Why I'm finally giving in to the big phone craze

After years of resisting, this writer gives up the fight and gets on the big phone bandwagon -- for one very specific reason.

Nexus 6P Big Phone Craze
JR Raphael, IDG

If you hadn't yet noticed, I'm what you might call a bit of a big phone holdout.

You know the type, right? Heck, maybe you are one yourself. I've lived with lots of plus-sized phones over the years -- practically every major device to be released in the U.S., in fact -- and I've just never been won over by anything that's pushed past the 5.2-in. mark and into what I'll begrudgingly call "phablet" terrain.

I certainly get why some people like larger smartphones. There's something nice about having an extra-spacious display, especially considering how much time most of us spend staring at those surfaces these days. But for me, that's never been enough to outweigh the accompanying tradeoffs in comfort and ergonomics -- two areas that inevitably take a hit once you start toting around a gadget that doesn't fit naturally into your pocket or palm.

I occasionally surprise myself, though: After years of resisting the plus-sized phone trend, I've taken the leap and purchased a phone with a 5.7-in. screen. Yup, a "phablet" through and through (though I still refuse to use that word unless it's surrounded in quotation marks, which translate as exaggerated and semi-ironic air quotes in my head).

We'll get to the specifics of the device in a second. First, let's back up for a minute so I can explain how I reached this monumental decision.

My long, drawn-out journey to the land of plus-sized phones

Up until this year, every plus-sized phone I'd tried had just been too damn big for my preferences. Some of the devices had appealing qualities, to be sure -- but at the end of the day, I found them too awkward to use and too cumbersome to carry. I was always ecstatic to go back to a more compact standard-sized form.

This summer's Galaxy Note 5 was the first big phone that got me thinking "Hey, you know what? This actually isn't so bad." The main reason, as I mused in my Note 5 review, was the phone's width -- and the progress Samsung had made in shrinking it down from generation to generation:

That ever-decreasing waistline makes a world of difference in what the device is like to use. More than anything, it's the width that makes most plus-sized phones hard to hold -- and at this point, the Note isn't that much wider than a typical standard-sized smartphone.

Like most plus-sized phones, the Note is still a fair amount taller than a standard-sized alternative like the 2014 Moto X I've carried as my personal device for the past year -- but while that extra height isn't entirely ideal, it's a tradeoff I found I could tolerate. Especially with Samsung's curve-enhanced design, the Note didn't feel absurdly unmanageable to me, as most other plus-sized phones up to that point had (nor did it feel cheap and chintzy, which had been an instant turnoff for me with previous Note models).

Galaxy Note 5 Size

Gotta hand it to Samsung: The Galaxy Note 5 is quite manageable in my not-so-enormous hand

After experiencing the phone's phenomenal display, camera, and build quality, I seriously mulled over the notion of getting one for myself. But I ultimately decided I just couldn't get past Samsung's software or its awkward physical/capacitive button configuration in a device I'm gonna use every day. And as someone who prefers unlocked phones and prepaid phone plans, the Note's inflated cost and carrier-centric sales model (in the U.S., at least) were factors I realized I couldn't accept. For me and my own personal priorities, the end balance just wasn't positive enough to make it a sensible purchase.

I thought the 2015 Moto X Pure Edition might be different -- that it might be the first plus-sized phone to sway me into its gigantic arms. (Keep in mind, this was well before Motorola's Marshmallow upgrade debacle.) The last two phones I've bought have been Moto X's, after all, and despite the increased size on this new one, it had plenty of promising-sounding qualities. But after carrying it around for a few weeks, I came to an unexpected conclusion:

I'm able to get used to the size of the new Moto X easily enough, and I usually don't mind carrying it -- but at the same time, I feel a sense of relief when I switch back to my smaller and more ergonomic 2014 model.

More than anything, the phone felt like two steps forward, one step back -- with several important areas that actually seemed like downgrades from my 2014 model. Yet again, it just wasn't enough of a net-positive leap forward for me to make it worth stomaching the size.

My plus-sized turning point

So what pushed me over the edge? If you hadn't guessed by now, it was -- yes, indeedly -- Google's Nexus 6P. In the context of everything I'd experienced leading up to my time with the 6P and its smaller sibling, the Nexus 5X, I figured the 6P would be too much phone for my tastes and that I'd end up wanting to get a 5X once my review was finished.

Much to my surprise, the 6P didn't take long to convince me otherwise. The "pure Google" Android Marshmallow software was a big part of what I liked about the device, of course, along with the guarantee of speedy ongoing upgrades directly from Google itself (especially given the once-dependable Motorola's disappointing meltdown in that department). The crazy-good camera was something I lusted after, too, particularly now that I have a squirmy little marshmallow of my own whom I'm always photographing. And the ability to use the phone on Google's unusual multi-network Project Fi service really appealed to me.

But those were all elements I could also find in the 5X, as were other standout features like the rear-facing fingerprint sensor and the presence of USB Type-C. The thing that really sold me on the 6P over the 5X was the display. As I said in my comparison of the two Nexus phones, I realized I just couldn't unsee the difference between that screen and the 5X's less punchy LCD panel:

I love looking at the 6P's screen; I'm fine with the 5X's, but it wouldn't be my first choice -- as evidenced by the fact that when I have both phones in my pocket or sitting in front of me, the 6P is always the one I grab.

And that was ultimately what did it. Once I thought through the other areas where the 6P shone over the 5X for me -- its premium style and build quality, which I don't necessarily need but certainly appreciate; its stamina, which proved to be a step above the 5X's in my experience; its performance, which was impeccable while the 5X's was occasionally imperfect for me; and its camera extras, most notably the Smart Burst mode that I've come to depend on when taking pictures of my always-moving nine-month-old -- I knew my decision had pretty much been made.

Nexus 5X, Nexus 6P Size

The Nexus 5X vs. 6P -- a surprisingly easy decision for me to make (eventually)

As for the size? I'm genuinely okay with it. I've found I'm able to get used to it very quickly, and once I've had the 6P with me for a few minutes, I don't even think about it at all. The reasonable width that I noted with the Note is a crucial part of that: While the phone is still a touch too tall to always fit comfortably in my pocket, that's a tolerable tradeoff I'm willing to accept. It's still perfectly usable, and that's what matters the most to me.

Now, would I go with a smaller "5P" model, given the choice? Absolutely -- and without hesitation. The size of this phone is something I'm accepting, not something I'm cherishing. But I really am okay with it. Given the fact that there's no smaller device out there that provides all the same qualities I want with no meaningful downsides, I've recognized that the 6P is as close to my ideal as I'm going to get. (And trust me: It's very close.)

In the end, every phone requires some sort of compromise. All we as consumers can do is figure out which factors matter the most to us and what tradeoffs we're willing to accept. With the 6P, I finally found a phone where the positives were enough to outweigh my size preference and convince me to start livin' large. My 64GB Graphite model arrived last night, and I'm officially now a card-carrying member of the plus-sized phone club -- something I never thought I'd say.

Just don't ask me to call it a "phablet," okay?

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