By John Gruber
The first subscription service for Mac apps. No ads, paid upgrades, in-app purchases or hidden costs. Start your free trial.
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 desktop OSes (e.g. Windows, OS X) increasing resolution above 320 ppi means smaller UI elements. The display had to grow in size to compensate for shrinking UI elements. iOS renders the Retina display not by shrinking UI elements by one fourth but by doubling clarity and sharpness. Unless Google adds an additional “DPI level” beyond XHDPI, Android smartphones that match or beat the iPhone 4/4S in resolution will always be bigger, much bigger.
Kim makes a good case that an Android phone with a 3.5-inch display and 300+ pixels per inch resolution would reduce on-screen tap targets (like buttons) and text to an uncomfortably small size.
A different theory occurred to me over the weekend. To wit: that Android smartphones have grown enormously in order to accommodate LTE. 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.
What made me think of this was the Lumia 900 Nokia unveiled at CES. The weeks-old Lumia 800 is roughly iPhone-sized, with a 3.7-inch display — and feels glorious in hand. The 900 has a 4.3-inch display, but only the same number of pixels as the 800 (and, I believe, all WP7 devices to date): 800 × 480. Why make the 900 so much bigger than the 800? The biggest technical difference is that the 900 supports LTE and the 800 does not.
I know there are people who really do prefer these bigger 4.5-inch displays — that even if the phones don’t pack more pixels and thus show more information, some people really do think bigger is better. And a phone like the Galaxy Nexus, with a 1280 × 720 pixel count, is not just physically bigger but packs more pixels, too.
But the iPhone’s continuing chart-topping success is proof that there is, to say the least, significant demand for smaller phones too. Variety is a much touted advantage of the Android model: different keyboards, different materials, different display technologies, and different form factors. So I’m sure that we would have some 4- and 5-inch display Android handsets on the market today no matter what the technical limitations of LTE. (Indeed, we started seeing these bigger-than-4-inch Android displays before any of them supported LTE.)
What I’m saying is, if LTE’s current chipset sizes and power requirements are not forcing handset makers to go with these bigger-than-4-inch display form factors, then where are the 3.5-inch display iPhone-sized Android (or Windows) phones that support LTE?
Shopping for smart phones on Verizon’s website seems to support my theory. All their smartphones which support LTE have displays bigger than 4 inches; all (or at least most — I can’t say I looked at every single one) of their smart phones which don’t support LTE have displays smaller than 4 inches.
If I’m right, we will start seeing smaller LTE Android handset sets a year or so from now, and the tech press will collectively forget the “bigger is inherently better” mindset that pervades phone reviews today.