Before 2007: Small is a virtue
We almost need a reminder that much of the smartphone's development before 2007 reflected a drive to shrink the phone, not make it bigger. A desire to slim down the body sometimes took the screen along for the ride, with relatively few objections from buyers who were often just happy to have a smartphone in the first place. The BlackBerry's display shrank from a 3-inch screen on the 5810 to 2.6 inches on the 6200 series, but sales didn't exactly slow down. There were exceptions like the 3.7-inch HTC Universal, too. When even the (now ironically named) TyTN had a 2.8-inch display, however, it's safe to say screen size didn't play nearly as much of a role as it does now.
To some extent, this was dictated by the technology. Bigger displays were more expensive to make than they are today, and they demanded battery power that phones couldn't always supply. Moreover, the resistive touchscreens of the day weren't making a convincing case for touch input as a whole -- anyone who's had to stab multiple times at an unresponsive panel will know why. Combine that with interfaces that often weren't optimized for finger touch, and it's not surprising that phone makers sometimes decided it was easier to combine a smaller screen with a directional pad, a keyboard or both. This was the heyday of the BlackBerry, Nokia's N series and the Palm Treo, when many of us were just getting used to email on our phones.
2007-2009: The iPhone and early Android
Whatever your platform allegiances, it's hard to dispute the significance of the iPhone's January 2007 announcement in changing our expectations for smartphone screens. Never mind that Steve Jobs describing the device's 3.5-inch LCD as "giant" seems quaint several years later -- the iPhone's support for capacitive multi-touch, and the more intuitive interface that came with it, helped justify replacing hardware buttons with a larger display. Apple also highlighted full web browsing and advanced media playback, both tasks that benefited from a larger screen.
There weren't any immediate responses in 2007, if only because most competitors already had products in mid-development. The HTC Touch was locked in at 2.8 inches, and Palm was going even smaller with the Centro's 2.2-inch screen. In 2008 and 2009, however, the battle of bigger displays was starting in earnest as companies raced to introduce modern touchscreen phones of their own. Both the BlackBerry Storm and T-Mobile G1 carried 3.2-inch screens. Nokia followed the conventional, 2.8-inch N96 with the touch-focused, 3.5-inch N97. Others even staked the survival of their brands on bigger displays, as complete overhauls of their OS platforms revolved around truly touch-native interfaces. Motorola dropped its BlackBerry-like, Windows Mobile-based Q9 series for the 3.7-inch Droid and the Palm Pre jumped to 3.1 inches after years of 2.5-inch Treos. HTC pushed the limits toward the end of this period with the 4.3-inch HD2 -- a device that seemed like an oversized outlier in late 2009, but it would set the tone for 2010. It was safe to say that any major smartphone builder worth its salt had at least a 3-inch model going into the new decade.
2010: The Android screen size explosion
Android was taking off in the wake of the Motorola Droid, and the software's support for both finger touch and multiple resolutions effectively opened the floodgates for companies wanting to one-up each other with bigger screens across more of their lineups. HTC matched Motorola with the 3.7-inch Desire, Nexus One and Droid Incredible earlier in 2010, and expanded its 4.3-inch line to include the Desire HD in October. Motorola continued a hit streak with the 4.3-inch Droid X. Samsung wasn't quite as aggressive as its peers, but there's no denying that the 4-inch Galaxy S served as a benchmark for the entire industry, if just through sheer ubiquity. When it was available on seemingly every carrier and well-regarded for both its vibrant display and its high performance, there was a good chance that many smartphone buyers at least considered a Galaxy S if they weren't dead-set on another device. Samsung managed to sell 10 million units of the flagship smartphone by the start of 2011, proving that 4-inch or larger phones could be popular.
We even got a peek at how smartphones would look two years down the road, although we didn't realize it at first.
We even got a peek at how smartphones would look two years down the road, although we didn't realize it at first. LG's 4.8-inch, Intel-packing GW990 prototype was labeled as a Mobile Internet Device because it was so much larger than its contemporaries; we had a hard time even believing that it could be a smartphone, even though the necessary cellular ingredients were in place. Nevertheless, the quickly scuttled design served as an unofficial template for future phones by showing how the web and video could benefit from a large canvas. And who can forget the 5-inch Dell Streak? While a chunky frame, cellular data in only some models and a misplaced emphasis on tablet-like software kept the Streak from setting the world on fire, it would prove to be prophetic. It suggested that phones would eventually turn into big-screened data devices that just happened to take phone calls. As often as we teased those who insisted Dell's crossover was pocketable, they had foresight that would have been immensely valuable to phone makers.
Not every designer hopped on the bandwagon. Apple, Nokia, Palm and RIM mostly stayed the course on screen size in 2010. However, this conservatism wasn't necessarily a setback at the time. Apple had no trouble selling the iPhone 4 with an extra-sharp 3.5-inch display, and it was even defensive about its choice: Jobs is well-known for insisting at the time that phones needed to be usable with one hand, and app compatibility was better served by maintaining the status quos for resolution and size. Palm and other companies bleeding market share had far more on their plates to worry about than mere phone dimensions, even if short-lived devices like the Pre 3 signaled intentions to catch up. Nonetheless, developments during the year would set the stage for the size debate ahead. There were now multiple phones that really needed two hands to work, with no signs of the trend slowing down.
2011: Dawn of the supersized phone
And then the gloves came off. Almost as soon as 2011 began, 4.3-inch smartphones were in the pipeline from most major manufacturers, including Samsung's platform-defining Galaxy S II. Only it didn't stop there: we saw Samsung's 4.5-inch Infuse 4G eclipsed by the 4.65-inch Galaxy Nexus, and HTC rolled out 4.7-inch phones like the Sensation XL and Titan. The rush toward ever-larger phones was sometimes dictated as much by the extreme battery demands of early LTE as it was corporate one-upmanship -- just ask any long-suffering Thunderbolt owner -- but it ultimately led to a market where phones that seemed enormous a year earlier were suddenly modest.
The Galaxy Note's 5.3-inch screen and pen pushed it so far past smartphone conventions that it popularized a new term -- like it or not, the "phablet" badge gained wider acceptance.
All this doesn't even include Samsung's original Galaxy Note. Its 5.3-inch screen and pen pushed it so far past smartphone conventions that it popularized a new term -- like it or not, the "phablet" badge gained wider acceptance after the Note's arrival in October 2011. It was arguably too big to comfortably use one-handed, like the Streak, but faster hardware, a better display and smartly optimized software kept it from becoming a specialist device. The Note would go on to become one of Samsung's best-selling smartphones during the period, and it would ultimately spawn a horde of me-too devices.
That breakneck pace in screen growth made the exceptions (voluntary or otherwise) all the more visible. While Apple had no shortage of customers for the iPhone 4S, the gap between the iPhone's 3.5-inch LCD and that of its rapidly growing competition was becoming glaringly obvious to those who wanted as much screen area as possible. The difference was even more apparent in the BlackBerry line, where 3.2 inches was still the maximum. Meanwhile, Nokia was mostly saved by its full-steam-ahead transition to Windows Phone, where a brief regression from four inches in Symbian phones to 3.7 inches in the Lumia 800 was accompanied by a more sophisticated platform that may well have rescued the company. Whatever the arguments about the value of screen size, the goalposts for common sizes were shifting.
2012: Huge is the new normal
By 2012, even those who hadn't rushed to embrace larger displays had them on deck. Nokia proved it could grow with the 4.3-inch Lumia 900 and, later, the 4.5-inch Lumia 920. Apple also answered a longstanding call for a bigger screen with the 4-inch iPhone 5 -- a comparatively modest leap, but an acknowledgment that the market had changed since the iPhone first arrived. The conservative increase was once again justified by Apple's view that a phone had to be usable with one hand.
Companies using large screens were increasingly self-conscious of the design limits. A big screen had to work well, not just serve as a bragging right.
Elsewhere, screen dimensions didn't grow up so much as grow out. Sizes once thought extreme were now making their way into thoroughly ordinary devices. Remember how the GW990's 4.8-inch screen seemed impossibly large in 2010? By 2012, Samsung's Galaxy S III made that size commonplace. Many other predominantly Android-based phones, such as the HTC One X, LG Optimus G and Sony Xperia T, often came close at 4.6 or 4.7 inches. The 4.3-inch displays we'd been awed by in 2010 were more often reserved for mid-range handsets like the One S and Motorola's Droid RAZR M. Thankfully, many of the companies using large screens were increasingly self-conscious of the design limits. A big screen had to work well, not just serve as a bragging right. Motorola and Samsung respectively introduced the Droid RAZR HD and Galaxy S III by emphasizing how efficiently they used screen space, occupying little, if any, more total area than their ancestors.
The extra-large category saw a similar trend. LG only had limited success in countering the Galaxy Note with the overly squat, 5-inch Optimus Vu, but Samsung's own 5.5-inch Galaxy Note II was considerably smarter. While it was more expansive than its ancestor, the Note II was easier to hold, better justified its pen and included settings to make one-handed use feasible for some tasks. Sometimes that improved ergonomic design was the very selling point, as with Pantech's Vega R3 -- its one-handed grip was a relative novelty where such a notion was once a certainty.
Toward the end of the year, we'd see a trend that would spill into 2013: the 5-inch, 1080p smartphone. HTC's Droid DNA justified its larger size not through pens or other special tricks, but through sheer resolution. It was hard to deny the at least superficial appeal of a phone with as many pixels as the 55-inch TV in the den, even if that device was scarcely smaller than the Galaxy Note from a year earlier.
2013: Where do we go from here?
While we're just weeks into 2013 as of this writing, a pattern is quickly forming. The once-rare 5-inch smartphone is already abundant with the presence of the Huawei Ascend D2, Sony Xperia Z / ZL and ZTE Grand S. LG's Optimus G Pro is coming in both 5-inch and Samsung-rivaling 5.5-inch flavors. And then there are the 5.7-inch ZTE Grand Memo and 6.1-inch Huawei Ascend Mate -- devices so expansive that they're scarcely an inch away from full-fledged tablets like the Nexus 7. If there's a point where manufacturers back off, we haven't yet reached it.
As such, it's doubtful that we'll hear a different tune from many of those who have yet to show key parts of their smartphone lineups this year. Apple and BlackBerry are the two companies that haven't pushed their phones to 4.3 inches or beyond, but they've purposefully drawn lines in the sand that they won't cross, at least not in the near future. They have the advantages of OS differences and brand cachet to explain their more moderate screen sizes. Others won't necessarily have that luxury if they're competing mostly on hardware features, however. "Go big or go home" is more than just a truism in this field.
We wouldn't say the seeming arms race is a problem, however. Most of the phones we've tried so far include design traits that offset their massive surfaces, such as narrow edges and curved backs. We wouldn't have believed that the Xperia ZL would be comfortable if you'd told us the year before, for example. Samsung's software optimization for single-hand use may be an admission that its hardware design is stretching the limits of human hands, but it's also a way to get the advantages of a big device without requiring both hands at all times.
Moreover, the primary purposes of smartphones have clearly changed. Early on, they were phones first, and data devices second. The various advents of modern apps, browsing and media shifted the focus enough that voice is almost incidental today. Our smartphones are now pocket computers, and they're often our cameras and GPS units, too. Until and unless wearable computing replaces the smartphone, a bigger screen helps us process the glut of information we face in a day, and frequently provides a source of entertainment when it's time to relax. There's undeniably a threshold at which smartphone builders will have to relent: no one's about to stuff a Galaxy Tab into their pocket. Likewise, there's a good chance we'll still see smaller devices for those who can't (or won't) switch to a phone that's too big for their hands or pockets. Still, the past few years have taught us not to make too many assumptions -- through technology and shifting tastes, what's an extraordinary screen one year often becomes run-of-the-mill fare the next.