The classification of macroscale, mesoscale and microscale channels with respect to two-phase processes is still an open question. The main objective of this study focuses on investigating the macro-to-microscale transition during flow boiling in small scale channels of three different sizes with three different refrigerants over a range of saturation conditions to investigate the effects of channel confinement on two-phase flow patterns and liquid film stratification in a single circular horizontal channel (Part 2 covers the flow boiling heat transfer and critical heat flux). This paper presents the experimental two-phase flow pattern transition data together with a top/bottom liquid film thickness comparison for refrigerants R134a, R236fa and R245fa during flow boiling in small channels of 1.03, 2.20 and 3.04 mm diameter. Based on this work, an improved flow pattern map has been proposed by determining the flow patterns transitions existing under different conditions including the transition to macroscale slug/plug flow at a confinement number of Co approximate to 0.3-0.4. From the top/bottom liquid film thickness comparison results, it was observed that the gravity forces are fully suppressed and overcome by the surface tension and shear forces when the confinement number approaches 1, Co approximate to 1. Thus, as a new approximate rule, the lower threshold of macroscale flow is Co = 0.3-0.4 while the upper threshold of symmetric microscale flow is Co approximate to 1 with a transition (or mesoscale) region in-between. (C) 2010 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.