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Phones vs tablets question: One hand or two?

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It’s no secret I like large-screened phones and 7-inch tablets. Although I own an iPhone 4S(s aapl), I use my 4.65-inch Galaxy Nexus(s goog) far more often. The same can be said of my Galaxy Tab 7.7 as compared to my iPad 2: for me, the smaller slate is a better fit for most of my tasks, and the Apple tablet only comes off the bedside dock for occasional use. I’m not judging these products to say which is better; there are so many personal factors involved in mobile tech decisions. I just happen to prefer larger screened, but still highly portable, devices. Until this weekend, I never knew why.

During the recording of our weekly mobile tech podcast on Saturday, I figured this out. A key driver of why I like mobile devices in the 4- to 7-inch size range is because I use two hands with my phones. I always have. This also may explain why many others have issues with larger but still pocketable devices. See, whenever I talk about my desire for a larger iPhone, the first response is often along these lines: “Any larger than the current 3.5-inch screen and you can’t use the device with one hand.”

I actually disagree with that, from experience. Even though I typically use my devices with two hands, I’ve tested one hand use with several 4-inch phones, and even with my small hands, you can use them with one hand. I still believe that Apple will redesign the iPhone with a 4-inch version; it would fit a larger battery, which will be needed for LTE support.

Regardless of what Apple is or isn’t doing, there is a long-term trend continuing to boost the screen size of phones. Four-inch devices quickly became 4.3- and 4.5-inch smartphones, and now we have the Galaxy Note measuring in at 5.3-inches. Is it a tablet or is it a phone? Forgetting my personal preference, I’m starting to think that any device in this market that can be used by all with one hand is a phone for sure. Once you start to require a second hand? Then it’s a tablet. For all intents and purposes, the definition really shouldn’t matter; especially as a “phone” typically means voice support and yet we can use various voice solutions on connected tablets. So why is this important?

[polldaddy poll=5939038]

Again, I’m probably in the minority now, but I suspect that in the long term, traditional small-sized phones will eventually disappear as we migrate to larger, higher resolution displays on portable devices. Larger screens allow for larger batteries, can still support voice — especially once we move cellular voice to all-IP data — and can still be easily carried around in a jacket pocket or purse.

I’m curious how many readers mainly use their smartphones with a single hand; I suspect most. And if that’s the case, I understand why many are thinking that this trend towards larger phones — or smaller tablets — is a laughable situation. Those in the “one-hand” camp are likely happy with a 3.5 to 4-inch phone, and once they move to a tablet, I’m betting they will pick a 8.9- to 10-inch slate. Meanwhile, two-handers like myself can simply skip the whole handset business and carry a 7-inch slate with voice capabilities.

Have at it in the poll and let me know if you typically use your handset with one hand or two.

35 Responses to “Phones vs tablets question: One hand or two?”

  1. Team MessagEase

    Kevin – great observations for typing one handed on larger devices.

    Have you noticed that even if you can hold these 4.3” devices one handed, the problem is juggling to reach the keys that are furthest away? That can be awkward and frustrating.

    We developed our MessagEase Keyboard app to bring a better “single-handed” device experience and type as fast as a desktop keyboard with just your thumb. Since the buttons are fewer, there is less of a reach, making it more accurate and efficient. You can download our beta for free on the iTunes App Store or Android Market to give it a try.

    Saied Nesbat

  2. Kevin – great observations for typing one handed on larger devices.

    Have you noticed that even if you can hold these 4.3” devices one handed, the problem is juggling to reach the keys that are furthest away? That can be awkward and frustrating.

    We developed our MessagEase Keyboard app to bring a better “single-handed” device experience and type as fast as a desktop keyboard with just your thumb. Since the buttons are fewer, there is less of a reach, making it more accurate and efficient. You can download our beta for free on the iTunes App Store or Android Market to give it a try.

    Saied Nesbat

  3. Ramon B. Nuez Jr.

    Kevin — great article and I am in your camp. I got my Note yesterday and I thought to myself this smartphone will not do well. But I have been playing around with it for about 1/2 a day and I am growing very fond of it.

    I am dropping it in my front pocket, I am watching NetFlix, reading eBooks, I am surfing the Web, etc. I rarely if ever do those things on my iPhone 4G. And it’s for two reasons:

    1. AT&T’s 3G network is horrific in NYC
    2. And the iPhone screen is just too small

    I can certainly see larger screen phones in the coming years. But will this then cannibalize tablet sales — specifically Android tablets?

  4. Peter Deep

    Most times one-handed use is the only option, for me anyway. If I had to put down my bag of groceries/cup of coffee or whatever to send a text while walking or riding would be too much bother. I do find myself yearning for a larger screen for my iPhone at times but then I’m glad the iPhone is so tiny in my pocket.

    I really really don’t think Apple is going to be changing the size of their phone substantially. There’s any entire universe of accessories out there that rely on the iPhone (and the iPod touch) being the same size. Anyone who has invested in those accessories as I have (the numbers are huge) would think twice about buying an incompatible phone.

    The value of accessories in brand retention with Apple’s products is often overlooked by authors such as this one. People who use Windows or a Mac stay with their respective platform because of the investment in software and peripherals (less so these days with printers and hard drives being cross platform, but it wasn’t always that way). But you get the point, I hope. Once you’ve invested in the iPhone “world” of software and accessories, it’s gonna take more than screen size to interest one in making a switch. The authors lives in an Android world, with its phones and tablets du jour, where there isn’t enough permanence for another company to invest in making peripherals and accessories; nor for any person to make any meaningful commitment.

  5. I have small hands so I could never really could use any phone with one hand. I really like my unlocked Galaxy Nexus. I like holding it in my one hand. I like the larger size of the screen, and I can always use the Google voice recognition software if needed. It is a great phone.

  6. Going to be a lot of Apple FUD hypocrisy when the iPhone 5 sports a 4″ screen. Five years of Fanboy bullshit about 3.5 being the only acceptable screen size is going to hit the fan. IF your smartphone is going to be truly SMART (web surfing, game playing, office app creation, e-reader, etc) it needs more screen real estate than 3.5 inch. Once you abandon the idea that a smartphone can’t be bigger than 3.5″, a whole new world opens up. Lots of sizes come into play. As far as remarks about marketability of 4.0″+ screens. Within the Android ecosystem…every flagship phone from every Android OEM is larger than 4.0″. And Android buyers are flocking to them. In January…..almost 2/3 of the LTE smartphones sold in South Korea were the Samsung Note (5.3″).

  7. James Taurasi

    I wish Andy Ihnatko would read this and get over this whole, I can’t use an Android with one hand while carrying a back pack and pulling said phone from my front shirt pocket rant he goes on every 3 months.

  8. “Meanwhile, two-handers like myself can simply skip the whole handset business and carry a 7-inch slate with voice capabilities.”

    I could, but its not only 2 hands but how we define a personal mobile device. For me its about pocketable devices. 7″ is not. The Note is.

  9. For me it is all about the screen size and speed.
    I own the first O2 XDA Flame
    Then the Dell Streak 5
    and now the Device to rule them all, the GALAXY NOTE with 5.3″

    I use it like a normal phone and I am pretty small bloke as well.
    Web browsing and productivity is almost like laptop experience.

    If other manufacturers can keep the same size as the GALAXY NOTE but with 5.6″ screen, quad core, they got my money.

    So far I am enjoying my GALAXY NOTE for the past 3 months now since I imported from UK to AUS

  10. For me, it is not about the number of hands in use (I’m pretty even between one and two for different tasks), but about how quickly and universally (i.e. in as many situations as possible) pocketable and ‘un-pocketable’ a device is. 3.5″ (maybe 4″, at a stretch) is about my limit for always-with-me, momentarily-in-and-out, use-on-the-go device. Anything larger and I have to pause/stop and use it, and if I am to go through all of the trouble of pausing, I might as well use a properly sized device (i.e. a 10″ tablet). It is no coincidence that (non-US) index cards are A7 (something like 3″ x 4″) and notepads are A4 (something like 8″ x 11.5″). Tweener devices are ok if you really only want one device, but compromise quite significantly on both ends (neither as pocketable as ideal, nor as spacious as ideal).

  11. As a big man, I use my 4.65″ GN (Galaxy Nexus) quite comfortably with my right hand while I use the left to keep my balance on the subway each day.

    Still, I feel the GN is big and expensive as a handset/hotspot and small as the reader/browser I most frequently use it as.

    In a nice near-future, I’d probably have a little 3.5″,screenless, phone sized brick providing data connectivity and processing that never leaves my bag/pocket with my choice of cheap touchscreens of various sizes or hand/headsets paired to it.

  12. Justin Lewis

    HUGE phone/tablets are but an accessory away from becoming a big trend (excuse the pun).

    What if you only use the whole jumbo-phone when you need all that gorgeous screen real estate. For texting and call handling you don’t need much more than the venerable old Nokia 7210. I’m talking form factor here, not functionality. The way I see it going is we’ll soon have a little bluetooth handset / input device that gives us real hard buttons like in the old days. A little screen big enough to display 160 characters. A really basic little gadget that lets an app on the phone/tablet do all the real work. I’m guessing it should cost around the same as really good headset, probably a lot less.

    The tablet/jumbo-phone stays in your pocket or handbag most of the time and the little handset is what you’d grab from a pocket.

    My reasoning: You look a dumbass wearing a bluetooth headset constantly. You’d also look a dumbass holding an iPad to your ear. But a little handset that was a super convenient form factor back in the day is much more natural and unobtrusive.

    But hey, what the hell do I know huh.

  13. Was looking at the recent comparison of Droid 4 and iPhone 4S, and despite the smaller screen, the iPhone still has the higher resolution, so you can see more with the smaller viewing area. The actual difference in readability is not much with the 15% etc size, but the bigger screens pay a price in battery life and portability. Anything in fine detail, you need good heuristics to estimate what was tapped, and the interface is pretty slick on the iPhone, so I can tap incredibly small elements on webpage drop down lists or links etc and they still work or you can tap to zoom and get a larger tap area for links and buttons. Can easily use twitter or email one handed to read or delete messages. Have you tried using your phone one handed? Maybe you don’t use your phone as much, ie if you were holding something in your other hand you stop using your phone, so you don’t drink a soda or type on a pc with the other hand etc, very convenient to be able to use one-handed.

  14. One-handed use is not just a preference, it’s often necessary. By one-handed use, I mean easy and safe one-handed use, without thumb contortions and risking dropping the phone.

  15. I share your love of 7inch tablets. Not just because they’re so easy to use with two hands but also because they fit in a pocket and weigh very little. I find it hard to understand what makes so many more people choose the larger tablets apart from herd instinct.

    • rick gregory

      I’ve used both. I prefer the 9.7″ iPad to the 7″ Nook Color. Why? Because the larger screen lets things breath a bit more. Apps like Flipboard and Zite feel better on the larger format. Apps in general feel less cramped and more useful in both portrait and landscape whereas with the NC I often felt I needed to use the landscape orientation and then I was cramped vertically.

      For reading? Love the NC. But all of that is me – our mileage can vary without calling me a herd animal (tip: insulting people who make different choices doesn’t help them sympathize with your point of view).

      • Daniel Tung

        I think whether or not the layout is cramped is not just an issue about the size, but also about screen resolution and UI design.
        My Note with a 1280×800 resolution can show the entire desktop version of websites very clearly.

  16. Peter John

    Been using an EVO 4G for a while now and while it might be a bit of a stretch to get to the opposite corner one-handed, you learn to get around it. For example – arranging your home screens so that informational widgets are placed on the top while keeping app shortcuts and widgets that utilize input to the middle and bottom. We’ll see how ICS and their app UIs work with this. I already see a slight problem with the Google Music app or Market – trying to go back on the top left (not the hardware back button down below – which on most occasions for GMusic seems to back out to the home screen too…very annoying). That said – the screen real estate is just too big of an advantage for me to jump ship just because I cant use EVERYTHING one handed. Larger screen size also makes my homescreens feel less cluttered. And yeah – I have above avg handsize.

  17. Nicolas Watson


    I love my Galaxy SII Skyrocket and bought it due in large part to it’s increased size. I might have gone for the Note if it was available at the time. After tinkering with my wife’s 4s I am always relieved to return to my larger screen. I use it with both 1 and 2 hands, but mostly 2. I just don’t find myself in too many situations where I’m so multi-tasked that I can’t spare a second hand.

  18. rick gregory

    Kevin – a couple of thoughts..

    1) YOU might be able to use a 4″+ phone with one hand. I can too. Apple’s looking at the general market though which includes women, guys who are smaller, etc. I also think it’s a comfort thing. Yes, I can use my 4″ phone with one hand. Just. My thumb’s extended fully when I get to the opposite corner though.

    2) Why a 4.65″ phone and a 7″ tablet? I’ve owned the latter and I get the difference between 4 and 7″. But 5 and 7?

    And finally, a tone note… To some degree, your recent posts come across as Samsung cheerleading. Even the cynical Galaxy Tab 2 release (“Want 4.0? Buy this outdated tablet and you’ll have it before people who bought more recent tablets!”) seems to be excused by you. Now, I’ve got a Galaxy S; it’s a nice phone. But I’d like to see their offerings evaluated with a slightly more critical eye given their “make everything and see what sticks” approach combined with their poor record for actually supporting released products with updates.

    • I hear you all counts, Rick. Bear in mind that I’m 5’5″ tall so I’m betting that most men and a fair number of women can use a larger phone with one hand. Well.. a *little* larger than the iPhone’s 3.5″ standard. I don’t have much interest in the Note for the very reason you “noted”: 5.3 and 7 is too close of an overlap for me personally.

      The Samsung cheerleading point is well taken, but I generally see more to talk about with Samsung right now than any other Android handset maker. Perhaps too much. But just a few weeks ago I hit the very same theme you mentioned about “make everything and see what sticks” when I looked down upon the Samsung Galaxy Advance: Still, I appreciate the feedback and will definitely keep it in mind. Thx!

      • Daniel Tung

        An advantage of Note over a 7″ slate is because it is more pocketable.
        It can fit into tighter jeans or pants and doesn’t feel too uncomfortable and bulky.

  19. Kevin–good article. Count me in the corner w/ a larger phone (Galaxy S II Skyrocket) + larger tablet (8.9 Galaxy Tab). I find that w/ my addiction to Swype, using one hand on the tablet is perfectly doable when my other hand is not free (which oddly happens quite a bit). It’s easy to thumb-type on the 8.9″ screen of course, but not necessary to this user.