Smartphone Supersizing: How a Phabulous Idea Became the Norm

It’s really no surprise to anybody that has purchased a smartphone in the past nine or so years that phones have grown in size quite substantially. It doesn’t seem like that long ago that you could get a flagship smartphone that fit comfortably in your pocket, and could be used with a single hand. With the recent announcement and upcoming release of the iPhone 12 mini I figured now is as good a time as any to take a trip back down memory lane and explore how and why phones got to be so gargantuanly large.

Let’s take a step back all the way to 2011 for a moment to see where things started getting big. On September 1, 2011, at IFA Berlin, Samsung introduced the GALAXY Note to the world. The phone dwarfed every other popular phone at the time, and you can see just how much larger it was than the iPhone 4S from the time in the image below. Samsung touted some cool new functionality using their S Pen stylus, but the other real standouts of the Note were its larger, higher resolution screen and large battery pack. The GALAXY Note sold quite well and drew a lot of popularity to the idea of having phones that were sized between a tablet and the then smaller smartphone. Even though the Note was heavily criticized for being so large, it birthed an era of smartphones that became known as “phablets”.

Samsung GALAXY Note (red), iPhone 4S (blue)

Other manufacturers started to take Samsung’s lead and began producing large “phablets” alongside their smaller-sized offerings. HTC came out with the One Max, LG had their Optimus G Pro, Sony came up with the Xperia Z Ultra, and even Huawei got in on it with their Ascend Mate. Samsung didn’t stand still though and continued building out their Note series of devices with the Note II and Note 3, and even the horrendously oversized Galaxy Mega. Nokia finally brought the phablet game to the Windows Phone world in 2013 with the Lumia 1520, much to the joy of all 12 Windows Phone phans (I kid, but I used to be a WP owner/fan and know just how much of a minority that audience was).

The era of the phablet reached its peak in September 2014 when Apple released their first foray in to the space with the iPhone 6 Plus. Almost exactly three years after Samsung brought upon the era, Apple had finally come to terms with people wanting a device larger than their existing phones. Following the release of the 6 Plus, the term “phablet” became less and less pronounced as almost every phone coming out was comparable in size to the once egregious GALAXY Note. What had started as possibly just a phlash in the pan (alright, I’ll stop the bad puns) turned in to what we now call the norm.

So this really begs the question of “why?” Why would phones keep getting bigger and bigger when human hands and pant pockets haven’t grown at all? To me it all boils down to one very simple reason; Batteries. Unfortunately battery technology in smartphones hasn’t evolved in a substantial way since the introduction of the smartphone to the world. Looking back over the past decade doesn’t show any giant leap in the energy density of battery packs in phones, but yet somehow phones have continued getting larger and larger batteries over the years.

So how is it possible that batteries aren’t getting “better”, but seem to still be increasing in capacity? The answer is really quite simple thankfully; Packaging! That’s right, the answer is that phone manufacturers are simply squeezing bigger battery packs in to their phones. Let’s look at some stats to see if we can’t explain this:

Samsung GALAXY Note (October 2011)
Battery Dimensions6.9 x 5.2 x 0.6 cm*
Battery Volume21.528 cm3
Battery Capacity2500 mAh
Capacity by Volume116.13 mAh/cm3

*Measurements from Samsung’s Amazon listing for a replacement battery that were independently verified using teardown photos, known phone dimensions, and measurements in Photoshop

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra (February 2020)
Battery Dimensions7.33 x 6.25 x 0.6 cm*
Battery Volume27.4875 cm3
Battery Capacity4900 mAh**
Capacity by Volume178.26 mAh/cm3

*Measurements from a replacement battery listing that were independently verified using teardown photos, known phone dimensions, and measurements in Photoshop
**The battery replacement I found seemed slightly shorter with slightly less capacity than the original battery, so I would consider it equal or at least very very close

That’s an improvement in capacity by volume of about 53% over the span of eight years and four months. Even if we ignore that the first battery was removable, and thus had a hard exterior plastic shell and connector that contributed to the volume, that is a pretty laughable improvement when compared to all the other technology that has improved in our phones since then. Let’s see just how much everything else improved in phones during that time:

ComponentSamsung GALAXY Note (Oct. 2011)Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra (Feb. 2020)Improvement
CPU1400 MHz (dual core)2840 MHz (octa core)~8x
Display1280 x 800 pixels3200 x 1440 pixels4.5x
RAM1 GB16 GB16x
Max Built-in Storage32 GB512 GB16x
Primary Camera8 MP108 MP13.5x
Battery Capacity2500 mAh5000 mAh2x
# of Rear Cameras144x
Max Video Recording1080p8K8x
A lot of these stats don’t tell the full story, but they illustrate the point quite well.

As you can clearly see, everything else improved by at least four times while the battery capacity only improved by two times. Though, as noted above, the actual density of that battery is only about 1.5 times better and the battery is simply larger to account for it. So much of the technology within phones has had to shrink to be able to fit these batteries, and so many new concepts have had to be applied to support this lack of battery evolution. The concept of “quick charging” is only necessary because the battery can barely hold a full day’s worth of charge now. The idea of wireless charging is just to make it more convenient to charge your phone more regularly without scrambling around for cords. Even other technologies like Bluetooth have been forced in to optimizing for “low energy” so they don’t use too much power. The list goes on and on and ultimately all comes back to batteries just not being up to snuff.

Consumers expect more and more from their phones every year, but somehow battery life going beyond one day doesn’t seem to be on that list of expectations. I long for the day when I can have a phone that lasts a full week again, when I don’t have to be constantly aware of how much battery life I have left before heading out of my house. I sure hope that same phone is also smaller and easier to wield with a single hand, but I think that might be expecting a little too much. Maybe one of these days one of the hundreds of “battery breakthroughs” will actually show up in a mass-produced device for us all to enjoy.

So there it is; The story of how smartphones went from small, to phablet-sized, to big phones just being average. I spent a lot of time doing some deep dives for this article and I hope that you enjoyed it and maybe even learned a thing or two! It was incredible to me how universally accepted this was as fact, but how little evidence there was to support such a common sense claim. Regardless, I think the effort was worth it if for nobody other than myself to point to in the future and hopefully say “Hey, remember the time phones only lasted a single day?”

Thanks for reading!

Scott

My personal technology interests lie in the realms of mobile, gaming, and almost anything Microsoft. That last part in mind, I still do try to follow the other technology giants in a more general sense. I’m not afraid to admit that the build quality of the iPhone is outstanding, that Android offers the most robust customization of any popular mobile OS, or that the PlayStation 4 has some incredibly impressive exclusive titles.

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