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Summary:

Did you hear the reports? Apple’s working on a bigger iPhone. That’s not a huge surprise but people don’t necessarily want a huge phone. And iOS developers don’t want yet another resolution to support. Here’s how Apple might address the challenge.

retina_widethumb

After weeks of reports that the next iPhone will have a larger screen — possibly in the form of two different but bigger models — I’m starting to believe it. And I wouldn’t be surprised by the development. I called for 4-inch iPhone in early 2011 because I saw more and more people around me squinting to see videos on the then-3.5-inch iPhone display. I see a similar trend now having jumped on and off the “phablet” bandwagon since September of 2012.

Assuming the rumors are true, the next interesting question is divining what resolution Apple will choose for a larger iPhone screen? At first glance, you might not care. But developers surely do. They won’t want another screen resolution to develop iOS apps for without some type of easy migration path. Don’t believe me? Look at programmers complaining about Android’s many screen shapes, sizes and resolutions to see what Apple wants to avoid.

Here’s an illustration from OpenSignal on the Android situation showing various screen sizes found on Android devices:

android screen sizes

I suspect Apple will avoid that situation; as best it can, that is. There has to be compromise somewhere. After all, you can’t add a larger display to a phone and keep the same overall size the same unless something else changes.

For example, a 4.7-inch iPhone 6 — I’m picking an arbitrary size here — won’t be the same overall size as the iPhone 5s unless Apple removes (or significantly modifies) the Touch ID home button. And if Apple were to simply boost the screen size without changing from the current 1136 x 640 resolution of the iPhone 5s, the pixels per inch drops to 277 ppi, i.e.; not quite a “retina display.”

Those are just two examples of what Apple has yet to figure out, although if reports are accurate and at least one larger iPhone model is nearing production, Apple likely already made a decision. It would be difficult to make a summer or fall launch date if not.

Apple’s been down this (resolution) road before

The company faced the same challenges when boosting the resolution from the iPhone 3GS to the iPhone 4; both of which had a 3.5-inch screen. Apple simply doubled the resolution both horizontally and vertically, gaining higher pixel density while offering developers an easy path for their apps: Pixels were simply doubled. Later, when Apple moved from a 3.5 to a 4-inch screen, it simply added extra pixels horizontally for developers to use. The company couldn’t use a scaling technique for the change. As a result, the iPhone 5 and 5s have “taller” displays.

I don’t think Apple can take the same approach if the iPhone 6 is indeed larger. By larger this time around, the phone display will likely be a little wider. After all, simply adding horizontal screen space would make the phone much taller than wider and at some point, it could get too tall to use comfortably. Plus, the display would be even wider from left to right when in portrait, which wouldn’t help for watching video.

iPhone 5C foldable case

To meet the needs of developers while also increasing the size of the iPhone, my best guess is that the iPhone 6 would have a 1440 x 960 resolution. That’s a 150 percent increase from the 960 x 640 resolution of the iPhone 4. I’m not using the 1136 x 640 iPhone 5s display resolution as a baseline because to me that was a one-off choice to make the 4-inch display work until Apple was ready to make a bigger change.

A resolution of 1440 x 960 keeps the 3:2 aspect ratio of the iPhone 4 / 4S and at 4.5 inches, would have a pixel density of 384.59 ppi. Bump the screen up to 4.7-inches — another rumored size — and the PPI only drops to 368.23. Either way, such displays would provide more pixels per inch than any current iPhone, which Apple can use as a selling point. (Note: A 5-inch display with this resolution also has a higher than retina display pixel density of 346.13. That’s plenty clear for a handset: I’m still not seeing the need for the alleged 2560 x 1440 “2k” screen and the 525 PPI expected in upcoming Samsung’s Galaxy S5.

One caveat: There actually would be one benefit for Apple choosing to use 1136 x 640 to build from: It’s a 16 : 9 aspect ratio. I still don’t think Apple will scale from that resolution but I point out the aspect ratio as a compelling reason for it to do so. Scaling up at 150 percent would mean a resolution of 1704 x 960, which seems a bit odd to me. Then again, 1136 wasn’t a well-known standard for pixels, either.

Why not just go for two times the pixels and fun?

So why wouldn’t Apple just double the screen resolution of the iPhone 4? That would mean a screen with 1920 x 1280, which is surely feasible; there are several Android phones currently available with 1920 x 1080 displays. But I don’t think Apple needs to boost resolution that high. On a 1440 x 960 display, iOS apps will surely look fine, so why incur the cost of a 1920 x 1280 display? I’m not saying this is out of the question, but I think it’s overkill.

retina_widethumb

Regardless, an iPhone 6 with either a 1440 x 960 or a 1920 x 1280 resolution is still going to need the screen to expand vertically as well as horizontally. I suspect Apple will do everything it can to minimize screen bezel and save room above and below the display to keep its next phone as small as it can be while adding the larger screen at the same time. Motorola’s Moto X is a fine example of this, using a 4.7-inch display with a footprint that’s not much bigger than the current iPhone.

Moto G vs iPhone 5s

Again, this is speculation and educated guesswork on my part. It’s all arguable, of course. I don’t have any concrete plans or knowledge of what Apple will do for the iPhone 6, or if it will even be called the iPhone 6. The company has been able to keep developers and users happy as it grew the iPhone to its current size, however, and I think it will do the exact same with the next edition.

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  1. Apple seems to be following Samsung’s lead. The irony is palpable

    1. In what way? They’ve not even produced a larger phone yet, nor a smart watch. Apple is ahead, letting everyone else try out a million different screen sizes while sitting back until they can figure out which large screen size really makes sense.

      Being a leader doesn’t mean you are always pout in front; it often means you are sitting on the hill above everyone watching them take all the arrows until you figure out the best path through.

      1. Just like BlackBerry sat on the hill above watching Apple and Android take all the arrows until it figured out that BlackBerry was the best path through.

  2. Apple will stick to 16:9. They don’t switch aspect ratios on a whim.

    Look at the established pattern: quadruple pixels.

    I think they will go 2272×1280.

  3. Apple jumping back to 3:2 doesn’t make sense.

    It would be seen as a step back from the jump to 16:9, and anger developers who put the work into changing the layout of their apps. While the bigger phone would line up with the iPhone 4S, how much longer will Apple keep that one around? They’ve already introduced a “low end” 16:9 phone, and sticking with 16:9 would keep things homogenous through the entire iPhone line.

    I also think you’re really understating video’s effect. I don’t watch any on my 5, but I might on a hypothetically larger 6. There are already plenty of people watching video who would continue to do so on a larger phone, and any gains in screen size would be hampered by leaving 16:9, a largely-dominant format.

    I’ve always been a believer that a bigger iPhone will likely be a 5″ screen with the iPad Air’s retina display, but you make a good case for 150%, and Apple has been pushing resolution independence for some time now.

    Good read!

    1. As an iPhone developer, I don’t care if Apple goes back to 3:2 because I *already* have to support that aspect ratio for the iPhone 4/4s. We have lots of options to dynamically change screen layout as the aspect ratio shifts, it’s not that big a deal.

      Personally for everyday use I prefer a 3:2 aspect ratio over a 16:9, which is nicer for video but not much else. For reading especially 3:2 is far better.

  4. When the screen size increases to at least 4.7 inches (my HTC Sensation is 4.3 inches), AND the phone storage can be downloaded to my computer easily (a user-replaceable microSD card would be preferable), I will consider buying an iPhone. It would be nice if Apple used the same plug as all other phones, the micro-USB, since many devices use that and many people already have those cables.

    You said you “saw more and more people around me squinting to see videos on the then-3.5-inch iPhone display”. While I don’t usually watch videos on my phone (it IS a phone), I do use it to access info from the internet or use apps that display info I would like to read without using a magnifier.

  5. As. Ivica said, there is no chance Apple will return to the old 3:2 ratio. All the new apps developers have made in the 16:9 layout would only work in 3:2 with tall, vertical letterboxing, which would look much worse than the small letterboxing required to go from 3:2 to 16:9. Apple clearly doesn’t care about non-standard resolutions because their devices are nearly a standard on their own. Moving back to 3:2 would be a step backward I don’t see Apple taking.

  6. 16:9 is the way to go. Apple will sunset the 3.5 inch iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S. I anticipate a fairly massive migration from the the iPhone 4 to the iPhone 6 which will mean terrific sales for Apple.

    1. Agreed, and this 4 user will be one of the migrants. However, don’t give me 16:9. I have that on my home TV screen, thank you very much. My iPhone is not to replace that but is to be a very mobile and versatile computer with phone capabilities.

      About squinting: if you have to, go see an optometrist. They can work wonders for you. Like they did for me with monovision (meaning only one eye will see near, the other will see far). So, this “one-eye” user does not have to squint (or use glasses) to read even the tiniest print on his retina screen. I don’t need bigger print, just a bigger screen to cover more of it. Thank you, Apple.

  7. 16:9 will be maintained. Yep.

  8. Joshua Talley Friday, January 24, 2014

    1280×720 on a 4.5″ screen would be about the same density. I was hoping that the Nexus 5 would have taken that route. Since it didn’t, I bought the Moto X. When the G came along, I was tempted, but the rest of its hardware didn’t keep up. I’m very interested in Sony’s Z1c because of these features being together (screen size 4.5 or under @ 720p, camera, etc.)

    http://bhtooefr.org/displaycalc.htm

  9. I for one would love the return to 3:2. Apple had to abandon that format because they wanted to accommodate one-hand use for the iPhone 5. They didn’t really give other reasons. For a general use device, 16:9 is less than ideal. As for the screen size, 5 inch already seems to be too big judging by the struggles of the Galaxy S4. I think 4.7 inch is the sweet spot for a 16:9 device; 4.5 inch for a 3:2 device.

  10. 1920 * 1080 is the format most widely used by HD videos.
    Plus airplay mirroring would look great on any hd tv. so i am guessing this would be the most logic with a 4.7 inch

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