Many consumers want beefier smartphones

New York TimesMarch 16, 2013 


The Samsung Galaxy S IV on display at Radio City Music Hall in New York, March 14, 2013.


The cellphone is growing up literally.

After years of craving the slimmest, smallest, sleekest devices, many cellphone users now want their phones a bit beefier.

Since using a cellphone to talk to another person has almost become secondary, consumers are snapping up devices that have bigger screens – to watch movies, read electronic books, surf the Web, and play games. And in their quest to find the perfect size, device-makers are designing gadgets that blur the line between tablets and pocket-sized phones.

The latest plus-size smartphone to hit the market is the Galaxy S4, which Samsung unveiled in New York City Thursday night. The S4 has a 5-inch screen, 25 percent larger than the display on the iPhone 5, and is Samsung’s latest attempt to challenge Apple’s dominant smartphone.

And it may be working. Apple is beginning to lose some customers who say bigger is simply better.

“Once you get used to the bigger screen, then you can’t go back,” said Andrew Yu, who runs a mobile development startup, Modo Labs Inc. in Cambridge, and swapped his iPhone for a Samsung Galaxy S3 last year.

He and other converts are gravitating toward larger screens because they can access high-quality video just about everywhere or play video games with graphics that rival console sets. Moreover, every new generation of smartphone is faster and has a sharper display than the previous.

“Looking at the larger new screens, I was like, ‘Boy, these machines are really getting sexy,’” said James Brooks, another recent Galaxy convert and a developer at HeyWire, a Kendall Square start-up.

Combining the computing and viewing prowess of a table with the convenience and functionality of a smartphone, the Galaxy seemed perfectly sized to Brooks: just big enough to cozy up to at night to read, but not too bulky.

“This is like holding a book in my hand,” Brooks said. “With the iPhone, it’s a little too small for comfort.”

Brooks also owns an iPad. Remember them? They were a marvel of technology and design when they first debuted barely three years ago. “I’ve basically given it to my 6-year-old,” he said.

The new Galaxy S4 is far from the biggest phone on the market. Whoppers include the Huawei Ascend Mate (6.1 inches), LG Optimus (5.5 inches), and the HTC Butterfly (5 inches) – all with screens at least an inch larger than the iPhone 5 display.

But they do take some getting used to, especially for those with smaller hands.

“You can’t reach the top left corner with your thumb,” said Christian Montalvo, a Boston College senior who recently switched to the bigger Galaxy smartphone.

But don’t expect cellphones to exponentially get larger, said Ramon Llamas, mobile phone research manager at International Data Corp. in Framingham. At some point, they would become just too big.

“You are going to tell me that you’re going to carry an 8-inch phone in your pocket? Of course not,” said Llamas.

Nonetheless, the S4 is but the latest example of how Samsung and other makers of Android-based devices continue to challenge Apple’s top status. Collectively, Samsung’s various models have outsold Apple in the worldwide market, shipping 205 million units last year, according the Gartner Inc., a research firm. Apple has the second largest market share, with 130 million iPhone sales.

Apple is not in jeopardy yet. It still outsells any one individual Android phone, a sign many consumers are not ready for a big phone just yet, said Michael Gartenberg, research director for Gartner.

“The fact that the iPhone remains the best-selling phone means that consumers are still buying into the perception that bigger isn’t necessarily better,” he said.

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