When a phone is not a phone

A brief taxonomy of mobile computing devices.

I have been writing a post about my Nexus 5 phone and came across a theory: the Nexus 5 is not, in fact, a phone.

I suggest that modern mobile computers that are between smartwatches and tablets in size can be roughly split into two categories:

  1. “Phone” – use mainly for text and voice, single-handed, will be dropped, will be used on the go
  2. “Mobile device” – two-handed, used in safe locations, seated or at least securely standing

Size impacts how you use a device. It is difficult to use a device bigger than early smartphones one-handed. The situation isn’t helped by slippery surfaces like glass or metal on both sides of many new phones. If you regularly attempt to pull a large smartphone out of a pocket while walking or cycling, you’ll drop it eventually.

And while phones were designed to be dropped with minimum damage – compact shape, non-structural outer body, rounded plastic corners that take in most of the crash energy, even battery covers that pop off – modern devices might as well be designed to take maximum damage when dropped, with rigid materials throughout and functional edge-to-edge glass on a large front face.

Fragile smartphones that don’t take being dropped well have been a problem for almost a decade now and there’s little to indicate that the situation is getting better. Workarounds include protective or grippy cases, but I would much rather just have a phone that doesn’t need a case in the first place. I understand their value for specialized needs or carrying methods – for couriers or sport – but I just want to send short text messages and check next bus time a couple of times a day.

Here is a small selection of phones and mobile devices released over the past two decades:

model year height
face area
(sq cm)
Traditional mobile phones
Nokia 3210 1999 124 51 16.7 63 105
Nokia 3310 2000 113 48 22 54 119
Nokia 6100 2002 102 44 13.5 44 59
Motorola Razr V3 2004 98 53 14 52 73
Nokia 1110 2005 104 44 17 46 78
Motorola Razr2 V9 2007 103 53 11.9 55 65
Nokia 105 2015 109 46 14.1 49 70
SC 225 2016 106 44 14 47 65
Nokia 150 2017 118 50 13.5 59 80
Nokia 3310 (new) 2017 116 51 12.8 59 75
Early mobile devices
N-Gage 2003 134 70 20 94 139
Nokia N800 2007 144 75 13/18 108 150
Nokia N810 2008 128 72 14 92 129
Dell Streak 2010 153 79 10 121 121
Smartphones (or marketed as smartphones)
Pearl 2006 107 50 14.5 54 76
iPhone 2007 115 61 11.6 70 81
Nexus One 2010 119 60 11.5 71 82
iPhone 3GS 2010 115 62 12.3 71 88
Nexus S 2011 124 63 10.9 78 85
iPhone 5 2012 124 59 7.6 73 55
Nexus 5 2013 138 69 8.6 95 82
Nexus 6P 2015 159 78 7.3 124 90
iPhone SE 2016 124 59 7.6 73 55
Google Pixel 2016 144 69 8.5 100 85
iPhone 7 2016 138 67 7.1 93 66
Scatter plot showing face area of selected phones, smartphones, and mobile devices on X axis and release year of the device on Y axis. Trend within smartphones is for larger face areas rising up to 80-100 sq cm in 2016, trend within phones ("dumbphones") is for face area relatively constant around 50-60 sq cm.

Face area (height times width) of phones plotted by release year.
I didn’t realize the Nexus 5 was actually taller than the N810 until I made this chart.

Scatter plot showing volume of selected phones, smartphones, and mobile devices on X axis and release year of the device on Y axis. Trend is mostly flat around 70-90 cc since 2005.

Volume (height times width times thickness) of phones plotted by release year.
Bonus question: discuss the impact of volume on battery capacity.

The Nokia 3210, released in 1999, was the first mass-market phone with an internal antenna and so arguably a start of the current slab format. It was 124×51 mm. Phones shrunk down a bit over the next decade, with mainstream phones at around 100-105×45-50 mm (resulting in a face area around 45-55 sq cm) before smartphones really ate the market. Thickness shrank notably, and overall phone volumes fell by around 30%.

The Blackberry Pearl 8100, released in 2006 as a notably small smartphone, was 107×50 mm, comparable in size to a contemporary Motorola Razr.

The original iPhone was 115×61 mm, slightly bigger, with a face area about 25% larger than a Razr.

Nexus One became available in January 2010, with a 3.7″ screen and 119×60 mm face. At the time, the flagship iPhone was the 3GS, with a 3.5″ screen and still measuring 115×62 mm. The iPhone wouldn’t go past 3.5″ screen until the iPhone 5 in late 2012 (4″, 124×59 mm).

I remember in 2009-2011, when Android phones started getting bigger, the Apple camp was adamant that 3.5″ was the perfect size (here is one such argument from October 2011), and I was commenting that I was happy to have the choice between 3.5″ and 3.7″.

I remember thinking in late 2011 that my partner’s Nexus S (4″ screen, 124×63 mm) was a bit too big. I remember arranging icons on my Nexus One screen so that they would be in an optimal arc for activating with my thumb.

Things got a little silly from there.

Nokia N-Gage, the original 2003 taco phone, had a rounded 134×70 mm face. Nokia N800 “internet tablet”, which would have been laughable to use as a phone in 2008, was 144×75 mm, and even the shrunk N810 at 128×72 mm (92 sq cm) felt too big to use as a handheld phone. These were two-handed devices. The Dell Streak was mocked as a silly-big “phablet” in 2010, measuring 153×79 mm.

But apparently the mocking didn’t stop the drive to larger devices. Over the past couple of years, phones grew to about 90-100 sq cm face area for “normal” phones, and “large” phones are over 120 sq cm. Volumes were held reasonably constant with shrinking thickness, but thinness doesn’t help the ergonomics of grabbing and holding the device much.

Nexus 5 went to 4.95″ screen and 138×69 mm. I was assigned a Nexus 6P from work; it is silly-big with a 5.7″ screen and a 159×78 mm face.

In 2016, “compact” Android phones had screens of around 4.5″ and dimensions around 130×65 mm. In early 2017, the smallest new iPhone is a direct descendant of the five-year-old iPhone 5 design — a 4″ screen and a 124×59 mm (72.5 sq cm) face — and it is noted as being particularly small. The smaller of the Android flagships has a 5″ screen and is 144×69 mm (100 sq cm); the smaller of the iPhone flagships has a 4.7″ screen and is 138×67 mm (93 sq cm).

Me, I just want a Razr/1110/Pearl-sized 105×50 mm phone. I might even settle for a Nexus One/iPhone-sized 120×60 mm phone. But if you can’t quite make it phone-sized, at least make it phone-durable.