What is the best screen size for a smartphone?
Apple’s last two iPhone offerings both opt to keep the 4″ panel that was introduced with the iPhone 5, yet in todays market, which is saturated with Android devices generally containing 4.7″-6″ screens, it is fair to say that Apple’s preferred expanse is on the small side by comparison.
Whilst the iPhone 5s was released with a host of new ‘forward thinking’ features, such as 64-bit based architecture, new camera technology and a ‘Touch ID’ branded fingerprint scanning solution, the general construction and aesthetics of the device remained the same. This included the 4″ Retina Display, which many critics, consumers and fans had hoped may have seen an increase in size.
In fairness, following the general trend of iPhone generational updates, it was unlikely that the 5s would have been much of a radical departure from the preceding device, as all ‘S’ models have focussed on advancing the internals of the device. However, with the next instalment in the iPhone series likely to make the jump to a nice round ‘6’ in generational terms, the chances for a re-design and a larger screen are higher.
This article will explore the possibilities and technicalities of a larger screen in the next iPhone and will discuss the advantages, disadvantages, necessities and possibilities that a larger panel would bring.
What Size is Best?
iPhone 4 – 3.5″ Samsung Galaxy S – 4″
iPhone 4S – 3.5″ Samsung Galaxy SII – 4.3″
iPhone 5 – 4″ Samsung Galaxy SIII – 4.8″
iPhone 5c – 4″ Samsung Galaxy S4 – 5″
iPhone 5s – 4″ Samsung Galaxy Note 3 – 5.7″
iPhone 6 – ?”
Do you notice a difference between the two lists of data above?
Whilst iPhone screen sizes have seen one change in the devices entire history, Samsung has taken the opposite approach and advocates that bigger is better. Is this truly the case?
In my opinion, the iPhone 5’s four inch screen was infinitely better than the 3.5″ one it succeeded. The benefits for viewing content and interacting with the device were both tangible and satisfying. However, this does not guarantee that another increase in size will definitely bring about the same benefits to user experience.
Apple clearly stated in its promotional material for the iPhone 5 that by only increasing the height of the device and altering the aspect ratio (from 3:2 to 16:9) with no change in the width of the device, it was able to present content such as HD video in a much better way, but with no loss in one-handed ease of use. Because the screen was just as wide as the preceding iPhones, one-handed typing, for instance, was just as user-friendly as ever.
If Apple were to increase the iPhone screen size again, it is unlikely to only increase the height again, as this would mean changing the aspect ration from the current 16:9, which is ideal and not something that should be changed. Therefore, if Apple made any increase to the panel size, there would have to be a direct increase in both height and width, which would of course affect the dimensions of the rest of the device entirely (but more on that later).
So how big should they go? One could debate that the argument of optimum screensize is a subjective one and is personal to the individual, however, it is then the job of tech companies to reach conclusions as to what is best for consumers and the following view is what I consider would be Apple’s logical approach to the matter.
“What our customers want is for us to weigh those (factors) and come out with a decision.” Tim Cook, 2013
Typing one-handed, or even interacting single handedly with a 5″ smartphone is, for the vast majority of Homo sapiens, a bit of a handful. These larger devices, which flirt with the definition of ‘phablet’ but are arguably now too mainstream to be considered as such, generally require two hands to perform most tasks. Whilst you may argue that Samsung and other Android manufacturers are proving that 5″+ devices can be popular, I think it is very unlikely that Apple would incorporate such a drastic increase. The case for this is especially weakened when you consider the lengths Apple went to when marketing the 4″ Retina Display to highlight how it didn’t compromise on easy usability.
Therefore, whilst some may lust after an iPhone of similar dimensions to the Galaxy S4, it is far more likely that an increased iPhone screen would measure up somewhere below the 5″ mark.
Back in the days of the iPhone 4, when HTC started releasing larger devices, 4.3″ screens seemed behemoth in comparison to what came before. However, todays Galaxy S4 Mini (note ‘Mini’), which is what Samsung therefore classifies as a small device, contains a 4.3″ panel.
If Apple adopted a 4.3″ sized screen, this would mark a mere 0.3″ increase in size over the current 4″ Retina Display. Whilst this would obviously still offer an increase, when holding both an S4 Mini and an iPhone 5 side by side, I did not feel that there was enough of a difference to warrant the move. Even though I personally feel that even a minor increase would mark an improvement, given Apple’s typical 2 year cycle for major revisions, I think such a small difference would not be sufficient to last another two years.
For me, 4.5 inches stands as Apple’s optimum size if they were to introduce another change with the iPhone 6. The first reason for this is that numerically, it sits nicely between the current size and what I would consider to be too large for the iPhone (5″). Also, the increase from 3.5″ to 4″ was 0.5″, and therefore another half-inch increase would mark a uniform pattern.
There are more concrete reasons for selecting this size. In order to test my decision, I made a prototype design of how the iPhone 6 could look if it shipped with a 4.5″ display (shown below). The main things I considered when designing this mockup were finding a screen that was big enough but not too excessive, whilst maintaining a form factor that was as easy and comfortable to use as the current generation is.
The result, as illustrated above, would be a screen that takes up a higher portion of the front of the device, minimising borders and bezels and excess space in order to keep the overall size of the device to a minimum. Even if the bezel width on the longer edges of the device were halved, there would still need to be a minimum 2.5-3mm increase in overall device width to suitably accommodate a 4.5″ screen.
It is safe to assume that the home button will be sticking around for a while because of the new TouchID fingerprint scanning feature, therefore there will still need to be adequate space below the device for the home button to rest. However, I have decreased the gap between the upper and lower edges of the home button and the screen/bottom chamfer by 1mm in each direction, in order to further reduce the size gains incurred with a larger display. To satisfy its appetite for symmetry, Apple would then also decrease the top edge border (where the front-facing camera and speaker are) by an equal 2mm. Overall, despite these height reducing features there would still need to be an overall 4mm height increase over the iPhone 5(s).
Without any pretenses that this prototype is entirely speculative and relatively primitive, although the increase in overall footprint is noticeable, it would arguably be less of an increase than the iPhone 5 was over the iPhone 4(s) and therefore adjusting to it would not be impossible. Of course, for people with smaller hands or perhaps for female iPhone users, an overall increase in device size may make the phone more unwieldy. Yet on the basis that my mockup feels noticeably but not drastically bigger in my hand, I believe Apple would be able to elegantly pull off the necessary alterations to achieve a universally acceptable solution for a larger screened device.
This prototype also neglects fundamental factors that contribute to the overall design of the device, which are that underneath the polished exterior lie many components that are intricately designed to fit within the space. Whilst it is easy to create a prototype that looks and feels good in the hand, there is then a huge technological and engineering feat that must be overcome to create components that would then fit within the new space. Whilst there would be an overall increase in footprint to house these components, a lot of this would be taken up by the new screen and Apple would have to redesign things like the front-facing camera module, the TouchID/home button arrangement, the arrangement of all the buttons, speakers and ports etc to fit within the new layout.
However, for a company such as Apple with its track record for innovation and progress, this may not be beyond reach within the timescale for this device. It would actually be very interesting to see what Apple did with the rest of the extra space within the footprint of the device. Would it stretch out the current layout in order to decrease the overall thickness of the device down from the current 7.6mm, or would it maintain a design that is arguably thin enough and use the extra space for a larger battery, allowing iPhones to run for a full day or longer? How would all of these changes affect the weight of the device? We will have to wait and see how Jony Ive decides to answer these questions.
The Resolution Solution
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that Apple builds the next iPhone with a 4.5″ screen as detailed above. For years now, iPhone screens have shipped with ‘Retina Displays’, which Apple claims are screens with high enough pixel densities so that individual pixels cannot be discerned at a ‘normal viewing distance’ by the users eye. The long-standing Retina standard for iPhones has been a pixel density of 326ppi (pixels per inch).
Inevitably, any increase in screen size is going to have an impact on pixel density, as will any variation in screen resolution. Here is an analysis of Apple’s options in this situation.
1136 x 640
This has been the standard resolution for all 4″ iPhones (5, 5c, 5s) and achieves the 326ppi that has been the norm for Retina iPhones eternally. If Apple kept this same resolution for a 4.5″ display, which would be ideal for developers as they would not have to rescale their apps for a different resolution, then there would obviously be a negative impact upon pixel density.
Calculating pixel density:
Ppi = square root of (1136×1136+640×640) divided by 4.5
PPi = 289.8 (290)
In this case, retaining the old resolution of the iPhone 5 would give a ppi of 290, below the stated standard for an iPhone “Retina Display”. For both performance and marketing reasons, it is highly unlikely that Apple would sacrifice the clear advantages to a ‘Retina’ standard screen just for the extra size. Instead it would have to consider some other options.
2272 x 1280
This resolution is double that of the previous iPhone and would equate to 4x the overall number of pixels. This would ease the strain on developers as initially every individual pixel for their 1136×640 apps could be represented by 4 pixels on the new screen and would give them time to update their apps for a higher resolution without causing major upset.
If Apple could engineer a panel with such a large number of pixels into the next iPhone, whilst keeping it affordable, then this would equate to a 4.5″ screen with a pixel density of 580ppi. This figure seems extortionately large and is way above what Apple claims to be the minimum requirement for ‘Retina’ standard. Furthermore, the costs of such a bespoke panel, which would be more expensive and difficult to engineer, which could lead to shortages, make this option much less likely. Also, the strain that 4x the number of pixels would place upon the iPhone’s battery (more on this later) also render this option closer to the dream category rather than a real possibility at this moment in time. Although, anything is possible and pulling this off would put Apple way ahead in the spec wars.
This option would be the most difficult of the three from a developers point of view as there is no direct way to scale apps directly from their current resolution up to 1920×1080. Furthermore, with Apple’s appetite for secrecy, there would be no prior warning before the devices unveiling that changes would need to be made to apps, which would leave a period of roughly 1 week between the announcement of the iPhone 6 and the release date in which developers could make alterations. With hundreds of thousands of apps on the App Store, it is likely that many would not be adapted to this new resolution immediately and may be stranded in limbo for sometime.
Apple has already asked developers to adapt to many changes recently notably the 4″ Retina Display that came with the iPhone 5, the new pallet and design themes of iOS 7 and finally 64-bit based applications to run on the A7 chip of the iPhone 5s. Another change to the screen would be asking even more of developers, although arguably the big names like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram etc, who get a large chunk of iOS usage for third party apps, are big enough to adapt quickly and would not leave consumers out in the cold. This would leave time for smaller developers to catch up along their own schedules.
On the positive side, there remain many advantages that having a 1920×1080 screen would bring. Firstly, full HD 1080p video content would span edge-to-edge across the 4.5″ display allowing for high quality footage to fully adorn the iPhone 6’s larger screen.
Also, the pixel density would sit at a more manageable and plausible 490ppi. Although this is quite a margin above the current Retina levels, it is not inconceivable that this could be achieved as the Galaxy S4 currently ships with a 441ppi screen and the HTC One a 469ppi screen, making 490 higher yet not implausible and certainly more viable than the 580ppi a 2272×1280 panel would bring.
Overall, there exist some resolution options Apple could employ with an increased screen size, yet each brings both benefits and drawbacks that would need to be sized up under proper testing in the shrouded secrecy of Apple’s Cupertino-based labs.
Indium Gallium Zinc Oxide. IGZO is the acronym for the latest screen technology developed by Sharp and Corning Glass (click here for a more in-depth look at IGZO technology). IGZO offers a few fundamental benefits over traditional LCD panels which include lower power consumption, increased touch sensitivity and higher pixel densities.
IGZO can achieve higher pixel densities as the transistors are smaller than those in traditional displays, therefore more can be placed within the same area. Also, when a still image is displayed on the screen, these transistors do not have to continually refresh which saves dramatically on battery draw. IGZO also requires less glass around the panel, which adds credence to my iPhone 6 prototype that relies on thinner bezels around the device to maintain an ideal form factor for single handed use. In fact, IGZO might make the 2272×1280 screen resolution for the next iPhone a possibility as the technology is capable of producing viable panels at such high resolutions.
IGZO would bring many benefits to the next iPhone, as the display is also thinner, there would be more room for components underneath and could allow for both an increase in battery life and a decrease in overall device width. This technology will be crucial for Apple to harness regardless of any changes to the size of the display.
So assuming that Apple increases the size of the display by any margin, there will inevitably need to be changes in the software that is displayed on the screen. It is obvious how many elements of the UI would benefit from this increase: photos would show more detail and be displayed at a greater size; you could browse more emails at once; see more tweets; enjoy games and webpages in greater detail; get a larger look at your friends/families mugs over FaceTime and type with greater ease on a larger keyboard.
One more complicated area that Apple would need to think about is the home screen. When the iPhone screen increased by 0.5″ to 4″, they simply added another row of apps on top of the four (plus dock) below it. However, this time the screen would increase in both height and width.
I don’t think simply adding another row of apps on top and another column of apps to the side would be the most elegant solution here, as it would clutter the home grids and liken them more to the Samsung/Android landscape with rows and rows of tiny icons. Instead, I think keeping the same number of rows and columns of apps but simply increasing the size of the app icons and the gaps between them relatively would be the best option. iOS 7 already increased the size of the app icons over iOS 6, which was a very good design idea in my opinion and I don’t think making them a bit bigger over a larger screen area would be bad at all.
I have taken a very detailed line of options that Apple could incorporate into the next iPhone design and focussed them down into what I believe would be the optimum with a 4.5″ panel.
However, this assumes that Apple would simply replace the iPhone 5s with the 4.5″ iPhone 6 as the flagship device but this creates problems as Apple also released the 5c in 2013. Where would the plastic buddy to the 5s sit within an updated screen size editioned 6? Would it also jump up in screen size, would it remain smaller to appeal to the same market that it currently does? How wide is Apple prepared to open its product lines, with how many varieties? How would this affect already squeezed supply to immense demand on launch day?
Another approach would be for Apple to develop a 5″ or greater sized iPhone (which I ruled out as being too big for a mainstream Apple phone), which would cater for those lusting after a much larger device. It could then also release a medium 4.5″ device for the mainstream and then continue to sell 4″ devices at the bottom of the spectrum. Apple has shown with its MacBook and iPad lines that it is prepared to sell current range devices in a variety of sizes to cater to different needs.
However, the reason I think Apple will only introduce one new different sized iPhone is that it would simply be too complicated and difficult for both consumers and developers to deal with an entire plethora of new devices and there would be too much fragmentation between screen resolutions, pixel densities and overall qualities for Apple to take this approach. Although maybe they are already working on a solution to this.
Does Apple need to change the screen size of the iPhone at all? I think it does, or maybe I would just like it to. I don’t think it should do it just because Samsung and all the others are doing it, but that they should do it because it would genuinely create a better product than what they currently offer.
The real balance will be in the specifics of how big the screen is and the subsequent effects this will create, which I have attempted to outline above.
With the ever increasing predictability that Apple is suffering from, it is likely that the answers to our questions will be unveiled in just under 12 months from the time of writing, in early Fall 2014.
Thanks for reading,
- Nexus 5 price will be half the price of iPhone 5s, sold for $350 or less [Rumor] (dottech.org)
- Why Retina display is more than twice as responsive as the competition (idownloadblog.com)
- Best Of: iPhone 6 Concept Designs (intomobile.com)