With smartphones, does thinness really matter?

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
With smartphones, does thinness really matter?
Yesterday was the first day of the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas; and, as you would expect from a day that was bound to be filled with tons of news about Android and Windows products, we had a big rumor drop about Apple (just like we saw again today with Apple's announcement of App Store sales numbers). The rumor stated that the next iPhone could be called the iPhone Air, and it will clock in at a very thin 6mm. So, I have to ask the question: With smartphones, does thinness matter?

Of course, while Apple is always looking to make its products thinner and lighter, this isn't something solely coming out of Cupertino. Every few months we hear stories about the newest device that has taken over the title of "the world's thinnest smartphone". The latest one was the Vivo X3, which measures just 5.75mm thick, but there were plenty that have aimed at the same crown, like the Huawei Ascend P6 (6.18mm), the Alcatel One Touch Idol Ultra (6.45mm), the Sony Xperia Z Ultra (6.5mm), and more. You'll notice that of the devices on that list, the only ones from (arguably) top-tier smartphone manufacturers are the Ascend P6 and Xperia Z Ultra.

*Side note* For this discussion, I am referring to Samsung, Nokia, Apple, LG, Lenovo, Huawei, ZTE, and Sony as the "top tier smartphone manufacturers", because the first three have the global market share numbers to back it up, and the last five either have huge market shares in specific regions, or are on the rise globally.  

In general the top tier smartphone manufacturers don't really pride themselves on making the thinnest smartphone possible. Each will obviously use the fact that a device is "thinner and lighter" than the previous generation flagship as a marketing point, but most (aside from Huawei) make an active run at the title of the "thinnest smartphone in the world". This realization alone makes the rumor about the iPhone Air a bit hard to swallow, although it can't be put out of the realm of possibility because of how much Apple loves to wow consumers with its industrial design prowess.

Industrial design skillz!


And really, that is why manufacturers feel the need to constantly be pushing devices to be thinner and thinner - it is industrial design masturbation. After an initial "wow" factor when consumers first see the pictures of a super-thin phone, no one really seems to care except for other manufacturers who see it as a new target. The real reason why manufacturers aim to make devices thinner is because it strokes their design egos. 

If you can make a device that's the thinnest in the world, it must follow that you are a good hardware company, right? Similarly, if you can make a device that is just as thin as last year's model, but offers a bigger screen or bigger battery, once again that's style points for your team. This has become a staple of Apple marketing over the years, but most of the time it doesn't mean all that much. The weight difference between the iPhone 4S (140g/4.94oz) compared to the iPhone 5 (112g/3.95oz) was impressive, but one ounce isn't going to matter that much over the long haul, and it certainly isn't something you'll notice after the first few days using a product. 

With smartphones, does thinness really matter?

Much more impressive was the size drop between the iPad 4 and iPad Air. There is no arguing the amazing industrial design feat that Apple pulled off there, because it was able to take a device that was 662g (23.35oz) and shrink it down to 478g (16.86oz). Of course, given that the iPad hadn't changed size or shape much in the almost three and a half years from the original iPad launch to the iPad Air, one could certainly argue if Apple couldn't have incrementally made the tablet smaller rather than doing it all in one shot. But, delaying progress in order to have a bigger reveal impact when something is changed is a big part of Apple's marketing playbook. Ultimately though, the size and weight of a tablet is much easier to change, and leads to more appreciable differences than with a smartphone. 

If you take a look at actual high-end smartphone sales, by far the most popular are from Samsung and Apple, although for comparison we'll toss in the flagships of other companies. Looking at the flagships that get the most attention (though not necessarily the most sales), you'll find the Samsung Galaxy S4 (7.9mm), the Galaxy Note III (8.3mm), the Apple iPhone 5s (7.6mm), the LG G2 (8.9mm), the Google Nexus 5 (8.59mm), the HTC One (9.3mm), the Sony Xperia Z1 (8.5mm), the Motorola Moto X (10.4mm) and the Nokia Lumia 1020 (10.4mm). Clearly, high-end manufacturers mostly aim for other considerations in design rather than thinness. 

The downside to being thin


Just like there are problems that arise from being to fat, so too are there issues with being too thin, and manufacturers seem to realize this, which is why most don't really aim for that title of being the thinnest. In general, manufacturers will try to be smaller or thinner relative to a previous model, if it helps marketing; but, usually there are far more considerations at play and thinness takes a back seat. This happens because if you actually intend to sell a lot of phones rather than just get some media attention, a device that is too thin has more drawbacks than it does benefits. 

Foremost on that list is battery life. It's just a simple fact: the thinner your device is, the less space you have for your device's battery pack. If you check our comment threads, any device with a battery that has a capacity of just 2000mAh is considered a complete failure by many of our readers (regardless of how that battery may actually perform, because obviously numbers trump real world usage); and, a 2000mAh battery is exactly what you'll find in the Vivo X3 and the Huawei Ascend P6. Sony was able to fit a 3050mAh battery in the Xperia Z Ultra, because the device overall is enormous with its 6.4-inch display. 

With smartphones, does thinness really matter?

On Android devices, you need the right hardware and software to make that size battery get you through a day, although Apple and Windows Phone devices can make it work with 2000mAh (Nokia Lumia 1020) or less (any iPhone). Apple has been able to make the iPhone 5s work well with just a 1570mAh battery using a combination of hardware (smaller displays use less power) and software (multitasking restrictions and impressive system-level optimizations). Making the iPhone 6 (or iPhone Air) a measly 6mm thick would only be possible assuming the display size gets bigger as per recent rumors, but it's unclear if Apple would be able to get that thickness and still have usable battery life. 

Undoubtably, Apple would want to keep the overall footprint of an iPhone with a larger display relatively close to the current size of the iPhone. Apple has a history of doing impressive things with batteries. For example, the iPad mini 2 has a battery that is 6471mAh compared to the original iPad mini which featured a 4490mAh battery, but Apple only had to add .3mm of thickness to the device to achieve that much bigger battery. But, making the iPhone that much thinner, while only making it a bit larger, and adding a larger battery is a very tall order.

The best comparison in terms of display size and device footprint compared to the iPhone is the Motorola Moto X. The Moto X has almost the same footprint as the iPhone 5/5s, but as mentioned before the Moto X is 10.4mm thick at its largest point in order to fit a 2200mAh stacked battery and to improve ergonomics. To make a device that size, but just 6mm thin would mean you wouldn't be able to fit that big a battery. And, with a larger display, which would likely be much higher resolution so Apple can keep its "Retina" marketing going, all the optimizations in the world wouldn't get you the same battery life as you'd find on an iPhone 5s, because it takes a lot of juice to push that many pixels.

The other big issue is ergonomics. I can certainly imagine a possible "iPhone Air" that has tapered edges that get down to 6mm at their thinnest point, but the meat of the device would still need to be much thicker in order to pack in as big a battery as possible. Also, a device that is the same sub-7mm thickness all the way through might not be all that comfortable in the hand. That's the trick that makes the Moto X so comfortable. If you were to look at the spec sheet alone, you'd see that the Moto X is 10.4mm thick, but that's at its bulkiest point in the center. The device is curved and tapered, so at the edges it is a mere 5.6mm thick, giving it a much nicer feel in the hand (and one that had me sold the second I touched it). 

Conclusion


Thin for thinness' sake is the domain of the rumor mill and of certain products which have the sole aim of getting a lot of attention for a short period of time. In the real world, users and manufacturers have quite a lot of considerations that go into buying or making a great smartphone. To a certain extent, sure how thin a smartphone is will make a difference. If you're trying to choose between two devices that are very similar, but one was thinner and lighter, that might sway your vote. But, it is actually extremely difficult to find a time where that would be the case. 

In most cases, there are tons of other features that come into play when making that decision. Consumers and manufacturers alike are much more likely to consider build quality, camera quality, performance, battery life, overall size, and price well before considering the thinness of a device. So, maybe a better question is: why does the tech media care about thinness so much? Sometimes, it will boil down to it simply being a slow news day, or an easy headline (as with the ongoing "thinnest smartphone" competition that no one really cares about). Sometimes, it is because the rumor mill needs to be stirred up a bit (as is the case with the iPhone Air). 

At the end of the day, we all have better things to be concerned with, and Apple does too. No doubt, Apple will aim to make the next iPhone thinner (at least at the edges) in order to compensate for the overall larger size that would come with a larger display. But, if you actually stop to think about it, it doesn't make much sense to aim for an arbitrary size, like 6mm thick, because there are too many other factors at play.

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32 Comments

1. LordCaedus

Posts: 85; Member since: Nov 01, 2013

Is there really a benefit to having a phone at 6mm thin vs 8-10mm thin? I would rather have one slightly thicker and have better battery life. Who really cares if you are thinner when you can't even see the difference at a glance.

4. Miracles

Posts: 560; Member since: Aug 31, 2013

Well said. I agree..battery!! :D

21. andro.

Posts: 1999; Member since: Sep 16, 2011

I have an xperia tablet z myself at 6.8mm thin,id gladly have it a bit thicker to improve battery life. As cool as the thinness is it not enough to compensate for the poorer battery capacity. Beside the battery its a fantastic tablet though

22. Extradite

Posts: 316; Member since: Dec 30, 2013

That's the iP6 concept... Hope this is the real deal. Great article by MH. But this article wont generate more than 35 posts i assume. Lets see.

24. tedkord

Posts: 17094; Member since: Jun 17, 2009

There is one advantage. If I want to add an extended battery and case, starting thinner and lighter is better. Otherwise, if the phone is rugged enough and long lasting, it doesn't matter.

29. gamblor77

Posts: 118; Member since: Apr 26, 2012

Exactly my thoughts. With the way tech has become smaller over the past few years there is no reason companies can't make a 10mm thick phone with a 4000mah battery that lasts for 3 days. Even the DROID maxx has a 3300mah and it's not all that thick.

30. jroc74

Posts: 6023; Member since: Dec 30, 2010

I agree. And after having a RAZR....thinness is over rated. I preferred the feel of the Galaxy Nexus more. And preferred the RAZR Maxx HD even more. The extra material just felt better in my hand, the phone felt more secure holding it.

2. mas11

Posts: 1034; Member since: Mar 30, 2012

I would take battery over thinness any day, as long as the phone doesn't become bulky.

3. Joshing4fun

Posts: 1244; Member since: Aug 13, 2010

Thinness can be important as phone cases are a necessity these days. The thinner the phone is, the less bulky it will be with a case on it.

7. Chris_Bakke

Posts: 246; Member since: Jan 23, 2013

But if you want any real amount of protection, you're not going to get a thin case anyway. You have to buy a thick case, throwing out the point of a thin phone.

25. tedkord

Posts: 17094; Member since: Jun 17, 2009

Not really. The overall case can be thinner if the phone is thinner. Putting an otterbox on a Lumia 920 would be quite different than putting one on an iPhone.

27. DFranch

Posts: 513; Member since: Apr 20, 2012

The 920 doesn't need an otterbox. It's the most durable phone I've ever had.

9. Commentator

Posts: 3722; Member since: Aug 16, 2011

A necessity...? Golly, I wonder what features I'm missing out on by not having a case...

5. Chris_Bakke

Posts: 246; Member since: Jan 23, 2013

I would gladly buy a thicker phone if it meant significantly increased battery size and life.

6. nicholassss

Posts: 368; Member since: May 10, 2012

it took me a long time to get used to how thin my G2 was. it was uncomfortable to use one handed. I think once you get to a certain point, thinness is uncomfortable.

8. ThePython

Posts: 902; Member since: May 08, 2013

To me anything below the 10mm mark is thin enough.

10. AppleHateBoy unregistered

For me:- 1) The phone should have a flat edge that I can grab onto onto while I use the camera. 2) I don't care how thick the phone is at the thickest point. As long as the edge is less than 6 mm thin and ""the phone uses a convex design"" I am good. I can't stress this enough. The Xperia L uses a concave design and it's an ergonomic nightmare. I can't hold it in one hand for more than 20 minutes without causing pain in my palm. It's the best looking and worst feeling phone I have ever owned. 3) No pointy edges or corners. The corners and sharp edges of my Xperia L hurt like hell. 4) No creakiness. It's annoying. 5) The top and bottom bezels should be as slim as possible and they should be of identical width (like my pic).

19. Extradite

Posts: 316; Member since: Dec 30, 2013

You must like ugly curve phones like iPhones. SonyZ L928 L925 P6 LenovoK990 Lgx4 L1520 All these phones have sharp edges, andd looks sexy than ugly curves.

28. AppleHateBoy unregistered

I said in my original comment: 'The top and bottom bezels should be as slim as possible and they should be of identical width (like my pic).' This doesn't apply to the iPhone.

11. alrightihatepickingusernames

Posts: 474; Member since: Dec 29, 2013

Thinness doesn't matter if you have to sacrifice for it. Why didn't Apple leave the iPhone 5S at 9.4mm and fit a much larger battery in there? Why couldn't Samsung do the same with the S4? Sure, they both have larger batteries than their predecessors, but you are still sacrificing because the ultimate size of the device is somehow more important than the battery life. Manufacturers bragging about the thickness of their device is essentially the same as bragging about how much the customer is getting ripped off.

12. pyradark

Posts: 895; Member since: Jun 10, 2012

I have small hands but I'm comfortable with my Z Ultra!! the battery is good but the optimization on web browsing is really bad!! I'll say thinnest and battery should be considered, if that happen, another innovation!! 4000mah on a 6.5mm thick on a 5in phone!!

13. onggeo

Posts: 30; Member since: Mar 20, 2012

I'd prefer a bigger battery on a thicker phone over a really thin phone with a small battery. Thickness of a phone matters in terms of handling. Mkae it too thick it'll be heavy and clunky to use, make it too thin and it'll feel really fragile and uncomfortable to hold.

14. julz17ronald

Posts: 52; Member since: Apr 26, 2013

I have alcatel idol which is very thin but it has a terrible battery life.

15. Slammer

Posts: 1515; Member since: Jun 03, 2010

Once again, Apple gets celebrated for design to offset the reasoning. Apple is about profits. Nothing morre. The smaller the battery and output specs, price to obtain such component drops sharply. This leaves room for Apple to cut corners knowing diehards will line up to purchase its products. Reminiscent of when I was an Apple user for many years, the carrot dangling grew tiresome. There is no reason that Apple can't offer what everyone else does. The bottom line is, that they don't have to. Thin aspects are an ever encompassing marketing ploy as of current. Huge bag phones eventually transformered to very slim flip phones. Then came larger screens and thicker hardware. Then thinner design once again. Then screen size brings an onslaught of accessorie products like watches to compensate for the larger device. History repeats itself time and time again. The next big thing will be just that; Big. Then we will witness the developement of a smaller big thing. It is a circle. Personally, I don't like something that feels so light and thin that it feels delicate like fine Crystal. This is a device that gets used. And used alot. Some girth is always appreciated. John B.

20. Extradite

Posts: 316; Member since: Dec 30, 2013

On the weekends just use the super slim phones, weekdays just use the normal. Option is a bliss On a 720P screen it's great for a 2000+Mah battery

16. CreeDiddy

Posts: 2118; Member since: Nov 04, 2011

Creating thinness on a phone while losing the weight and improving battery life is innovation. If Apple does succeed by having it 6mm thin along with at least 10 hours battery life that is amazing innovation. We can always throw a Mophie JuicePack for longer battery life. The current iPod Touch is 6.1mm thin. It's fairly possible that we will see the same with the iPhone Air.

17. saffant

Posts: 274; Member since: Jul 04, 2011

Ugh I hate this guy's condescending sarcastic tone. You're not better than your readers, Michael. So quit thinking that you are. "because obviously numbers trump real world usage" Yea, wise guy, in most cases, a bigger battery DOES actually translate to real world performance than just some software improvements that are subjective since they depend on the stuff you have on the device and how you use it.

18. HildyJ

Posts: 332; Member since: Aug 11, 2012

Thinness matters in the same way that color or metal (especially gold toned metal) or (dare I say it) logos matter. It is a differentiator that consumers have come to believe they should want. I don't care about thinness, I'll trade it for battery life. I'll also trade metal construction for less weight or better signals. And I don't care about the logo or the color. But I'm not the average consumer. I don't view my phone as a fashion accessory that needs to look good; I view it as a tool that needs to work well (probably because I came to phones from PDAs and belt holsters which might have had geek cred but were never a fashion statement). Face it, we're in the minority here.

23. Cellphonator12

Posts: 29; Member since: Nov 19, 2012

I'd hate a super thin phone, without a rubber edge it would fall off your hands easily. Also, like other posts mention…..give me more battery and keep your world record!!!

26. nanakin

Posts: 5; Member since: Dec 31, 2013

Like seriously, who cares if you have the thinnest phone, if it works for you , fine.. No phone , no matter how big it is ,can break ur palm, .. Its even a form of exercising ur palm..

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