[Op-Ed]Why do Android manufacturers only reserve cutting edge specs for large phones?

My wife has a Samsung Galaxy S III (GSIII) and loves it.  Recently her best friend used the GSIII for a while and decided it was time for a smart phone of her own.  Knowing that I follow mobile tech fairly closely she asked my opinion on what to buy.  She wanted a powerful phone that was smaller than the GSIII, but larger than the iPhone 5.  Easy enough right?  Not in the world of Android flagships.  No such product exists.

In May of 2010 the HTC EVO 4G launched on Sprint and ushered in the era of 4.3″ Android phones.  My current daily driver, the Motorola Droid X, followed shortly thereafter in July and also has a 4.3″ screen.  Here’s what Engadget had to say about it their review:

“So, let’s just save you a bit of time from the outset: the Droid X is an imposing device, and it’s definitely not for the small of hands. Makes no mistake, this is a big phone designed for use by big people. Well, not necessarily “big,” but let’s just say you’re going to have a tough go of it if you’re the kind of person that struggles to find a ball at the bowling alley where you can reach all the holes.”

Today every Android  flagship phone on the market is larger than the Droid X.  What was considered “imposing” in mid 2010 is medium sized today.

Study after study shows that consumers prefer larger screens, so it’s no mystery why smart phones have gotten bigger.  What is puzzling is why manufacturers have relegated the 4″-4.3″ smart phone to mid-range status. While users prefer larger phones, clearly a market exists for those that want high end specs in a less substantial package. 
Just last week Samsung announced the Samsung Galaxy S III Mini (GSIIIM).  Many hoped that finally a manufacturer was going to release a smaller product with flagship guts.  They were disappointed. The SGIIIM has a 4″ 800×480 Super AMOLED (pentile) screen that’s sourced from the original Galaxy S (released way back in 2010), a dual-core 1ghz processor from Sony that’s old tech, and a 5MP camera that’s far from bleeding edge.  Many wondered why Samsung even bothered trying to associate the GSIIIM with the GSIII given that they have virtually nothing in common except for similar looks.  
Surprisingly one company that seems to be on the right track is Motorola.  I’ve written a couple (1,2) articles lately taking Motorola to task for their flagship offerings, and almost completely ignored the RAZR M that was announced at the same time.  The RAZR M is very close to the type of phone I think a lot of consumers are looking for.  It has the same dual-core S4 processor featured in almost every U.S. Android flagship this year, a 4.3″ qHD screen, 1GB of RAM, an 8MP camera and a fairly large 2000mah battery.  It also features an edge to edge glass design that keeps the footprint of the phone small.  Here’s a size comparison with the 4″ iPhone 5 and two other Motorola 4.3″ phones:
The RAZR M is extremely compact for a 4.3″ phone.  It’s only slightly larger than the iPhone 5 and much, much smaller than either the Droid X or the DROID RAZR.  The pentile qHD screen is the only technical weak point.  Replace that with the 720p Super-LCD unit out of the HTC Rezound and you would have a compact, high end Android smart phone that could directly challenge the iPhone.
So, being an Android guy, what phone did I eventually advise my wife’s best friend to purchase?  The iPhone 5 of course.  Say what you will about Apple (and people say a lot), but the iPhone 5 is a fantastic package from a hardware standpoint.  The CPU, GPU, battery life, camera, materials quality and screen are all world class.  No it doesn’t have an SD card slot, and iOS isn’t nearly as customizable as Android, but most users just want a high quality phone that works and the iPhone 5 excels at that.  No smaller Android is its equal.
Recently Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, had this to say about the iPhone 5
“Part of me wishes Apple had not been so, kind of, arrogant and feeling like ‘we’re the only one with the right clue.’ I wish they had made wider versions — a small and a large version of the iPhone,” he said.

The quote struck me as ironic while searching for a smaller Android flagship.  Apple is roundly criticized for giving consumers only a single, smaller design to choose from because that’s what they’ve decided is “best.” Meanwhile Android manufacturers get a pass despite only offering flagship phones in sizes that would have been considered laughable two years ago.  A case could be made that OEM’s are simply giving the market what it wants, and the sales numbers of large phones like the Samsung Galaxy S III show that’s partially true, but iPhone sales show that a huge market exists for smaller, powerful hardware.

Large screens are great.  My next phone will be the 5.5″ Samsung Galaxy Note II, so I’m clearly not in the smaller phone camp.  Having said that, consumers that want a smaller device shouldn’t be penalized with inferior specs.  Not everyone wants a huge phone and one of the best things about Android is the diversity of products available.  How does not a single Android OEM offer a product that is competitive with the iPhone in both specs and size?  It’s mind-boggling given how many units Apple moves every year.

Maybe in 2013 Motorola will offer up a RAZR M II with a quad-core Qualcomm S4 Pro processor, a 4.3″ 720p Super LCD RGB screen, 2GB of RAM, an 8MP camera, an SD card slot, and a 2000mah battery.  If they can keep the current footprint of the RAZR M, then consumers would have a true iPhone alternative. 

Until then if anyone asks me what smaller phone they should buy, I’m going to tell them the iPhone 5.


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