The stage was set for a glorious battle of the 6es this fall as Apple’s iPhone 6 was preparing to take on Google’s Nexus 6 to determine the fate of the mobile world. But Google dodged the direct confrontation by making its new premier Android device an enormous 6-inch slate that barely qualifies as a phone. There’s nothing wrong with big phones, but there’s something fundamentally broken about the single-minded pursuit of larger sizes that has characterized Android history so far.
Consider the three best Android phones of 2013: the 4.7-inch Moto X, the 5.2-inch LG G2, and the 5-inch Nexus 5. Each one of them has added at least a third of an inch to its screen size in its 2014 iteration and in the process lost something valuable. The old Moto X had charm and character in lieu of top-tier specs, and it won critical acclaim because it was an ergonomic marvel that felt much smaller than it was. The new X fixes a lot of the shortcomings of the original, but feels like just another high-specced Android powerhouse. The same is true of the LG G3, which is an improvement over the G2 in almost all respects except for the way that the phone fits in the hand. Completing the trifecta is the 6-inch Nexus 6, another upgrade that gives users "more everything" but does so at a significantly inflated price as well as at a more awkward size.
Interesting 2 c Google bet on phablets with Nexus 6 when sales in the US r still below 5%. Apple has China 2 gain but what’s in it 4 Google?— carolina milanesi (@caro_milanesi) October 15, 2014
The trend for massive phones would be all fine and dandy if it didn’t come at the cost of reasonably sized ones. Right now, anyone seeking an Android alternative to the 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus will find a full complement of excellent devices to choose from: whether it be high-end stuff like the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 or affordable mid-range devices like the HTC Desire 820. For many people, big is beautiful and versatile and more desirable. But for many more, a phone has to remain portable and usable with a single hand, which is why Apple’s flagship iPhone is still below the 5-inch mark. The trouble is that when you’re shopping in that aisle of the Android market, there’s only Sony’s Xperia Z3 Compact and Samsung’s Galaxy Alpha to offer up a real challenge (and the Z3 Compact is showing no sign of a US carrier release).
Those who want to upgrade their phone shouldn't be forced to upsize it as well
Choice and diversity have always been the things to set Android apart from the iPhone. Google’s new tagline for Android Lollipop is literally "be together, not the same" as the company looks to reiterate its message of inclusiveness. More than that, Android has been moving increasingly toward being an operating system for all sizes of devices, from the wrist to the desktop at home. To live up to its own aspirations, Google should give its users the option to have premium phones that still resemble what most of us imagine a phone to be.
To my mind, the Nexus 6 is in the same category as the new Nexus 9: they are both tablets. There’s plenty of room in the world for bigger and better devices so long as they don’t compromise choice for the rest of the market. Unfortunately, that's exactly what keeps happening with Android phones, where handsets like the Moto G, HTC One mini 2, and LG Beat offer only inferior facsimiles of their makers' bigger and pricier flagship devices. And while the Nexus 5 may still stick around as a budget option, it’s now a year old and doesn’t answer the glaring need for true high-end phones at smaller sizes. There's an evident reluctance to charge a big price for a phone that isn't obviously big, but Apple keeps doing it successfully and there's nothing about the Android operating system that compels phone makers to keep going larger.
At some point in our recent history, the PDA, the point-and-shoot camera, and the cellphone merged into one supremely versatile device. A big part of that converged device’s appeal came from its ability to do more with less, acting like the Swiss army knife of electronics. As Google and Apple now lead the way to defining what the smartphone of the future will look like, they’ll do well to retain the good aspects of the smartphones that precede it — starting with their size.