Will Apple abandon the 4-inch screen with the iPhone 6?

In 2012, Apple did something that many thought should’ve happened earlier: it released an iPhone with a larger screen. Many felt this was Apple’s late attempt at catching up to the larger screens on opposing Android handsets. After 5 previous iPhones with a 3.5-inch display, the iPhone 5 had a 4-inch screen. While taller than previous generations, it kept the same width. Why?

Developer Friendly

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Wow, look at that massive 3.5-inch screen on the original iPhone!

From the very beginning, iPhone developers had only one screen size to worry about. The iPhone 2G, 3G, and 3GS all had a 320×480 pixel screen measuring 3.5 inches corner-to-corner, giving it a 163 PPI resolution. While the iPhone 4 and 4S had a Retina display that doubled the number of pixels in each direction, it also kept the screen size the same. In apps, developers would continue to reference ‘points’ as opposed to individual pixels. With the Retina display’s 326 PPI resolution at 640×960 pixels, developers didn’t need to make any change to their apps for things to look the same as before.

iPhone 5 vs iPhone 2G

The iPhone 5: Same great width, but with a brand new height!

In a special event in September 2012, Apple introduced the first iPhone with a different screen size: the iPhone 5. While still sporting a Retina display at 326 PPI, the iPhone 5 was taller than previous models, increasing the vertical pixel count to 1136. By keeping the pixel density the same, Apple made it easy for developers to work with the new screen size. Was an app not updated for the iPhone 5? It would simply sit centered in the iPhone screen with black bars at the top and bottom.

What if a developer wanted to optimize an app for both screen sizes?

Along with the iPhone 5, Apple updated Xcode to support Auto-Layout. With Auto-Layout, developers could set constraints in their app storyboards, defining the relationship between different UI elements so that they could appear as intended by the developer, whether the application was running on an iPhone 5 or an older model with the original screen size.

Doesn’t the existence of Auto-Layout mean that Apple could’ve updated the iPhone 5 to a size that had a different width? Yes, it technically is possible. However, there was another, more fundamental reason why Apple didn’t change the width of the phone.

User Friendly

If there is one constant with each iPhone launch, it is the comment that the newest iPhone is a joy to hold in one’s hand. For some, their preference for a ‘favorite iPhone’ comes down to the one that felt most comfortable in their hands. For example, my wife loves her iPhone 5c, even if it doesn’t have Touch ID or the A7 chip like the 5s does. For her, it comes down to a phone that is comfortable for her to have in one hand, and the 5c meets her needs perfectly.

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The design center for all of Apple’s iPhones to date. Thumbs up to you, too, Phil!

At the iPhone 5 launch, while talking about the increased screen size, Apple’s Senior Vice President of Worldwide Marketing, Phil Schiller, spoke about the reason they choice that specific screen size.

“Why would we design it that way? What is the design center for a phone? It’s this. [...]  It’s your hand. A phone should feel great in your hand, and more importantly, it should be easy to use with [our thumb]. [...] So when you carry your phone, it should fit beautifully in your hand.”

Two years after saying that, would Apple now ignore the importance of the thumb and abandon the 4-inch screen? I’m not so convinced. I do believe Apple is making a larger iPhone, and a 4.7-inch display could be a great device for a lot of people. But for some users that have smaller hands, an iPhone with such a large display is no longer a one-handed device. Could my wife comfortably use a 4.7-inch iPhone with one hand? I doubt it.

For Apple to change the user scenario of the iPhone from a one-handed to a more-than-likely-two-handed one goes against what I believe Apple wants to do with the iPhone. If anything, I see the approach being what they did with the iPad in 2013.

While the iPad mini was launched in 2012, it was in 2013 where both the iPad mini with Retina and the iPad Air, representing the best of the two iPad sizes, were both given the same internal specifications. At that point, the choice of which of the newest iPads to buy came down strictly to a size preference. Both came with an A7 chip, Retina display, and all of the other features that we came to expect from the latest and greatest iPad.

I would not be surprised to see Apple go that same route with the iPhone. In 2013, Apple introduced the colorful line of iPhones starting with the iPhone 5c. While not carrying the latest statistics as the iPhone 5s, it did provide another option for people wanting to buy an iPhone. This year, the different option for people may not be color but size. In fact, instead of Apple simply going from a smaller screen to a larger screen, I would expect Apple to support two (or more) iPhone screen sizes.

Rumors continue to circulate that a 5.5-inch iPhone is in the works. That most definitely is not a one-handed friendly phone. Yet, it could be a size choice that many would be interested in (though I’m not one of those people).

All Apple has to do is repeat what they did with the iPad: Produce several iPhones that differ in size (4, 4.7, and 5.5 inch screens) and possibly color (make the 4-inch screen line the colorful “C” line, for instance). Then a purchase doesn’t come down to a feature set but, instead, to something that is much better for consumers: personal preference.

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A breakdown of Apple’s new size classes. Chart from Justin Williams at Carpeaqua.com

What would this do for developers? The new size classes introduced in Xcode 6 almost guarantee various iPhone sizes. Instead of having strict iPhone sizes to deal with, Apple now has things generalized for device and orientation. Want to create a UI for several iPhone sizes? You just need to deal with one size class. This greatly simplifies the way developers can support past, present, and future screen sizes.

Between the latest developer tools and the leaks that keep coming from Apple’s supply line, we can be pretty confident that we’ll see a larger iPhone. But I wouldn’t call for the death of the 4-inch iPhone just yet.

What do you think? Do you think the 4-inch iPhone has come to its end? Or is there a future for the truly one-handed iPhone? Let us know below!

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  • RedGeminiPA

    Interesting article. I’m all for a larger iPhone, but I appreciate the need for others of a 4″ screen. Oddly, some people sill prefer the 3.5″ size. I really doubt Apple will keep the 3.5″ size around, but it’s anyone’s guess at this point. We’ll see soon enough what Apple has in mind.

    • http://www.joshspadd.com/ Josh Hrach

      I’m fairly confident that, when seeing the iPhone line-up chart on September 9th, we won’t be seeing any 3.5″ iPhone on it. The ‘free’ iPhone model typically gets phased out, and the iPhone 4S has no reason to avoid that fate otherwise.

      • RedGeminiPA

        The 4S will be gone this year, not doubt about it. My comment was directed to screen size, not phone model. That doesn’t mean Apple couldn’t offer a new 3.5″ model if they really wanted to. The likelihood of that happening is pretty much zero. So, if you want an iPhone from here on out, you’ll most likely have to settle for a 4″+ form factor.

        I am curious what they plan to do for the entry-level iPhone. Does the 5C go the way of the dodo, or will Apple stuff the guts of the 5S into the polycarbonate shell?

        • http://www.joshspadd.com/ Josh Hrach

          If Apple put the 5S guts into something like the 5C body, it’s possible Apple could have Touch ID be a part of all of its new items this year.

  • Weephalanges

    I don’t want a larger iPhone, so as long as they release one the same size as the current model, I will be happy!!

    • David Jacobs

      It would be boring if they released another one with a 4″ screen.

    • im2slick4u

      I want a 4.7″. In my opinion, 4.7″-5″ is perfect size for me. 5.5″ is great for some users with big hands, and 4″ is great for users with small hands. I think Apple releasing 3 phone sizes would be a great move for the customers and a not so great move for developers. So the question is, should they cater to developers or customers? As one who falls under both categories, I feel 3 different sizes is the path they should take. If everyone had the same size hand I would love a 4.7″ only on the developer side of me, but like the author of this article stated, comfort is a very important factor in enjoying a mobile phone, and I completely agree.

      • http://www.joshspadd.com/ Josh Hrach

        In a way, they have taken care of this with developers: size classes and auto layout. It may not be the simplest thing for developers, but developing for iOS devices isn’t the same now as it was a couple of years ago.

  • D

    I’m not a fan of Apple at all (Androids are better IMO) but I hate that the “standard” size for an Android phone is 5″. I was planning on an iPhone6 but if it releases at 4.7″ as the smallest option I will either go with a 5S or an Android – if I have to suffer with a larger screen, I want to at least have the better OS.

    • im2slick4u

      Im an Apple fan, but I would recommend a mini HTC One phone, or a HTC One Remix (4.5″). I can’t recommend any Galaxy S Minis, but you will like an HTC One Mini or Remix.

      One of my favorite manufactures of Android phones is Motorola, so if you don’t mind losing high end specs I would go with Moto E (4.3″) or Moto G (4.5″).

  • Adam Oram

    I agree that the 4″ iPhone will stick around, probably as the ‘c’-line of products. Then there could be 4.7″ and 5.5″ with the same internals (à la 2013 iPads) making the choice purely about size preference. That’s what I’d like to see, anyway.

    Apple seems to be making it as easy as possible to develop apps for multiple iPhone sizes, so I’m guessing 4″/4.7″/5.5″ could be manageable (eventually developing for the 3.5″ iPhones will stop).

  • Lawrence Lanum

    My first Apple product was an SE3, which I loved. I now own several 3 iPhones and an iPad. I’ve invested quite a bit of money in Apple-related gear and Apps, and I use my iPhone to do everything from wake me up in the morning to pay my bills.
    However, that is all going to change very soon. When Apple abandons the 4″ screen I’m going to dump all my Apple products and leave the Apple ecosystem entirely. Apple has ALWAYS been for small, stylish, useable products. Now they’re apparently abandoning their heritage and moving full-steam into the land of Big & Clunky. Good for them. I hope some day soon to see some yahoo idiot with an iPad mini clamped to the side of his face, yacking away to his cousin Merl. This is where I get off the bus.