Going big

Going big

In 2012 Apple increased the screen size of the iPhone from 3.5- to 4-inches, and just a month later introduced the iPad mini with a 7.9- rather than 9.7-inch screen. Between those devices, the old-but-still-on-the-market iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S and iPhone 5, and the iPad mini and iPad, there's a noticeable gap. No 4.5- to 5-inch phone. At least for now.

For many customers that's no gap at all. For many, Apple has kept the screen size exactly where they want it -- tall but still narrow enough to (mostly) use one handed. Thin enough to use with smaller hands, and to fit in smaller pockets and purses. Same enough to continue to argue that people who want much bigger screens are still as wrong as they ever were.

For other customers, 4-inches still isn't big enough.

For some of those, size sells. Imagine you walked into a Big Box retailer and all the television sets, from 32- to 70+-inches all cost pretty much the same thing. Imagine the 70+-inch television, or even the 102-inch television, cost less than the 32-inch one. Thanks to carrier subsidies and agendas, that's the current situation for the iPhone. Customers walk into carriers or retailers and see the $199 iPhone on the shelf alongside 4.5- to 5-inch or bigger Android phones and Windows Phones. Bigger equals better, so they buy bigger.

For the rest, size matters. Either their eyes require bigger interface elements to easily use, their motor skills appreciate more room to move around, or they simply want a bigger screen to do bigger things with. Bigger web. Bigger videos. Bigger games. They might even want something approaching mini-tablet size, and would rather have a big phone than a small phone and a tablet. Bigger is better, so they buy bigger.

For both, even if they'd prefer an iPhone in many ways, the screen size is what they see, or what's more important to them than anything else. And because of that, neither of those customers is choosing the iPhone.

Apple may not care, of course. They didn't care about customers for whom "cheap" is the most important feature, when they chose netbooks, or choose sold-at-cost tablets over Apple's MacBooks or iPads. They currently don't care about customers for whom size options are the most important feature, when people choose larger than 15-inch laptops over MacBooks. In general, Apple has shown resilience to market trends and stuck to a small core of high quality, highly specific products.

But Apple did go to 4-inches with the iPhone this year. And they did go to 7.9-inches with the iPad mini this year, following the introduction of several 7-inch tablets. So Apple's not completely immune to market trends either.

Right now, Apple is content to try and counter-program the bigger screen Samsung and HTC and Nokia devices.

If Apple goes to multiple iOS device releases next year, and their cycle includes two refreshes a year instead of one, however, it'll be interesting to see how the hardware will keep up with that pace. When they're fast enough, with good enough cameras, and long enough battery life, what else will differentiate them? Could multiple screen sizes be an answer to that question?

At close to 5-inches, a 1136x640 iPhone would have the same pixel density as the Retina iPad, 264 ppi. That would be a large iPhone -- a Droid DNA-large iPhone -- and probably larger than most of the market wants. At close to 4.5 inches, a 1136x640 iPhone would have a pixel density of 290, between the Retina iPad and the current iPhone's 326 ppi. Having the same pixel resolution means apps "just work" and developers don't have to update to support it.

If Apple would rather prioritize pixel density and stay truer to the original Retina brand messaging, they could also go from the current @2x (1136x640) to @3x (1704x960) for 435 ppi at 4.5-inches or 391 at 5-inches, or even @4x (2272x1280) or 580 ppi at 4.5-inches or 522 at 5-inches. That would create the same workload for developers as the switch from @1x to @2x that occurred between the iPhone 3GS and iPhone 4, and iPad 2 and iPad 3. (By way of comparison, the Droid DNA is 1920x1080 at 5-inches and 440 ppi.)

Apple already has multiple Mac sizes, multiple iPod sizes, and multiple iPad sizes, so it's not unimaginable they could one day have multiple iPhone sizes greater than the 3.5 and 4-inch iPhones we have today.

With Apple you can never say never. They're smart, they're changeable, and if one day they do choose to go big, to make something with the build quality, lightness, and thinness of the iPhone 5 at a larger scale, it'll be something many people choose to take home.

Have something to say about this story? Leave a comment! Need help with something else? Ask in our forums!

Rene Ritchie

EiC of iMore, EP of Mobile Nations, Apple analyst, co-host of Debug, Iterate, Vector, Review, and MacBreak Weekly podcasts. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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Reader comments

Going big


If they just make a 4.5 iPhone longer like the iPhone 5 people still will choose other options. Make it wider as well so it won't be as awkward to hold in hand

If "company x" releases a big screened phone and nobody buys it, is there really a market to catch up to?

Or perhaps even more relevant, if "company x" releases a flawed implementation of a big screen on a phone, why should I feel any attachment if someone else figures out how to do it better?

Being first only matters if it doesn't suck.

But my main question is, why are people so obsessed with who is the first to do something? Shouldn't an equally valid concern be about who ultimately does it best?

Because if someone does something first, that is true innovation.

And people are buying big screen phones, therefore there is a market to catch up to. My point is, Apple have played catch up in the past, and will almost certainly do it again at this rate.

I just think its a stupid obsession on either part, Android or Apple's, to be ranting and raving about who did it first.

Is it relevant sometimes? Sure. But its of secondary importance to the actual execution of the product and the value it brings to customers. The fact that it hearkens back to the fanboy argument of "Apple never innovates, they are always copying and overcharging," just doesn't make it very compelling.

so all those big screen phones that are selling like crazy( as shown by the phones getting larger not smaller must mean they all suck according to you because apple didn't do it?)

Using Renee's tv analogy, if company A makes a 36" 1080p 3D backlit LCD with built in web apps and streaming capabilities and sells it for $800 and company B makes a 42" 720p plasma with nothing more than an hdmi and cable hookup and sells it for $300. Does that mean that company a or b is better or playing market catch up? The answer is it doesn't matter. The products are for different consumers, some consumers would rather spend the extra money on a product that has what they percieve to be high end necessary features and some consumers don't care about the perceived high end features and just want a big screen for less money. No one is wrong or right and the consumer gets what they want in the end.

I think a 4.3" phone would be the perfect size to keep the width and length, maybe 4.5. Just my opinion. I had an Evo before I got the 4S, I thought the Evo's screen size was pretty good.

There's no "if" to it. It's inevitable. But where a smaller ipad could get away with being nonretina, a bigger iphone won't. A bigger iphone removes the prime barrier to entry that android has on iOS.

Bingo. They can't and won't buck the market. I can see the current iPhone going 4.8 at most, but more likely 4.5 -- with a concomitant rise in pixel density. This is not the iPad mini. They have to lead and get it right. They can't get sucked into a spec war, because then Samsung almost automatically wins.

Just today I had an iPhone 5 and SGS II in my hands, if I were to buy an iPhone based on size only, the screen size of the SGS II would be PERFECT for an iPhone. The reason I say this is, on both phones the length of the screens are EXACT and the only difference is the width. I don't have large hands and I can STILL navigate the SGS II screen all over without any discomfort or stretching. The SGS II I had in hand was the international version.....it's the perfect size for any smartphone for avarage size hands people and can still fit in skinny hipster jeans. Lol
Btw, I loaded an apple onscreen keyboard on it to get the real feel of how it would be to type on it one handed / thumbed, it worked Perfectly .... no mistakes, errors or stretching of my thumb to hit any key. If in doubt find one and give it a try. 4.2 equals perfect!!

"retina" is an word apple can essentially redefine to mean whatever apple wants. Though it wouldn't be 326 ppi, I'm sure they could find a way to rebrand 290 ppi to be retina on the iPhone, and the reality is that 98% of people would never even notice a difference in the density.

Not sure that is what they will do, but the jump from 4 inches to 4.5 doesn't have nearly the impact on screen density as the ipad to mini had.

Believe me when I tell you that they won't do that. If they ever choose to go bigger it'll be after they've perfected a 4.5, or 4.8 or whatever size screen they choose to make it, retina display in at least the current 326 ppi or even higher.

The reason being is that every major high-end smartphone that is released nowadays is thoroughly dissected by every major tech review website whether its's cnet, Engadget, pcworld, or whoever they break down EVERYTHING about the phone from specs (including and especially pixel density) to weight and thickness everything is broken down. They even like to crack them open nowadays also. You just can't get away with the public's ignorance of specs nowadays and I think this huge iPhone 5 vs. Samsung Galaxy S III debate has proven that. I've never seen two phones compared more than these two. And they broke down every aspect of each phone.

Apple knows this all too well which is probably why they take so damn long to change their products.

The best hardware review I've seen, at least for Apple products, is done by Anandtech. These other guys you mention, especially Cnet, are amateurs at best compared to Anandtech.

And they have to come up with a RATIONALE for whatever their new size may be. If they just say "Hey, we're the biggest iPhone since iPhone" one more time, the world will give one great big collective heave. So it has to be something that's demanded by their new multitasking environment or something.else...

going wider would be a huge benefit to Apple. My iPhone 5 was stolen on Halloween and I had to replace it with a Droid Razr Maxx HD for a month. While my distaste for Android was reinforced, I LOVED the screen size and the battery life was mind blowing. These are two things Apple need to go after, IMO. It was still thin even. Too bad Apple probably doesn't agree with me. I'd go for a 4.3 to 4.5 inch wider iPhone in a heartbeat.

A bigger screen for android means more space/bigger widgets. A bigger screen in windows phone means more space/bigger live tiles. What would you do with a big screen in an iphone? And dont tell me another f@*king row in the app drawer. So no a bigger screen does not make sense for an iphone. Personally nothing above 4.3" makes sense.

How about typing in portrait mode? The iPhone keyboard is too tiny and squished in portrait and I for one, don't like landscape. Also web browsing would be easier too.

You kidding me? It'd be huge for web surfing, reading email and books, watching videos, playing games, etc. Not to mention the fact that Apple needs to refresh the springboard anyway. If widgets are introduced at some point, a bigger screen would be fantastic. Even if they're only allowed in notification center. A bigger phone overall will also allow for a bigger battery.

Good point. To each is own but anything above 4.3 inches is for me just too much. Also isn't Apples' focus less about the phone and more about the apps?

I just recently bought a Samsung Galaxy S3 and loved the size of the screen! and the widgets too! but I ended up selling it as I like the iOS way of doing things better. I am considering another foray either with the Samsung Note 2 or the Droid DNA so in my opinion a 5" iPhone would be great!

Apple needs to suck it up, copy Samsung, and make an iNote 5.X inch phone with the same build quality of the iPhone 5 because THAT is what would bring people back to iPhone from Android.

I was one of the people who was upset with the size of the new iPhone 5. So much so, that I picked up a Note II this past weekend... The large 5.5" screen is awesome for internet and movies and especially games... But when yesterday (Monday) hit, and I had to go back to work, reality set in. The Note 2 is too big.

I never realized how much I use my phone one handed. I have bluetooth in my (and my wife's) car, so I wasnt worried about receiving calls in the car. Unfortunately, I had forgotten about my work Jeep (which doesnt have bluetooth). It only took ONE day of trying to dial out, answer calls, etc while on the road to realize that the Note wouldnt work for me. (Plus as much as I was trying to be stubborn by saying "it fits in my pocket fine", it was honestly huge and bulky). Took it back last night and upgraded to an iPhone 5.

I know a lot of people are going to shrug this off and say "well, that phone wasnt for HIM, but it might be for ME", (and that might be true), but it is hard for me to see the Note 2 size working well for anyone who is not at a full-time desk job.

Given all that, I now realize why Apple paid so much attention to the "one handed" operation of the iPhone 5 (I originally shrugged that off as a cop-out for making a bigger phone). Do I think the iPhone 5 is the perfect size for me? No. I DO think it could go a little bigger (4.5" perhaps?). But it IS the perfect size to ensure that most people can operate it one handed. IMHO, I think creating a 2nd device (iPhone XL?) that would satisfy those who want larger screens while keeping the original able to be used with one hand, would be the next logical step for Apple.

I'm probably in the minority here, but I've never had a problem with the size of the iPhone 5. In fact I thought the size of the iPhone 4 was perfect. Not a huge fan of huge phones (ie: 5" +) - I own both the humongous Galaxy Note II and the iPhone 5; I love both but do prefer the size of the iphone 5 over my Note.

This thumb nonsense is one more lie Apple marketing has fed people and everybody believed without questioning, just Job's infamous tirade about having to file one's finger to use a tablet smaller than 9.7".

Even in the ad is clear that the thumb cannot reach the Photo app without slightly readjusting the hand position, which throws the whole point down the drain.

I have used 4.5" phones and had zero problem using the device. Its not "common sense", it's marketind crap at its best.

I prefer the size of the iPhone 4. For me it is perfect. Of course, different people, different choices.

A wider 4.5 inch iPhone would be the ticket for me. Unfortunately, all the women, teen girls and skinny jeans wearing hipsters would be upset. And since this is Apple's target audience, it will never happen.