, there are phones with smaller displays, but their miniaturization is often driven by an effort to lower costs -- a compromise that tends to entail slower processors and less memory. One of the few handsets that made a statement in contrast to all this super-sizing was the HP Veer, the last phone the outfit released in the US. HP executives positioned it as an ideal companion for consumers who were increasingly migrating to tablets like its own short-lived TouchPad; this was a twenty-first century spin on the old assumption that phones would stay dumb while we used tethered PDAs. While the Veer sold as respectably as any webOS phone, it certainly was not enough to stem the tide of titans -- much less HP's fortunes in the smartphone world.

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AT&T Galaxy Note with LTE hands-on at CES 2012 (video)

If a phone's display can be too rich, can the phone itself be too thin? There's been at least one phone that implies they can, and from a company that recently tried to revive its reputation for making sliver-thin handsets. Just a few months ago,, Motorola turned heads with the 7.1mm-thick Droid RAZR, which cut a particularly trim figure for an LTE device. But even after adding a feature called Smart Controls to facilitate more seamless battery extension, it recently expanded the device's thickness to just under 9 mm with the Droid RAZR Maxx -- an otherwise identical phone packing a higher-capacity battery. In the past, of course, those wanting to eke more juice could simply buy an extended battery. But in this age of the integrated battery, greater stamina can justify a whole new model.

The Droid RAZR Maxx is hardly a brick; its bigger battery simply makes the back side near-flush with the bulge you'll find on the original. But with less than two millimeters separating the Droid RAZR from the RAZR Maxx, the original feels more like an engineering statement, in retrospect. As LTE chips become more power-efficient, there will be less of a need to compromise between perseverance and profile. Tall and thin should continue to set the agenda for some time to come. Derek Zoolander would approve.

Ross Rubin (@rossrubin) is executive director and principal analyst of the NPD Connected Intelligence service at The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.