Extra-large smart-phone screens don't always give best results

Jul 08, 2010 By Troy Wolverton
HTC EVO 4G

You've seen super-sized houses, super-sized cars, super-sized televisions and, of course, super-sized meals. Now come super-sized smart phones.

Apple's iPhone made the 3.5-inch-or-so touch screen standard fare for new smart phones soon after it debuted in 2007. Now, hoping to differentiate themselves from the pack -- and maybe even lure some would-be iPhone buyers -- some phone manufacturers are starting to debut models with 4.3-inch displays.

I've been testing out two of these jumbo models, both of which use Google's operating system: HTC's Evo 4G from Sprint and Motorola's upcoming Droid X, which will be offered by Verizon starting July 15. In general, I like them, as I have most recent Android phones.

But bigger isn't always better.

Because of the bigger display size, text on the screen -- in a Web page, say, or an e-mail message -- is noticeably larger than it is on an iPhone or HTC's Droid Incredible, which has a standard-sized screen. That's a good thing for those of us with weak eyesight or who are tired of squinting at too-small text.

However, the big screens are being touted as much for video as for simply displaying Web pages or e-mail. Both phones include video services or apps that allow users to watch television or movies on them.

But that's where the bigger screens actually come up short. While both phones' displays are bigger than those of other touch-screen smart phones, they have the same number of pixels as those other devices, or even fewer if compared to the new iPhone 4.

That means video and movies on the big-screen phones are noticeably less sharp and more pixilated than they are on the screens of smaller rivals, particularly the iPhone 4. And while you can record high-definition video using the 8-megapixel cameras built into both devices, you can't watch those videos in their native resolution on the phones.

Another consequence of the big screens is that the phones are significantly larger than other smart phones in both their physical dimensions and weight. They'll still fit in a shirt pocket, but I found that holding them in my hand or up to my ear felt awkward.

The two new phones have more in common than just their screens. They both run Android version 2.1, which means that neither one yet supports the new version of Adobe's Flash software that's been designed for mobile phones. The new Flash requires the just-released Android 2.2 operating system. Motorola says it plans to provide Flash and the latest version of Android to Droid X users in late summer; Sprint says it will provide the update "in the near future."

Despite their common features and software, the phones do have some distinguishing features. One of the Evo 4G's is mentioned in its name: the phone is one of the first to be able to connect to the Internet using Sprint's new "4G" data network.

Unfortunately, Sprint's 4G coverage currently is limited to 36 cities or metro areas scattered around 14 states, none closer than Las Vegas or Salem, Ore., so I wasn't able to test it out. But the company plans to bring its 4G network to the San Francisco Bay Area later this year.

Another thing that sets the Evo 4G apart from the Droid X is a forward-facing camera, much like the one on the iPhone 4. But using the Evo's camera to make a video call is nowhere near as easy as it is on the iPhone 4, because the Evo doesn't have a program like the iPhone's FaceTime, which allows you to switch a regular phone call to a video one instantly. Instead, you have to use third-party video-chat software -- and hope that the person you are trying to reach has the same software installed.

These limitations aside, I found a number of things I liked about the Evo 4G. The phone has the latest version of HTC's Sense user interface, which allows you to check your calendar or turn off the phone's Bluetooth antenna directly on one of the phone's home screens. Another thing to like about the Evo 4G is Sprint's subscription plans, which are among the best deals in the industry.

But Sprint's coverage can be spotty, both in the Bay Area and across the nation.

The Droid X has the advantage of superior coverage, which has long been Verizon's calling card. It also has a better screen. Although it's the same size and resolution as the screen on the Evo 4G, it displayed videos in warmer, more natural tones.

Similarly, pictures taken indoors with the Droid X's camera were much more natural in color than those taken with the Evo, even if viewed on a PC rather than on the phone's screen. And the Droid X had a more powerful flash than the Evo's, which seemed a bit underpowered. I could see shadows in the edges of a picture taken with the Evo's flash, but there were no such shadows on a Droid X picture.

Finally, I liked that the uses physical buttons in place of the touch-sensitive ones on the front of the Evo 4G. With the Evo, I frequently pressed the search or other buttons inadvertently while trying to read a Web page or watch a video.

But for most consumers, the question of which of these two devices is better is likely to be overshadowed by the issue of whether their jumbo screens make either of them worth getting over other . For me, anyway, they're not. I prefer the smaller, lighter HTC Droid Incredible and the 4. They both feel better in my hand and their screens look better to my eyes.

You may see things differently. HTC and Motorola are sure hoping you do.

Explore further: What's next for the smartphone in a rapidly changing market?

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User comments : 8

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dirk_bruere
5 / 5 (1) Jul 08, 2010
In other words, a bigger screen shows you that your movies are crap resolution. A bit like playing 128k MP3 on a $30k sound system.
NotU
not rated yet Jul 08, 2010
Actually, I would go with 'in other words', there are better reasons to look at a phone than it's screen size. The Droid X, for example, has me leaning towards it for the simple fact of being a more powerful version of the phone I have now (the original Droid). I don't know that the difference in power is great enough to be worth picking up a new phone this soon (I've only had my Droid for about a year), but it *is* the first phone since to catch my attention.
jsovine
5 / 5 (1) Jul 08, 2010
This article seems biased (if not sponsored).
DamienS
1 / 5 (1) Jul 08, 2010
So he's knocking the quality of 'extra large' screens simply on the basis of their physical size? This is silly. What if these large screens had a much denser dot pitch as in the iPhone 4? Surely they would then be better display devices? Bottom line - it's all about the resolution, not the physical size.
hagureinu
not rated yet Jul 09, 2010
can't see any science here. somebody just tells us the way he sees the world. why don't post somebody else's opinion as an "scientific" article?
Adriab
5 / 5 (1) Jul 09, 2010
The article is saying that most of the larger screens actually have a worse look compared to the smaller screens due to the resolutions.

@dirk_bruere you've got it backwards.

If they upped the resolution along with screen size then this article's argument would be moot.
Mayday
not rated yet Jul 09, 2010
The fun irony I see here is that, especially on a science site, all aspects of all smartphones are fairly easily understood, quantified and analyzed. It is in fact all right there in your hand to be measured and reported. There is very little mystery. Yet almost every person on the planet will make their smartphone choice for some political or pride-based reason.
Perhaps we have reached the point where the phone is smarter than the buyer?
williamjpalmer
not rated yet Jul 14, 2010
Since when did Physorg run opinion pieces?