The fable of the one-handed phablet

For most of the last three years, I have been fighting a battle against “phablets” and losing it badly. Not only have people flocked to buy supersized phones after each negative review I hand down, the dimensions of these displays have steadily crept up.

Phone size inflationThe 5.3-inch screen of the first Samsung Galaxy Note, the one that I mocked at the time for its enormousness, now ranks as just a bit over medium-sized. And that 2012-vintage hardware seems positively compact next to the 5.5-in. LCD of the iPhone 6 Plus, the 5.7-in. screen of the Galaxy Note 4 and the 5.96-in. display on Google’s upcoming Nexus 6.

Minimum sizes have gone up too. The 4.7-in. touchscreen on my Nexus 4 once seemed quite the expanse of glass but is now approaching minimum-viable-product material.

All along, my core complaint against enormophones hasn’t changed: How do you use these things single-handed? Here are some common situations where it’s difficult or impossible to wield a phone with both hands:

  • Holding a shopping basket at a store
  • Pushing a stroller
  • Wheeling your luggage through an airport
  • Standing in a train or bus and holding on to a handrail or stanchion
  • Eating a slice of pizza or other no-utensils-needed food
  • Standing in a coffee shop, bar or restaurant with a beverage in one hand
  • Holding your child’s hand
  • Walking a pet

And no, wearing a smartwatch doesn’t help unless you’re willing to annoy everybody around you by issuing voice commands to your computer of a chronograph.

But with millions of people choosing to pay what’s often a non-trivial price premium for plus-sized phones, I have to allow for me being the person who doesn’t get it.

So I’ll ask this: If you have a phone with screen that exceeds five inches across, how do you work its touchscreen when you don’t have both hands free? Has the act of tilting the phone in your hand to let your thumb reach a corner become so natural that you no longer notice, do you put down or let go whatever has your other hand occupied, or is there some other trick I’ve been missing?

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16 thoughts on “The fable of the one-handed phablet

  1. Rob,

    I have an iPhone 6 which, despite being only 4.7″, has bigger bezels that equivalent android phones; while I enjoy the bigger surface, it does indeed require lots of tilting to hit the upper corners. The problem is somewhat aggravated by the fact that the back of the phone is rather slippery.
    I’ve tried putting a silicon case on it (Apple’s official one) and while the increased friction dramatically increases the one-handability, I missed the curved edges so much that I decided to remove it.

  2. Great perspective, Rob. It seems that the phone manufacturers are increasingly substituting size for innovation and differentiation. It hasn’t been sustainable for other industries such as automobiles and consumer packaged goods, and I suspect time will run short here. In the near term we may be seeing substitution for tablets and even PCs, especially in low income segments and emerging markets, but the usability factor has got to catch up. Laptops saw a similar phenomenon but seem to have topped out before they got to 20 inch screens for the most part!

    • I think a lot of it is body size – I’m a guy with a big head, and my 6+ feels more natural (actually nearly reaches from my ear to my mouth) than my old 4S. And while it can be a stretch to reach the top left of the screen one-handed, my big thumbs really appreciate the bigger keyboard.

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