Smartphones: Mine is bigger than yours

Last Updated: Sat, Mar 01, 2014 05:46 hrs

Smartphones are going against one of the long-held rules in portable electronics, that smaller is better.

Year by year, computers, storage devices and music players have shed size and weight. And for decades, it has been happening with cellphones, too.

But now cellphones, and smartphones in particular, are going the way of the television: They just keep getting bigger and bigger. And people keep buying them.

The trend became even more apparent this week, as handset makers introduced a number of big-screen smartphones - from five diagonal inches to more than seven inches - at the Mobile World Congress trade show in Barcelona, Spain.

Samsung Electronics, Sony and the Chinese manufacturers Huawei and ZTE, among others, are all betting that consumers find images and video to be more vivid and engaging on a bigger screen, and that they may prefer to carry a larger phone instead of both a smartphone and a tablet.

The turn to bigger screens is a sharp departure from the dominant strategy of phone makers just a few years ago, when critics often and loudly mocked devices with big screens, joking that people would never buy these because they would not fit in the pockets of tight hipster jeans, or because people would not want to be seen clutching big devices to their skulls.

But Samsung, the No. 1 phone maker in the world, pushed hard on phones with bigger screens, and the effort has paid off with millions of units sold, particularly in Asia.

Samsung has said its research found that people liked bigger-screen phones because they wanted a device that was good for handwriting, drawing and sharing notes. Asian-language speakers found it easier to write characters on a device using a pen rather than typing.

Now Samsung and other phone makers believe they will find a more receptive audience outside Asia, too, including in the US and Europe.

"The cultural difference is not much," said Lee Young-hee, head of marketing for Samsung's mobile division. "Most people like the bigger display - it's more and more welcomed by people around the world."

Demand for big-screen phones is clearly strong. IDC, the research firm, estimates that at least 20 percent of all smartphones shipped last year in China, the largest smartphone market in the world, were five inches or larger. It predicts that number will balloon to 50 per cent by 2017.

IDC also recently predicted that the growth of tablet sales would slow this year, partly because many people are gravitating toward larger phones and shifting away from smaller tablets. "In some markets consumers are already making the choice to buy a large smartphone rather than buying a small tablet," said Tom Mainelli, an IDC research director who follows tablets.

The most extreme example of a big phone announced this week came from Huawei, which introduced the MediaPad X1, a smartphone with a seven-inch screen, usually a size used in tablets. Because the device has a phone connection, Huawei calls it a phablet.

Roland Sladek, a vice-president for international media affairs at Huawei, said the company found that people liked to spend at least an hour a day on mobile devices, and that has driven the demand for larger screens.

Other makers are pushing slightly smaller versions. Samsung this week introduced the Galaxy S5, its latest flagship smartphone, which, at 5.1 diagonal inches, is just a bit bigger than its predecessor. Sony unveiled the Xperia Z2, a 5.2-incher. ZTE introduced the Grand Memo II, a six-inch phone; last month it introduced the Boost Max, a 5.7-incher that the company hopes will help it gain some traction among American buyers.

"In the US, people live in the big house, drive a big car and I think they'll also like big phones," Lixin Cheng, chief executive of ZTE's American division, said in an interview.


* Asian-language speakers find it easier to write characters on a big-screen phones using a pen

* The turn to these is a departure from the strategy of makers a few years ago

* Critics had said these would not fit in the pockets of tight hipster jeans

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