Imagining iPhone 6: Design and display

The iPhone 6 is expected to be introduced at the 2014 iPhone event on September 9 in California. While alleged parts leaks (see the video below) have, like every year, kept us entertained while we wait, it'll only be then, when someone from Apple holds them on stage, that we'll see the real thing. However, it's still a worthwhile exercise to go through the rumors and the speculation and try to figure out what makes sense, both for Apple and for us as customers.

For the last 6 years, new iPhones have included a completely new design ever second year. For the last 4 years, they've included a completely new display target, in density or dimension, ever two years. This is every two years. So, if past behavior really can be used to predict future behavior, we'll get both a new design and a new display target with the iPhone 6. What could those be like?

Warning: Curves ahead

With the current iPhone 5 and iPhone 5s, Jony Ive has taken his Platonic ideal for the iPhone, as first expressed in the early prototypes for Project Experience Purple back in 2005, and made them close to manifest. With very few compromises, we now have a perfect rounded rectangle made out of an almost solid block of aluminum. That original design is done. It's time for what comes next. However, there are still considerable constraints when it comes making an iPhone that works like an iPhone.

It has a front dominated by the display. It has a Home button that not only serves as an escape hatch for stressed or lost customers but, now, as the sensor for Touch ID. It has an earpiece so you can hear calls, and a front FaceTime camera so you can take selfies and make video calls. It has RF transparent elements so the cellular, Wi-Fi, GPS, and Bluetooth radios can send and receive signals. It has a mic and speaker to input and output sound, and a Lightning port to charge and send and receive data. It has to have an iSight camera and TrueTone flash, along with an iPhone logo and additional information on the back.

While all this makes the front seem immutable, it also makes the sides and back seem the most obvious candidates for change. The rounded rectangle need not be so square, and the RF could be made transparent elements could be surfaced in different way.

Flashback to 2012 when Apple shipped the still-current generation 4-inch iPod touch — there was a rumor that its design language, which later found its way into both the iPad mini and iPad Air, would also find its way to the iPhone 6. When iOS 7 shipped with gestures that required you to swipe from the bezel to the screen, making the sharp angles of the iPhone 5 and iPhone 5s more tangible, the rumors only intensified.

A change in size (see below) could also necessitate changes in design. Making the iPhone 6 bigger could make the sleep/wake button, traditionally on the top, harder to reach. That can be solved by moving it to he side. Also, making the iPhone 6 thinner to offset additional weight gained by the size increase could threaten the already shallow z-index of the camera. That can be solved by making the sapphire-capped lens protrude out from the casing, allowing for great optics and thinness, much like the iPod touch before it.

So, take an iPhone 5 or iPhone 5s and, instead of sharply angled chamfered edges, give it smoother curves. Instead of glass windows top and bottom to cap the aluminum unibody backplate, give it lines that cut right through. Move the button from the top to the side, and let the camera rise from the back.

Then you have an iPhone 6 that not only takes from the design language of the iPod touch and iPads, but that takes it a step further as well.

Size matters

Rumor has it the iPhone 6 will once again be larger than its predecessor. It may even come in two models, larger and much larger. Back in February of this year I wrote about the problems solved by a larger iPhone, both for Apple and for us as customers. They still hold true today:

  1. It gives Apple a share of the lucrative over 4-inch phone market. That's where Samsung et. all make their money and Apple currently makes precisely zero. Adding a big screen iPhone 6 not only gives Apple access to that premium customer base, it takes money away from their competitors.
  2. It eliminates size alone as a differentiator. Since the North American market is subsidized, it's the equivalent to walking into Best Buy and seeing all TVs, from 50-to 120-inches, for $200 or less on-contract. Adding a big screen iPhone 6 forces the competition back to areas where Apple's strong, like experience and ecosystem.
  3. It makes the iPhone more functional as a primary computing platform. Some people don't want to have to carry around — or simply can't afford — multiple devices. They need a phone, but they want something closer in size to a tablet. Adding a big screen iPhone 6 fills that gap.
  4. It makes the iPhone more accessible. Whether it involves eyesight or motor skills, a larger screen can support larger interface elements, including type and images. Adding a big screen iPhone 6 makes the technology easier to use.
  5. It allows software to become more sophisticated. One-handed-ease-of-use can be handled by gesture navigation and dynamic interface, but 1136x640 is a fixed constraint. Adding a big screen iPhone 6 opens the platform up for the future.

Apple says their goal is to solve problems and to make technology more mainstream. To make better products that improve their customer's lives. They don't just want to sell more iPhones — they're avoiding the high-volume, low margin market like the plague — they want to sell better iPhones to more people and increase the overall value of their ecosystem. That makes them more profitable, makes us happier, and ensures our mutually beneficial relationship lasts as long as possible.

The eyes have it

Almost 2 years ago I wrote about how Apple could take the iPhone display to 5-inches. Current rumors strongly suggest we'll be getting 4.7-inch and 5.5-inch iPhone displays instead. However, the basic methods for increasing display size remain the same — physically scaling the panel but leaving the pixel count the same, which increases size but decreases density (the inverse of what the iPad mini did); adding pixels, which increases the size but maintains the density (what the iPhone 5 did); or scaling the display and adding pixels, which increases the size and the density.

Apple gets away with having a lower density on the iPad Air relative to the iPad mini and iPhone — 264ppi vs. 326ppi — because you generally hold larger objects farther away. A 4.7-inch and 5.5-inch iPhone still wouldn't be anywhere nearly as big as a 9.7-inch iPad, however, so while I thought that option likely at the time, it seems less likely now.

What seems more likely now is some combination of adding pixels and density, including some way to take Retina to Super Retina.

Apple has reportedly tested @3x prototypes. It's very literally Apple engineering's job to test anything and everything practical and possible. However, both Mark Gurman of 9to5Mac and John Gruber of Daring Fireball have written about @3x displays.

3x, while not as neat as 4x, requires significantly less power to drive and light, and power efficiency is one of Apple's main concerns. The other is usability.

When Apple engineers were trying to figure out the iPad mini, their concern was for touch target size. People with fingers need to be able to consistently and reliably hit interfaces with buttons and other interactive elements. As luck would have it, the existing iPad screen, with some small software modifications, could maintain usability at a smaller size. That meant people could have the smaller size without losing pixels.

Even then it still took another year before they could take the iPad mini to Retina, and drive that many pixels in that small a package. Both the 4.7-inch and 5.5-inch iPhones will be smaller still, and driving and lighting their pixels will be as much of a concern as keeping their interface elements usable by most people — perhaps even usable by more people.

That means striking a balance, both between pixels and performance and between people who want larger displays and more display area. Gruber's math ended up solving for this:

  • 4.7-inch display: 1334 × 750, 326 PPI @2x
  • 5.5-inch display: 2208 × 1242, 461 PPI @3x

Those are atypical numbers for Apple, and largely off-grid numbers for iOS designers raised on pixel perfect design. Perhaps there'll be a pixel or two extra here or there, to keep everything divisible by 16 an on the grid. Or perhaps those days are long gone. Apple already overdraws on the Retina MacBook Pro and then scales down, and counts on density over distance to hide the blurriness from our eyes.

We may not be there yet for mobile processors and performance, but it may be where we're headed when Apple's next display update cycle comes around.

More iPhone 6: Imagined

We'll be imagining a lot about the iPhone 6, including designs, screens, cameras, NFC and mobile payments, and more over the next week, so stay tuned. We'll only know for certain, however, when we report to you live from the iPhone event on September 9!

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

  • Ooh... Missed opportunity. "The eyes have it" could've been "Ive Got This" (Get it? Jony Ive? Bah.)
  • Ha. Ha. /Nelson
  • Awesome article Rene. The thing I'm excited about the most is them creating an incredible display for these new form
    factors. I'll admit the Super Amoled looks great. But it also looks too
    super and hard to look at for long. IMO. Apple does it just right. Watching movies or shows on my iPad is like the perfect marriage of plasma and led technologies. Looking forward to see what they will do on these new screen sizes. Sent from the iMore App
  • Same goes for my iMac. Sent from the iMore App
  • Why apple should make a 5.5 inch iphone.? Carry my iPad mini and I am okay with that. Maybe a 4.5 that would make sense to me. But it all depends how it feels. I have a oneplus and thought oh boy so big but just feels good in my hand and not to big
  • For asian market, phablet is already famous among users.... Why? Because most of asian can only afford to buy one device.... Not like in US where there are contracts to buy an iphone, and pay full amount to buy an ipad... In asian countries, there are no contracts to buy a smartphone... So imagine we (asian) have to pay usd$1000 for 64gb iphone... But we would think twice , and therefore choose to buy smartphone from lenovo,HTC or samsung instead.... But iphone 6 is coming out, and we cant wait to get our hands on it... Because we knew apple provide the best experience in hardware and software... So apple's decision to make bigger screen iphone is very wise.... They really have thought about asian market... First by make gold coloured iphone... Gold means prosperity and wealth for chinese and indian... And for muslim, we sure love gold... Gold and silver symbolize real money ... Sent from the iMore App
  • Good read.. I like everything I see... except the lines! Those Antenna lines just drive me crazy.. most go with a case.. I like to go w/o one most times.. I use a belt case that the phone comes out of when I use it. So I will end up seeing those lines every time. ...... Ahh well, maybe in 2 years when they re-design it; they will rethink it.. or .. maybe, some wistful thinking here, all the 'stolen' prototypes we've seen are not what the final will look like and they fix it.. guess we'll know on the 9th!
  • Don't make excuses for the camera bump. Sent from the iMore App
  • The antenna lines don't bother me but the camera bump looks terrible. I hope it is not this pronounced on actual iPhone 6 (if at all). If there is a bump I hope it is smaller like the iPod but I hope it is not there. Or even less likely....a lens that is retractible and will be flush when not zoomed
  • Ditto. Sent from the iMore App
  • I agree. If it only protrudes half a millimeter why didn't they bring the case out half a millimeter so that it was flush.
  • Just bring the case out to match the camera lens and fill the extra space with more BATTERY! Sent from the iMore App
  • Yea....agreed the camera lens is an eye sore. I really hope they don't do that. It might make me jump ship.....will have to wait and see. Sent from the iMore App
  • Explain how it's not too big again? My wrestling hands (aka Megan Fox Thumbs) struggle to one hand reach on the 5s as is.
  • Even Apple can't change the laws of physics, so the camera optics have to be a certain minimum depth.. But then there are choices. A valid choice would have been to make the entire phone the same depth as the optics (hence no protrusion) and use the extra volume for more battery.. But maybe the choice to go with a protruding lens collar will be justified by giving it some function? For example, it could function as a guide for external extension lenses, maybe even assisted by magnets?
  • I'm just hoping that camera ring is for magnetically attaching accessories.
    Haven't heard a translation of (or seen English subtitles) to the new F&V vid.
    But if it were magnetic we'd probably have heard rumors long ago.
  • 1334x750 for the 4.7" totally makes sense. Keeping the good enough 326ppi while increasing screen real estate is true benefit. However 2208x1242 for the 5.5" implies developpers will need to cater for 2 new res, 667x375pts and 736x414pts. Why not 1334x750 (@2x) for the 4.7", and 2001x1125 (@3x 667x375pts) for the 5.5"?! That makes 417ppi for the 5.5". And developpers will only need to cater for 1 new layout, which is 667x375 pts.
  • I just can't believe how Apple, the professed king of usability, took so long to put the power button on the side of the device, and not on that awkward top position. That was one of the things I missed most when moving from a Nokia to an iPhone four years ago.
  • In the Russian video it says it's the real iPhone 6 is that true?
  • I consider a hard to reach power button a good thing - keep it out of the way so it does not accidentally get pressed.
  • Sheesh, when is Apple going to start using a density and resolution independent system like Google has been doing for years with Android. This is a solved problem. It seems every year a new resolution is added to iOS, anxiety ensues. This is why hardcoding UI pixels, or anything for that matter, is a bad design and engineering practice. They teach you this is Programming 101. I can't for the life of me figure out why Apple would take this approach with iOS.
  • Probably when Google stops trying to be Apple.
  • Everyone tries to be everyone.
  • The 4.7" iPhone would be the right size for me. Not sure on the design change though. Will have to wait and see. I used a 5.5" display android phone for a month recently and was a little to big for me. I am sure there are people out there that want it though. Sent from the iMore App
  • Agreed... The camera that sticks out, looks terrible... Please apple, dont release that iphone 6 unless you fix it... Make the unibody a bit thicker so you could make battery a bit bigger... And cover that horrible camera... Sent from the iMore App
  • Didn't you once say that apple wouldnt ever do a camera that protudes? Posted via the Android iMore App!
  • I want the shape of the 5C, but in aluminum instead of plastic. The straight sides, top, and bottom of the 5C (and 5S) makes it more stable when holding it with your fingers (like when trying to take a picture in landscape) but the rounded corners of the 5C make it more comfortable in the hand. Still not quite as comfortable as the iPhone 3G/S, but the 5C is a great balance in between the fully rounded 3G/S and the straight 4/S/5/S. And yes, all else being equal, thinner is better, but if your camera has to have a bump in order to do it, thinner isn't better. .
  • Being too lazy to figure it out for myself, what size is the phone in the Russian video? I assume 4.7", but it looks bigger / hard for me to tell. +1 : I hope the stupid camera lens doesn't protrude. Reminds me of the nipples on George Clooney's Batman suit. Sent from the iMore App
  • Regarding the camera lens protrusion: this won't matter to those who put their phone in a case. But for those like me who don't, it will be very annoying, and likely easily damaged. I use Zagg invisible shield, which is very thin. We'll see. When I first saw the lens on the iPod touch I thought it was broken, until I looked at another iPod. Shame. Sent from the iMore App
  • I would really like to know a round about price for the 6 ? They keep making a big to do about the "sapphire" crystal screen. It sounds like it is going to be a big factor on cost as much as they mention it. I haven't read myself per say, but I have heard that the reason for the sapphire is it is a much harder crystal and not so easily broken. I would have to say that all of the iPhones to date have had the weakest crystal screens, if you look at it wrong the screen will crack. And last but not least ( like I said I haven't read a lot on the 6) is it being released on the 9th or they are just announcing when it will be released ? If anyone knows a definite I would appreciate any info ? Thanks.