Feature Article

February 29, 2012

Rethinking the Form Factor of the Mobile 'Phone'

Until this year, the modern-day mobile handset fit into two distinct categories. Feature phones were the low-end offering, having a limited number of bells and whistles and a user interface composed of fixed keys.   Smartphones pushed the envelope of both functionality and pocket-size, providing a software configurable touchscreen interface and piling on silicon to improve voice quality, speed, and data connectivity. The appearance of the Samsung Galaxy Note "Phablet" -- a cross between a tablet and a phone -- is the harbinger of a coming wave to rethink what the phone looks like.

Blogging over at the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), Rob Pegoraro notes phone size creep as manufacturers try to outdo each other in the numbers arms race. At the top of the food chain, the Samsung Galaxy Note has a 5.3 inch touchsreen display and it looks like the only pocket it will fit in is something cargo-sized.   It also brings back the stylus, but growing bigger means more weight and a bigger battery to keep everything powered.

LTE may force bigger devices for no other reason than it and other 4G networks need more power to deliver higher data rates. Crank up a WiMAX or LTE data session on a smart phone and watch the battery meter shift from green to yellow to red in a matter of a couple of hours or less.   Manufacturers are starting to roll in more conservation tricks into phones, but I think it will take AMOLED screens and better batteries to reduce the annoyance of 4G's thirst for power.

Larger form factors like the Galaxy Note almost require the use of a Bluetooth headset for phone calls, given the awkwardness of holding a 5.3 inch slab to your face when talking. And for many situations, if you're going to carry a "real" tablet with a bigger screen, you might as well make a phone call through it. D2 Technologies is already demonstrating seamless HD voice quality calls between LTE and 3G networks using SRVCC (Single Radio Voice Call Continuity) on NVIDIA Tegra 3-based tablets.

But smaller "hybrid" phones blending the simplicity of the feature phone with some of the functionality of the smartphone are possible and might prove to be trendy in younger demographics. Instead of a rectangle, the phone could be a wallet or square-sized handset with a simplified touch screen to display a dial pad or a contact list if necessary; otherwise, dialing can be accomplished through a Bluetooth headset with voice recognition capability.   Apple's Siri and other maturing voice recognition interfaces mean you can have less real estate to lug around, saving web searches for a regular-sized tablet.

Edited by Rich Steeves

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