Blog Post

Why a 4-inch iPhone makes sense (Hint: not due to Android)

Apple’s next iPhone model will reportedly have at least a 4-inch display according to sources “familiar with the matter” and reported by the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday. Apple(s aapl) hasn’t officially commented, which is expected as the company doesn’t make statements on unreleased products. However, the WSJ has a history of reporting on solid information about future Apple products, possibly as planned leaks from Apple itself. Regardless of where the information came from, a larger iPhone simply makes sense at this point in time.

I recall an online debate I had with my then co-worker Darrell Etherington in February of last year on this very topic: Should the next iPhone have a 4-inch display? Darrell held his own in that back-and-forth, but I believed then — as I do now — Apple can’t stick with a 3.5-inch iPhone forever. Or if it does continue creating phones with that size, they’ll likely be priced lower than a larger model. I even suggested that Apple could use a 4-inch display without increasing the overall size of the device by much, explaining how it would improved the overall experience for both consumption and input:

“Larger screen devices — without much larger form factors, I might add — can provide a better user experience for many: Text is larger as is the software keyboard, for example, as is the media experience, especially as smartphones can play back higher-resolution video. Think of it as moving from a 32- to a 40-inch HDTV set, only on a smaller scale. It’s not really about the screen size, or even about “keeping up with the Androids;” it’s about the improved experience that such a change can bring, and that’s not something you can see from a spec sheet.”

As I said back then, moving to a larger screen on the iPhone has nothing to do with keeping pace of Android(s aap) handsets which are now topping out at 5.3-inch screen sizes. Between mobile apps, web browsing and online video, a larger display that’s still usable with one hand and fits in a pocket is simply more useful. Not everyone will agree, but of course, Apple doesn’t care about the fringe cases: It develops products for the masses with attributes that appeal to most. And if my suspicion is correct, Apple may still keep the 3.5-inch model around at a reduced price from any bigger siblings.

How will Apple accomplish the feat of using a larger display while maintaining its Retina Display definition? My guess is that the phone uses a 1024 x 768 panel which is the same resolution as the company’s first two iPads and works out to 320 pixels per inch. That would allow a 4-inch iPhone to natively run all of the existing iPad applications that aren’t optimized for the new iPad, which is double the resolution in both directions. Thoughts?

26 Responses to “Why a 4-inch iPhone makes sense (Hint: not due to Android)”

  1. I loatheee the tiny screen on the iPhone thats what fueled me to get the larget phone out there, the Galaxy Note! No going back anytime soon!! Apple has a bunch of laundry list items they need to fix in its next iphone if it even wants to stay in the game. In my opinion Android is killing it! Go out and get yourself a sexy galaxy instead of an iPhone people!

  2. jasong3112

    It was only a matter of time, smartphones are too media-rich not to at least a 4 inch screen. I wrote a post on some of the concept designs that look really good, just click me name to have a look…

  3. Redderbeard

    Look, it’s just ridiculous to claim that Apple adopting a feature it derided in the past but that all its competitors are using has nothing to do with those competitors is simply ridiculous. This author has no idea what they’re talking about. Steve Jobs said anything about 3.5″ was a non-starter for Apple. Then he died, and Apple began developing a 4″ display. Boy, talk about loyalty.

    • Fair point, but sometimes people put a bit too much stock in what Steve Jobs has said. The “people don’t read books anymore” comment was a signal that Apple would never get into e-books and yet iBooks appeared a year or two later. ;)

  4. p123j

    Why not take an honest survey about size instead of having the top people decide what the customers want? I have a 4″ android, and I feel bad when I see someone with a bigger screen size. It’s a better experience with a 4.3 or 4.5 screen! The screen just looks gorgeous at these sizes.

  5. Tom GB

    Here’s the difference, Android manufacturers are part of a commodity market and need to differentiate their product in simple, easy to understand ways. Screen size is one of these. Now, I don’t deny that some small percentage of people want enormous phones, but this is not why phones with large screen sizes were made. The decision was about marketing, not about making a better product.
    In contrast, Apple has a different strategy to make money in that they set out to design the best device possible, according to their admittedly sometimes narrow focus. They have had enough success with this over the last 10 years that it has become self-fulfilling and they don’t have to indulge in feature match driven by marketing to compete.
    This doesn’t necessarily mean that the next phone won’t be bigger, but designers, rather than marketing people, will have made the decision.

  6. wscaddie56

    I have to put this squarely in wait and see. Apple has been quite judicious with how many improvements they include with each model. I find it difficult to believe they will add iMaps, iLTE and iBigger Screen in one year if all rumors are to be believed.
    Also, while most articles we read will gush how iMaps is so great can we make it a point to thank Google for their years of free mapping services available to all?

  7. Aaron

    Apple COULD make the screen larger, maintain the same phone size, but make it exactly the same pixel density. That way when the user runs smaller, older apps then the phone only uses 960×640 pixels in the center of the screen. 960×640 that are in the exact same place as the old iphone’s screen. Therefore, no stretching occurs and no updates are required for old apps to look good, but more screen realestate can be used for newer apps. If done right then a person wouldnt notice any difference between the new and old iPhone running the same old app.

    • tmeyersstl

      I agree. If they go with a 4″ screen, here’s the most logical prediction I can make:

      Change the resolution from 960 by 640 (3:2 aspect ratio) to 1152 by 648 (16:9 aspect ratio). Keep the outer physical dimensions of the phone the same, but maybe move the earpiece up a little and the Home Button down a little to accomodate the wider screen. This would allow the pixel density to remain at 326 ppi. Current iPhone apps would still display at 960 by 640 (if in landscape mode) and be the exact same size they are today, but a black 4 pixel border could be added to the top and bottom and a black 96 pixel border could be added to the left and right. New apps would fill the new display and be a bit larger. And HD videos with a 16:9 aspect ratio could finally fill the entire screen.

      • Sorry, but I have to laugh at this comment since I wrote the article. ;) I have a LONG history of wanting Apple to make a larger phone and a smaller iPad. I’ve touted the benefits of larger phones — Android ones, to be specific — for well over two years here. And my primary phone is a 4.65-inch Galaxy Nexus. Note that I also write a weekly Android column on GigaOm and have for a few years.

        Having said that: I think you (and several others) have misunderstood my hint in the title. As I noted a year ago (quoted in the post) this likely has little to do with what Android phones are doing. Why would it when iPhone sales are still setting record after record? Instead, the primary reason (IMO, that is) Apple may go with a larger screen is for the same reason that Android handset makers have: a more immersive, yet still pocketable experience. Not to copy what Android is doing.

      • I won’t go so far as to say it’s SO biased, but many articles and posts do lean that way. Apple provides a great product and expereince, and therefore will get positive press.

        Kevin, my point is actually the one you’re making, but in reverse. Android is the one that responded to consumer demand for bigger screens and a more immersive experience. Apple instead took their typical “we know better” stance and said “no, you don’t want that. Our customers don’t want that.” Apple is the antithesis of responding to cosuemer demand. Therefore, you cannot defend against the copy claim by stating they are responding to consumers.

        You could argue Apple is responding to consumer demand only in the vacuum that does not include their No. 1 competitor already offering said option.

        The joy I take in kicking at Apple on this item is the same we should all take when any person or company sets itself higher than thou, dictates what’s best for us, and then turns out to be wrong. The downfall of the nobility is always enjoyable. This is where I feel that roles reversed, the story would be completely different.

        • ksparangers, I agree with you: Android did respond better to consumer demand in this regard; that’s why I use a Galaxy Nexus and Galaxy Tab 7.7 far more than iOS products (which I also own as use, of course). Well said and point taken! :)

  8. Bob Forsberg

    Any 4″ iPhone screens are a result of consumer demand, not competitive product. All-in-one 27″ iMacs were not a result of Dell or HP influences.

  9. Kindroid

    NAW. UNH UNH. NO WAY. Forget it. Steve Jobs and Apple marketing has etched in stone….3.5″ display is perfect. No other size could possibly be considered. Years of bashing and taunting any phone larger than that has become part of the corporate DNA. To make any change would admit that Jobs and Apple were wrong. And that is a VERY slippery slope for Apple dogma. If Apple was actually wrong about display size….what else have they been wrong about?

  10. consumer

    As long as they don’t increase the external dimensions of the phone much. As a phone, not a television, I would prefer it actually be able to fit in my pocket. If I want larger video, well, that’s why there’s an iPad.

  11. coder543

    First off, they are keeping up with the Androids. Do you really think Android manufacturers and consumers alike would be clamoring for bigger screens if they hadn’t discovered all of the benefits already? No. They’re reusing the research done by the Android companies.

    Secondly, I wish you would stop quoting that FUD. “a larger display that’s still usable with one hand” is complete bologna. Even my Galaxy Nexus with a 4.65 inch display is perfectly usable one handed. Apple didn’t find the “perfect” screen size or any of that junk.

    Finally, as I developed for iPhone and iPad both, I can tell you that the layouts I used for iPad would be dangerously small to use on a 7 or 8 inch iPad, and impossible on a 4 to 4.5 inch screen. That isn’t happening. If Apple does release a larger iPhone, they’re going to be creative. They have several options: keeping the same resolution and just enjoying the larger display; redesigning their UI toolkit to better accommodate fluid designs, more in the Android style than the iOS one; they could provide a one-click upgrade to the new screen size and resolution button inside XCode and leave it up to developers to support it; or they could take this opportunity to clean the cruft and start the app store fresh, leaving it up to developers to manually port their apps or be left on the older devices. Using iPad apps on an iPhone is not really an option.

    Apple isn’t afraid to clone ideas that are excellent. They did it with Notification Center, they did it with voice transcription for iPhone, they even did it (inevitably) with multitasking much as they tried to avoid having to. Don’t kid yourself, this isn’t Apple suddenly waking up one day and thinking their customers would be better off with a bigger screen.

  12. You say Apple doesn’t want to chase Android to larger displays, but instead they are doing it because of “larger consumption and web and video”. Isn’t that why Android devices grew in size in the first place? To allow for a better experience with web browsing and video? So yes, Apple is chasing Android because of the same reason.

    I disagree with the 1024×768 resolution. A 4:3 ratio larger iPhone would look pretty awkward (look at the LG Vu to see how awkward). But that’s not even the biggest issue. It’s much worse to have 10″ apps crammed on a 4″ display, than it is to scale up the apps a but from 3.5″ to 4″. My guess is Apple will maintain the same resolution as iPhone 4 and 4S.

    Yes, the PPI will drop significantly to under 290 PPI, but let’s face it – at this point the retina display name means whatever Apple says it means – just higher resolution displays. The new iPad has 264 PPI and they are still calling it Retina. The new Macbook Pros are supposed to have “Retina displays”, too, even though they will most likely just use a 2560×1440 resolution, which is under 200 PPI on a 15″ screen. So I doubt Apple will care that now one of their phones will have 290 PPI.

  13. Justin Horn

    I don’t think they would do that 1024 x 768, because then iPhone app developers would have to make a 3rd set of graphics to work on the new iPhone.

    If anything, they would keep the same 960 x 640 and just increase the phone size to about 3.85″ which would put it right at Steve Jobs magic “retina” number of 300ppi for small device.

  14. My thought would be to change the aspect ratio of the screen. Keep the horizontal resolution at 640 but increase the vertical resolution to 1024/1280.

    This would allow the screen to show 16:9 content more easily, and old software would just need black bars top and bottom.

    Make the screen slightly wider, but a fair bit taller.

    • Chris

      I don’t agree. The current iPhone is 960×540, which is already 16:9. Using 1024 x 768 as the author suggests would make the phone a 4 x 3 device like the iPad. Keeping 16 x 9 makes a lot more sense, especially when viewing media, however, I think the resolution will be 720p, or 1280×720. All the current iPhone apps will have to be optimized or upscaled just a little bit, and on a 4″ screen, even when they aren’t optimized, the “jaggedness” won’t appear to be that bad since it is a slightly larger screen.

      • The iPhone 4S has a ‘960-by-640-pixel resolution at 326 ppi’ screen if what says is true. This is a 3:2 aspect ratio.

        A 16:9 screen would be 1138×640 – a little odd.