Why Android Handsets Are Bigger Than the iPhone

The iPhone screen is, and probably always will be, 3.5 inches. But Android handsets have gotten enormous over the last year or two, to the point where 4.3 inches feels standard, if not a bit small. Why is that?

We've already heard a good explanation as to why the iPhone screen has stayed at 3.5 inches. Using it with one hand, your thumb can reach pretty much any area of the screen as you walk down the street staring at Google maps. That's great.

But, uh, why hasn't the same design principle been applied to Android devices? Why is 4.3 inches now such a standard size for Android handsets? Eh?

There are two interesting theories that have cropped up. The first, suggested by Jin Kim, cites the the way in which Android renders its display as the cause of the growth. On his blog he writes:

Android OEMs and Google responded to the 3.5-inch 960×640 Retina display by improving the pixel format to 1280×720. But because Android renders text and graphics like Windows or OS X, increasing resolution above 320 ppi means smaller UI elements. The display had to grow in size to compensate for shrinking UI elements.

Basically, the way iOS uses its increased resolution is to increase the clarity and sharpness of what it displays. Because of the way Android's rendering engine is currently set up on most phones, matching the iPhone's resolution but keeping the same 3.5-inch screen size would make the icons and text about one fourth smaller. (Note that it is possible for Android devices to rival the retina display clarity, and some recent phones like the HTC Rezound have higher pixel density than the iPhone, but they're in the minority.)

That would make text uncomfortably small and reduce the size of on-screen tap targets. To match iPhone resolution and maintain usability, while still using the same rendering techniques, Android phones will always have to be bigger, suggests Kim.

John Gruber offers an alternative, and perhaps complementary, suggestion. He argues that the current rash of larger Android phones is a result of accommodating LTE. On his blog he writes:

Currently-available LTE chipsets are physically bigger (AnandTech made the case months ago that none of them would fit in the iPhone 4/4S case design), and because they're so power-hungry, they require bigger batteries. Thicker phones aren't going to fly. Thus: wider and taller phones with displays expanding to fill the surface.

The slight flaw in this argument is that we saw some Android devices with screens over 4 inches before LTE was around. But the fact that some folks always associate bigger screens with higher quality could have driven demand for them, and what we're seeing now, with most Android phones growing in screen size, could be down to LTE support. If this explanation is correct, we might expect to see Android devices shrink as LTE chipsets get smaller.

One final thought: with the iPhone still market-leader, I think it's fair to say that people neither desperately want nor need massive screens on their phones. Size: it doesn't matter, guys. [Jin Kim and John Gruber]