Over the last few weeks I’ve been carrying with me a 4-inch, 5-inch and 6-inch smartphone. The 4-inch is an Apple iPhone 5s, the 5-inch is a Samsung Galaxy S4 and the 6-inch is the new Samsung Galaxy Note 3. I decided to carry these three smartphones and use them on a daily basis to try and get my head around the question of optimal screen size for a smartphone: The iPhone 5s and the Galaxy S4 are both characterized as true smartphones, while the 6-inch Note 3 falls into a new category the industry’s taken to calling “phablets” — smartphones that can double as small tablets.
Smaller-screen smartphones dominate the smartphone market today: over 90% of smartphones shipped have screens under five inches. In the U.S., smartphones with screens above 5-inches, such as the Samsung Galaxy Note 3, and a few others that fit the phablet tag have been slow to take off. While they haven’t caught the fancy of a U.S. audience, there’s real opportunity for them, especially in other parts of the world. Indeed, our research shows that about 40 million phablets have been sold worldwide, with upwards of 20 million sold in the Korean market alone.
Why the interest in Korea and other Asian markets for phablets? There are several reasons: First, for some the phablet serves the role of a smartphone as well as a tablet, which means that this sort of user can carry one device instead of two. Second, many people living in this region of the world have long commutes to work by train, bus or subway, and love to watch TV shows, play games, etc. during this trip. A larger screen makes this much more tolerable than trying to do these things on a smaller-screen smartphone.
The first thing I found using three different-sized smartphones, is that big is not always better. While the iPhone 4 and the Galaxy S4 both fit in my pockets, the Galaxy Note 3 did not. On the other hand, having a big screen to use for reading, games and just about anything else you do on a smartphone does make a difference. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the Note 3 became more of a small tablet for me and less a phone. In fact just the idea of holding a 6-inch smartphone to my ear seemed ridiculous, so with this device I always used a Bluetooth headset when making calls. I’d thought, going into this experiment, that I wouldn’t really use the stylus on the Galaxy Note 3, but I actually ended up using it a lot to jot down notes and for more precise navigation within apps, especially games. (My older, tired eyes appreciated the larger screen too.)
The other obvious upside if you go with a phablet and use it as both a smartphone and mini-tablet, is that it knock out the expense of buying a standalone tablet to complement your smartphone. Research confirms this is one of the reasons phablets have gained traction in some Asian countries: it’s cheaper to buy one device than two. That said, having a dedicated tablet (if you’re a heavy tablet user) with a bigger screen is usually the best option if you can afford it.
The basic question you have to ask yourself when thinking about smartphones with larger screens is this: How does something that’s really two slightly compromised things, but with that key all-in-one benefit, fit your lifestyle?
One of the reasons Apple hasn’t created a large screen iPhone is that they’ve concluded from lots of user feedback that using a smartphone with one hand is strongly preferred. Indeed, when using a phablet, it’s a two-hand operation — one hand holds the device, while the other’s used for input and navigation (it’s impossible to use a 6-inch screen one-handed unless you’re Lebron James). People take their phones out of their pockets or purses on average at least 15 times a day, and for many the number’s higher still. These people want quick access to their smartphones for answering calls, checking messages and email, and for using apps of all types.
While many do use two hands with their smartphones for playing games, most use one hand to type out quick messages, email responses and answer the phone, so one-handed operation is the norm. Samsung’s 5-inch Galaxy S4 can be used with one hand, and after cycling between these three devices, I think five inches is the largest screen most would find acceptable for one-handed operation.
There are lots of rumors floating around that Apple’s next iPhone will have a bigger screen, but I doubt it’ll happen, given those customer surveys — certainly not a 6-inch screen, anyway. More likely, we might see a 4.7-inch or 4.8-inch iPhone, to ensure it can still be used with one hand. Also, given the popularity of the 7.9-inch iPad mini, it’s doubtful Apple would shrink their tablet.
The adoption of phablets, especially in Asia, suggests that smartphones with 6-inch screens do have a place in the market. However, I doubt that place will ever amount to more than 5-7% of smartphones shipped. That, and I suspect they’ll never be a big hit in the U.S. market. Unless you really want or need a smartphone and tablet that’s one device, I believe a 4-inch or 5-inch smartphone is the optimal screen size for just about anyone.
Bajarin is the president of Creative Strategies Inc., a technology industry analysis and market-intelligence firm in Silicon Valley. He contributes to Big Picture, an opinion column that appears every Monday on TIME Tech.