Size Does Matter…When it Comes to Screens


The number of comedic comments that have been made about “size” probably outnumber knock-knock jokes these days, because it seems everyone likes to offer their view on the matter. When it comes to technology devices, there have also been numerous debates about the importance of size—or not—particularly when it comes to different devices within a specific category. The current iPhone 6 vs. 6 Plus discussions are a classic example.

What I haven’t seen discussed much is screen size differences across device categories. On the one hand, the reasoning is simple: everyone knows that TVs are bigger than PCs, which are bigger than tablets, which are bigger than smartphones, which are bigger than wearables. In fact, the very definition of several of these device categories (and sub-segments within them) is determined by screen size measurements.

Another reason we haven’t seen much discussion in this area is that it inevitably leads to the contentious discussion about which device is most important. Of course, “important” is a loaded word and could be interpreted to be the one that’s used the most, the one that provides the most value, or several other variations on that theme.

Interestingly, for some people, the amount of time people spend with their devices is directly proportional to their screen size, with many people spending the most time with their TV, next their PC and on down the line. Of course, there are many others for which it’s nearly the exact opposite (leaving out the brand new wearables category for the moment), with the most time spent on their smartphone, then their tablet, then their PC, and finally, their TV. I’ve even heard some discussions—which I don’t agree with—suggesting that within a few years, people will spend most of their time with wearables and less time with their smartphones and larger screens.

The implication in these arguments is that screen size doesn’t matter—that it’s all about portability and in that view, the smaller the better. Now, I admit I may be showing my middle age here, but c’mon, really?

In my opinion, larger screens do matter, and they matter a lot. In fact, I’d argue there’s a certain hierarchy of device importance based on screen size. In this instance, I’m not defining importance as time spent, because there is a lot of data out there (including my own) which suggests that reality is too complex to make a simple statement about time spent by device. What I’m referring to more is the ultimate importance of the activities done with the device—its overall gravitas.[pullquote]Larger screens do matter, and they matter a lot. In fact, I’d argue there’s a certain hierarchy of device importance based on screen size.”[/pullquote]

Looking at things from that perspective, I’d argue that the PC (which is, admittedly, second to the TV in terms of screen size) continues to be the most important device to many people, even for many who only use it occasionally. The PC is still the device where the most important activities occur—doing taxes, keeping track of finances, maintaining photo and music libraries, attaching peripherals, creating documents, editing photos and videos, design and much, much more. Do some people do some of these activities on other devices? Of course they do. But for many people, these critical activities are still being done on the biggest screen people can possibly get their hands on.

The importance transfers over to electronic commerce as well. While lots of people browse on smartphones and tablets, most of the actual purchases are made on PCs, because people still perceive the PC as the most important, potentially most secure device. Plus, given that PCs still have more storage than any other devices, it’s also the place where our libraries of personal data—collected from across all our other “smaller” devices—still reside.

That’s why innovation in PCs is still important, whether that innovation comes from Apple or Microsoft or Dell or whomever. At last week’s Apple event, for example, it was clear that the new iMac with the 27” 5K retina display in conjunction with OS X Yosemite is a serious piece of computing gear that deserves a spot at the top of the device food chain. (Although, I kept wondering where the standalone 5K screen for the new Mac Pro was….) But it’s also why Windows 10 in combination with a 5K display from Dell can earn an equivalent spot at the top of that hierarchy. (And if we needed any more proof of the ongoing significance of larger-screen devices, the fact that Apple’s PC revenues were higher than its tablets revenues in its most recent quarter pretty much puts an exclamation point on it.)

There’s no question that people will be spending a great deal of time with smaller screens, particularly as we start to finally see sales of devices with really small screens (i.e., wearables) starting over the next year or so. Nevertheless, it’s important to remember that when it comes to device screens, size really does matter.

Published by

Bob O'Donnell

Bob O’Donnell is the president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC a technology consulting and market research firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.

47 thoughts on “Size Does Matter…When it Comes to Screens”

  1. 5K standalone monitors are waiting for the displayport 1.3 standard which is just released and is waiting to be implemented in the next Intel Skylake platform coming in 2015. So no Computer at this moment has a connector to hook such a display up yet. (Dell screen is only announced atm)

    So Apple did some nice engineering inside the iMac to push this 5K screen future a bit more to the present 🙂

    1. The MacPro has three separate Thunderbolt 2 busses so it could theoretically provide enough bandwidth by bonding two TB2 streams together. This would leave one bus completely available for other uses. The engineering might not be worth the trouble though since in 12-18 months Thunderbolt 3 and display port 1.3 should be widely available. The MacBook Pro and new Mac mini do not have multiple Thunderbolt busses so they wouldn’t be compatible with 5K displays.

  2. My only question, and I assume you have the data for the answer, are you describing the importance of size or the comfort level of one device form over another? I’ve been using a PC for almost three decades, a smartphone for one, and a tablet less than 4 years. Habits are hard to break. Ben talks often about cultures that are coming into computing through mobile rather than the traditional PC. Do you find your thesis still relevant there?


      1. Great article illustrating the culture of age gaps, too. Still one of my favourites here and often (seemingly) overlooked elsewhere.


  3. When you think about what “matters” or which device has more “gravitas”, this question may help: “Which device would you keep, if you could only keep one?”

    For many (most?) people, that would be their phone.

    ” The PC is still the device where the most important activities occur—doing taxes, keeping track of finances, maintaining photo and music libraries, attaching peripherals, creating documents, editing photos and videos, design and much, much more.” => I will argue that you’re wrong about half of these. Photos. Music. Content (email, social). All primarily on the phone or quickly moving there.

    1. For some people yes, but for many others, they haven’t moved all these to their phone. Part of the reason is that phones just don’t have enough local storage for many people and PCs are definitely the best place (and will continue to be) where most storage is going to exist.

    2. To me, this is like the handgun/rifle debate. You can carry a handgun in more circumstances but anyone knowlegable about guns would rather have a rifle when the worst happens.

      A smartphone will serve in a pinch for most circumstances and their small size contributes to their popularity. But most people turn to their PCs when it comes to “heavy lifting.” That being stated, I think phablets could change that.

  4. Screen matter a lot in technology
    What we do and the way we interact with computer have a lot to do with it’s size

    I was also very surprised to hear Ben Thompson, whom I think is a very good analyst trying to sell us on a dream of the Apple watch becoming our main interface, while ignoring the importance of the screen size of (ie) , a Smartphone which allow a large number of use cases that a tiny Watch screen will never be able to replace even with holographic projection.

    I also think that too many analyst are overreacting to the IPad slowdown which in my eyes is more of a market correction than anything else, the Tablet market is still a viable one, along with the rest.

    1. Totally correct on your last point. Hopefully many of the charts I’ve shown along with my last tablet report highlights that reality.

    2. Thanks. Yes, some of my comments were based on discussions I’ve heard of moving to even smaller screens and I do have an issue with that. As for tablets, my point is that they were badly overhyped and now are getting a reality check. That’s doesn’t mean they’re a dying market or a bad market, but they aren’t going to get as crazy big as a lot of people had been predicting for a long time.

  5. I find that there are really a few variables:
    1- location. PC is desk, Tablet is sofa/bed/poolside, phablet is outside (street, meetings, transport)… The more serious or risky (spending money and handing out Visa details) the activity, the more I gravitate towards a concentration-creating, safer, location.
    2- screen size indeed, or screen real estate, doing serious stuff requires more screen to see all the info at once, and to multiply sources of info. When I work, I usually need to reference stuff, when I buy, I usually double check specs, reviews and prices, all of which is much more easily done on my dual-screen desktop than on a single tablet or (I tried) tablet+phone. Laptop + tablet kinda works. Mixing very different screen sizes is a pain. Going phone PC really breaks the flow, in a way laptop tablet doesn’t.
    3- Input. A keyboard and a mouse are really helpful for a lot of stuff.

    Also, I think what you describe between PC, tablet and phone, also applies **intra-category**: The display is the main feature of my computers now that they have the apps and the power to create and move those pixels with interesting content and fast enough. I started doing a lot more stuff, and different stuff, on my PC, laptop, and phone as their screen real estate increased. For middle-age me, Office works requires 13″+, video requires 7″+, multitasking requires… multi monitors… My 7″ phone is to a 4″ phone what my 26″ monitor is to a 15″ monitor. Going back to 4″ elicits the same “gaaah” feeling as going back to 15″. The tablet is really lacking there, a few inches more would really change use cases, making Office work acceptable.

    That’s true for my PC (my monitors are worth more than all the rest of it), my laptop (sadly underpowered E-450, but, at 13.3″, much more usable than my 10″ Netbook), my tablet (I even erred to the 13.3″ Archos Familypad but… couldn’t create nor move all those pixels ^^), and my phablet (since my HD2, my main criteria has been: “big screen”, hence 4.3″ HD2 -> 5.1″ Note -> 6″ Mate -> 7″ X1, all of them mocked as “too huge !!!” in their time, by the way).

    Maybe now that Apple have released a phablet and might release a large tablet, we can have that discussion too ^^

    1. All good points, especially the one about intra-category. As a long-time display analyst, I’ve always been very appreciative of large displays (he says, typing on a 30″ monitor in front of him…;>)

    2. “there are really a few variables:”

      This, absolutely. For some tasks, screen size doesn’t matter so much as whether or not the screen comes with a keyboard. For other tasks, what matters is that the device gives you storage and the ability to juggle different kinds of storage (SD cards, thumb drives, external backup hard disks) and to manage the things you’re storing quickly and easily — which means the ability to put stuff in folders and sub folders.

      Yes, bigger screens are more comfortable than smaller ones, especially given the prevalence of rabbit-eyed programmers and web designers (if I had a space-based ray gun that aged people’s eyes 40 years, I would absolutely turn it upon the inhabitants of Silicon Valley). But they’re not the deciding factor so much as one component in a constellation of features that you need for certain tasks.

  6. I do think size matters and matters a lot. Lots of work can be done on smaller screen as you mentioned earlier and I also agree when it comes to more serious work I do think we tend to go for larger screens. Another think I truly believe matters a lot is high-res screens. One I was used to my iPad Retina screen I simply can’t use my Dell Laptop for reading anymore. Actually, 100% of my work is done on my iPad now simple because it doesn’t strain my eyes like the Laptop does. Now I am going to by a new laptop but of course it has to be with retina quality. If only we had slightly bigger iPads with nice keyboards I think it would be a great deal for many.

  7. “The implication in these arguments is that…it’s all about portability”.

    If you’re 25 or younger, portability is #1.

    1. Yes, age does matter…and the link in my article refers to another column where I talked about that very thing….

  8. “The PC is still the device where the most important activities
    occur—doing taxes, keeping track of finances, maintaining photo and
    music libraries, attaching peripherals, creating documents, editing
    photos and videos, design and much, much more.”

    But not all PCs have large screens. Some people are just fine doing all the things they do on a PC with a 13-14″ notebook. A larger screen on my notebook just makes it even less easily moved from place to place. An external screen for my notebook might be nice in some circumstances, but if that means I *have* to sit at my desk in order to do that stuff, I’d rather just stick to the smaller built in notebook screen.

    Screen size is just one ingredient, and it’s the mix of ingredients necessary to accomplish what you set out to do that defines whether or not you’re going to want to do something on a laptop, a desktop, a tablet, a phone, or something else.

    Also, I want to disagree with your definition of PC-centric tasks as “important.” Several of the tasks you label as “important” are not what I would call “important” so much as “necessary,” in the sense that washing dishes or taking out trash is necessary — you have to do them, but you don’t particularly enjoy doing them and would be happy to get away with not doing them. I don’t *want* to do my taxes or balance my checkbook, I don’t want to have to _manage_, rather than _enjoy_, my media library or my photos.

    The reason these tasks get done on a PC is not because of their gravitas, it’s because the apps that let us get those things *over and done with* currently exist mainly in the PC form factor. If someone comes up with a tax app that lets you to do taxes more painlessly on your phone or tablet, I expect lots of people will change switch to doing taxes on a smaller device. There’s no stickyness to doing this stuff on the PC, just inertia, and the fact that the apps or OS features that make doing these things less of a chore is currently most mature on the PC. For instance, an app that could scan your financial documents, extract the numbers, and input them into the correct fields of the tax form for you, would make managing your finances more painless on your tablet or phone… and people would eventually switch to dealing with their money on their phone instead of on their PC.

    Other tasks you list (creating, designing, editing photos and videos) are indeed important, in the sense of “things people want to do, things they enjoy doing.” And some of them indeed do require a certain set of ingredients to do them properly. I don’t much enjoy looking at photos on a tiny phone screen. So I wait for Icloud to make them appear on my tablet pr PC and look at them there. I don’t much enjoy writing long comments on a virtual keyboard, so I go to my desk and type there. These tasks are indeed likely to “stick” to those devices that have the ingredients that work best for doing them.

  9. I’ve always broken down computer usage to two categories: Large screen and small screen computing. And yes, the serious stuff – long form writing, video and photo editing, media management, taxes, etc. get done on a large screen while on-the-go, need-to-address-right-now stuff gets done on the small screen. I cannot foresee a case where I will have to or want to cut down to one device, and I suspect that’s true for most people.

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