(Screen) size matters!

In my years of scooping, reviewing, testing and using mobile devices, there is one thing that has baffled me more often than anything else: screen size. It's easily in the top five of my "What were they thinking!?" hitlist. I mean, we're no longer in the mid-1980s where LCD technology just wasn't there and manufacturers had to use whatever they could get. Today whatever LCD a design team wants, someone is making it.

With that in mind, let's ask ourselves a few questions. The sole purpose of a display is letting people see things, right? That can be data, pictures, websites, whatever. And as with anything visual, color is always better, bigger is better, and more resolution is better. At least that's the way it works with TVs. Have you noticed how people who once balked at a $600 TV now fall all over themselves to shell out thousands for a huge high-res flat screen?

Unfortunately, that rationale doesn't seem to apply with Pocket PCs, digicams and other electronic gizmos. As a result we have laptops that fit only onto the widest of laps and seem to serve no other purpose than to watch widescreen movies. And we have handhelds and such with ever tinier screens that are supposed to display ever more information. Let me elaborate...

Does anyone remember the Newton and other early PDAs? They were huge compared to today's Pocket PC. Sure we thought the Newton screen was small, but it measured a full five inches diagonal, and later Newtons had 6-inch screens. Sony Magic Cap devices weighed in with 5-1/2-inch screens, and the original Windows CE Handheld PCs came with 640 x 240 displays six inches and larger. Sure, there was the Palm with its wimpy 3-inch display, but the Handheld PC displays grew ever larger as that seemed what the public wanted. Remember 8-inch 800 x 600 "Jupiter" Handheld PC/Pros?

The first Palm-size PCs weighed in with 3.8-inch screens, and the Pocket PC also standardized on 3.8 inches. Fine. No problem there. Then the cheaper models switched to 3.5 inches, a trend that I hated and criticized. Yet, 3.5 inches took over. We had high hopes for the full-VGA Pocket PCs with their awsome 3.7 to 4-inch displays and hoped they'd reverse the trend, but no such luck. The VGA Pocket PCs barely made a ripple because by then the smartphone stampede was on.

The first and second gen of Windows Pocket PC Phones were marginally successful at best, and anyone who ever hefted, say, a Hitachi PPC Phone around knows why (then again, only a few years earlier the EO actually had a full-size phone receiver sitting on top of a clipboard-sized device). So the new ones are smaller. The i-mate JAM's screen is 2.75 inches diagonally, and it's one of the larger ones.

So we're headed towards shoehorning ever more desktop-class apps into ever smaller devices, but how much fun is watching a PowerPoint presentation or searching through a spreadsheet on a 2.5-inch display? GPS and mapping is all the rage now in Pocket PCs and Smartphones, and they all have megapixel+ cameras to boot. Mapping on a 2-inch screen? No wonder third parties now peddle funky magnifying glass attachments.

Sure, perhaps I'm just an old dude with reading glasses who hates squinting at micro-screens. But you know what? I really do think we're on the wrong track here. In Japan, small cellphone screens make sense because NTT DoCoMo was formatted for the small screen from the start. Here in the US, we seem to be under the impression that Windows must be everywhere. Windows Mobile must look like "real" Windows as much as possible, and even the smallest devices have to display every website. I blame Microsoft for that. They created the notion you need XP everywhere, or you play in the bush league.

So what's the answer? I truly don't know. I just know that I see digital camera makers now move to 3-inch displays and larger whereas Windows XP and variants seem headed the opposite way. So you can see a picture of your pet in glorious detail, and yet are expected to painfully scroll a website or a spreadsheet on a 2-inch 240x240 micro-screen. Makes no sense to me. Something has to give.

Great article. I think that in the end a variety of form factors will become standard. I'd really hate to see all devices move in the direction of a 2.5-inch display.

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