Wrap-around security and the need to keep phones sized for homo sapiens

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I know it's probably terrible SEO tactics to link to a competitor, but in this case a) Windows Phone Central is a fine site (and hopefully they respect us too), and b) they're utterly wrong - in my humble opinion, on this particular issue. Yes, it's the thorny chestnut of phone form factors and, in particular a contention that 'it's time to redefine the smartphone: phablets are the future of mobile'. While I realise that this WPC article is probably just one voice among many writers, the concept itself is as interesting as it's possibly misplaced - and definitely worth exploring here, with quotes from past articles of mine on the subject and some new thoughts.

Quoting from the WPC article:

My Nokia Lumia 1520 is the perfect size device and everything else is just too small. Picking up a Lumia 1020 feels ridiculous and borrowing a friend’s Apple iPhone 5S to make a call feels like a joke. As the smartphone market evolves, I am no longer the only person to find a love for the “extra-large” phone. In a world where a 3.5” display was once gorgeous, 4.5” is the new standard and 5.5” is the future.

While you may think that your friend is just happy to see you – he is probably carrying a phablet. A combination of the word “phone” and “tablet, phablets are typically devices with 5-inch or larger displays. In the Windows Phone world, the Nokia Lumia 1520 rules as king with a 6-inch screen, but Samsung’s Galaxy Mega comes in as the largest mass produced device overall with a 6.3-inch screen.

Phablets are not just a passing fad though; in September of 2013, the International Data Corporation stated that phablets “overtook shipments of both laptops and tablets in Asian in the second quarter of 2013”. Clothing companies are also noticing the changes; in April of 2013, the vice president of Dockers clothing stated that they had noticed the trend in larger phones and have begun to resize the size of their pants pockets “to accommodate the growing size of smartphones”.

Ah yes, and the obligatory Mae West misquote in there too...(!) The article goes on to make the good point that as the use case for our smartphones changes - web browing, media consumption, gaming - it's entirely natural for the size of the screens, and therefore the size of the devices, to rise, with (as you see above) the Lumia 1520 quoted as the new 'perfect size device'.

1520 sunlight

But there's a big problem with this. While the 1520 may well be the perfect size for the function it's being asked to do, there's no way that it's the perfect size to carry around all day and handle securely. For anyone except a six foot eight, 16 stone giant with huge hands.

Because however much the size of smartphones/phablets changes, there's one thing that doesn't change, and that's the size of the human hand. As linked above, the pocket size of some clothing can be altered, but your palm, thumb and fingers are going to stay the same size.

'But I can use the 1520 perfectly!', you might protest. Yes, indeed, it's easy enough to hold in one palm/hand and use by tapping and swiping away with the other. But try using the 1520 while holding onto a tube/metro support, try using it while carrying a briefcase or shopping or holding a kid's hand. Moreover, simply try walking down the street briskly with such a phablet, gripping it however you can - does it feel like you're about to drop it? Unless you have massive hands then the answer is yes - you have to encase such a device, you have to dedicate two hands to it and you have to pocket it whenever possible.

In fact, I ranted on much the same lines over a year ago here, as did David (quoted), focussing on usability:

It has been telling examining the array of smartphones on my desk and picking them all up in turn. The human hand hasn't changed its size much in the last millennia and so the 'optimum' size of handheld devices also shouldn't change. You may remember David's article here four months ago: Don't Supersize my Smartphone? Here's a quote:

The problem I couldn't overcome [with the Lumia 900] was that of reaching with my thumb. For example, reaching for the back button (in the lower left corner of the device's face) while holding the device in my right hand. My hand span is such that trying to cover the entire face of the Lumia 900 meant I had to perch the device atop my little finger while loosely supporting the back with the rest of my fingers. When gripping the phone properly there were areas, including the back button, that my thumb just couldn't reach.

This seemed to highlight the line that shouldn't be crossed; that is, when the user experiences physical discomfort or has to perform some sort of precarious articulation to use the phone single handed. That should be the measure of when a device is too big for someone. Conversely, if you have larger hands and you have to contort your thumb to reach the parts of the screen nearest to your hand, the device is too small for you.

A simple test to see if a phone fits your hand is if you can comfortably wrap your hand around the device and touch the tip of your thumb and middle finger without discomfort or dropping the phone.

Indeed. Try it on your own phone right now. On the standard-sized Lumias (920, 1020, etc.) I can touch the two digits together and, as a result, I can effect a 'wrap-around' grip when carrying the phone and walking or running and at no point does the phone feel like it's about to slip.

Swap in the Lumia 1320 (which I reviewed here) or 1520 (which Rafe reviewed here and I reviewed for The Phones Show here) phablets and there's constant awareness of 'I'm carrying something droppable, I've got to be really careful here', with the resulting stress and worry. Plus, inevitably, you will drop it every now and then.

One solution is to accept the large size, but compensate for the worry and dropability by adding a TPU case, or similar - at which point your already over-sized phablet just got even larger.

In fairness, the boundaries between what is comfortable to grip and what is too large (and bearing in mind I have a very 'average' sized hand) have moved slightly. When I wrote the original article I felt that the Lumia 920, with 4.5" screen was over the limit:

An uncomfortable grip means you're more likely to drop the phone, less likely to enjoy carrying it, and so on. For example, I've taken a lot of photos with the Lumia 920 over the Christmas period and I always felt I was having to manhandle something large and heavy. The Galaxy [Note] devices are even worse, as they're so light and thin that they're far too easy to drop, once you factor in taking calls, snapping quick photos, pausing music, while on the go, out with shopping, kids, chores, events, and getting into and out of cars, trains, and chairs. You get the idea...

...You see, if a smartphone is just a small tablet, we spend our lives molly-coddling it, making sure it doesn't get smashed up, using it with our heads down in a web article or video or game. If a smartphone's form factor, as above, is geared more for genuinely mobile, perhaps one-handed, slip-it-in-any-pocket use, then different atrributes come to the fore.

Whereas I now find that I can reach may fingers around the 920, so either my grip is becoming more tolerant or flexible or I'm accepting a slightly lower level of grip security. Ditto the Motorola Moto X, by the way, with 4.7" screen and smaller bezels. In fact, with Windows Phone 8.1 supporting virtual on-screen controls, there's physically no reason why we couldn't see something of the size of the Lumia 920 or 925, but with 5" screen.

Lumia 920 'in hand', fingers and thumb touching

What? Stop the press? It just got announced - this is, in fact, the Lumia 930, albeit without the curved edges from the 920, for example, meaning that it'll be a slightly longer stretch again to get fingers and thumb around and touching. But it'll be close, and those with larger than average hands will have no problem passing my test, quoted above.

But no bigger, please. Yes, there's the drive to ever larger screens, to accommodate every changing use cases, and that's all well and good. But equally there's a need to maintain compatibility. With the human hand, whose size hasn't changed significantly for a very long time.

Assuming that your smartphone/phablet really is going to be your companion in every day life, carried and used in every circumstance, in every situation, then doesn't it make sense to compromise on absolute size in order to make sure it doesn't get in the way of truly mobile usability, or, worse, risk being fumbled, dropped or sat on?

Comments welcome, of course, this remains a subjective area for homo sapiens, a species which continues to arrive in all shapes and sizes!