Should Apple Make a Larger Screen iPhone?

Tim Bajarin / June 7th, 2013

One of the things that has become very clear about the smartphone wars is that one size does not fit all. People want choices whether it be a particular smartphone OS, the size, or specific features they want or need on the specific phone they buy. For many, a choice of devices at different price points is also important. Because most smartphones in the US come with a 2 year carrier subscription, the up front cost to people matters. During the last year I have gone to the showrooms of Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile and eaves dropped on people buying smartphones and concluded from these adventures that the variety of needs and wants of people buying smartphones varies greatly.

One common denominator I observed while watching folks talk to sales people about buying a smartphone is that the screen size was actually quite important in their decision of what product they purchased. Here again, one size does not fit all. Some people are quite happy with a 3.5-inch screen, while many opt for a screen in 4 inch to 4.3-inch range. And a lot had heard about smartphones with screens in the 5-inch and even 6-inch range and wanted to see these as well.

This issue of smartphone screen sizes has become a very big research question when I talk to most of the smartphone vendors. In Samsung’s case, they have screen sizes from 3.5 inches to 5.5 inches while Apple has settled on just one 4 inch screen for all of their new iPhones. With the Galaxy S4, and quite a few others sporting screens much larger than the one on Apple’s 4-inch iPhone 5, some media and consumers have been asking why Apple has stayed with a one size fits all strategy vs giving their customers more choices in screen sizes like many of their competitors do.

A Tale of Two Screens

For the last month I have been carrying an iPhone 5 and the new Samsung Galaxy S4 with me at all times to try and get a sense of my on preference in screen sizes. The iPhone 5 has a 4-inch screen and the Galaxy S4 has a 5-inch screen. One is based on iOS and the other is based on Android. I have also used smartphones with Windows Phone on them but for this exercise I focused on the two market leaders and their very distinct and different screen sizes.

Both are exceptional smartphones. Samsung has done a great job of making Android better on their devices and in certain cases I found the larger 5-inch screen very welcome (especially for my not-so-young-eyes). This is especially true when using news based apps like Flipboard, Zite, and Pulse as well as when surfing the Web. But the downside of a 5-inch screen is that for those of us with small, or relatively normal hand sizes, it is quite difficult to use a 5-inch smartphone with just one hand.

Until using the Galaxys S4 I had not really paid attention to the fact that most of my use of the iPhone was dominated by one-hand operations. The reason, at least for me, is that I tend to naturally use my right thumb to navigate and even type messages and emails one handed. In fact, I have become so skilled at this that when I tried using two hands to navigate and type on the Galaxy’s S4 screen, which included my left thumb, it surprised me how clumsy I was with my left thumb when using two hands to operate the larger screen.

Apparently I am not alone with this problem. My friend and colleague at PC Mag, Sasha Sagan wrote a great piece on this exact issue recently in which he stated that he just had to much trouble doing one handed operations on screens much larger then 4.3 inches.
I encourage you to read this piece when you have time as he gets more granular about the one handed operation issue and feedback he has gotten on this topic.

With the Galaxy S4 selling so well, it appears that for a lot of people a 5-inch screen is not a problem. However the iPhone is selling even better in the US, which says that a lot of people are fine with a 4-inch screen as well. In talking to quite a few friends and family it seems that one hand operation of smartphones is quite prevalent and is a real consideration when buying a smartphone for many.

But if the smartphone wars are based on one size does not fit all, why has Apple been so rigid on their screen size?
When the iPhone 5 was introduced last year, Apple’s EVP of World Wide marketing Phil Schiller told me that one of the things Apple observed with people using the iPhone up to then was that the majority of them used them with one hand. They had studied screens larger and smaller and while the original 3.5-inch screens worked well, many customers had told them they were interested in a larger screen in new models. In moving up to a new screen size, they looked very hard at what larger screen sizes would still allow for optimal one hand usage and settled on 4-inch screens for the iPhone 5. One handed operation is clearly at the heart of their design philosophy. And I suspect that even with Samsung gaining customers with a 5″ screen, Apple will stay true to this goal of creating a great smartphone that is optimized for use with one hand.

Could they possibly change their minds on this in the future and create multiple screen sizes that would meet the need of anyone who wants an iPhone? Given their strong conviction that the best usable experience on a smartphone is when it can be optimally done with one hand, I doubt they would even consider a 5-inch smartphone. Interestingly, during this time I started testing a 4.3-inch smartphone and while it was a bit of a stretch to use my relatively smaller hands for one hand operation, it is more than possible for most people to do one handed operations on this slightly larger screen. Perhaps Apple has discovered this as well and if I was a betting man, I would bet that if Apple does decide to introduce an iPhone with a larger screen it would be no more then 4.3″ diagonally.

The good news for consumers is that their are so many choices offered to them when buying a smartphone that they can pretty much get a smartphone with any size screen on it. But if you are waiting for Apple to copy Samsung and bring out a 5-inch iPhone, I suspect the odds are pretty much against it.

Tim Bajarin

Tim Bajarin is the President of Creative Strategies, Inc. He is recognized as one of the leading industry consultants, analysts and futurists covering the field of personal computers and consumer technology. Mr. Bajarin has been with Creative Strategies since 1981 and has served as a consultant to most of the leading hardware and software vendors in the industry including IBM, Apple, Xerox, Compaq, Dell, AT&T, Microsoft, Polaroid, Lotus, Epson, Toshiba and numerous others.
  • Glaurung-Quena

    3 things you didn’t touch on:

    1. Developers. Apple has painful memories of all the times they were forced to transition the Mac to a new architecture, and how many customers were left unhappy because their favourite apps were left orphaned and not updated to the new platform. THey’re not going to want to make another significant change to the IOS screen resolution unless they are absolutely forced to do so. (I suspect the larger size Iphone 5 was driven not by a desire to upscale the screen, but by the necessity of having the two LTE antennas be a greater distance apart: cf http://www.eetasia.com/STATIC/PDF/200908/EEOL_2009AUG13_RFD_TA_01.pdf for a technical discussion of the engineering challenges of cramming LTE antennas into a phone)

    2. Trade offs. Apple has refined making trade offs to a science. Making the screen bigger means a heavier phone, and/or a shorter battery life, and Apple is totally disinterested in making their next phone be heavier or have worse battery performance.

    3. The cult of Moar (from the Sasha Sagan article you linked to). Android handset makers have gone down the road of bigger screens and bigger specs because they do market research, asking people which phone they like better or what features they would like to have in a phone. Apple doesn’t do that, because their philosophy is that asking people what they want merely makes products that are less bad than what existed before. They think that to make a fundamentally better product, don’t ask, because people aren’t going to be able to imagine it … even though once you show a fundamentally better thing to them they will want to have it.

  • mhikl

    Tim, I suspect Apple will eventually follow the route of its iPod family. There (will) may be smaller and larger iPhones/touches, slightly smaller less smart iPhones for those who use their phones for voice and texting, and music, pod castes, a little search. Then there could be a larger model that allows for a better search experience, ebook reading, gaming, note taking. But at the moment, Apple is focusing on perfection via iteration. Approaching perfection, Apple may turn its head to the larger field of people’s needs.

    I am sure that Apple is following the trends of other manufacturers and learning accordingly. However, to bring out a large phone that might impact sales of the iPads at this point might be another concern for the company; the smaller iPad seemed to eat into the larger iPad’s sales, but with more tablets from other venders coming, this was probably inevitable.

    Time will tell and Apple is a patient beast and it is not in a hurry to gain immediate profit, something another company might deem necessary for its company at to moment. In short, I suspect Apple has longer term aspirations based on its history with the iPod family.

  • Defendor

    I do think they should . It isn’t like anyone is suggesting they have dozens of models like some competitors. Just two.

    There is a segment of user that simply won’t consider screens much smaller than 5″ anymore. Why give Android a free ride in this segment?

    But as soon as the iPhone 5 came out, with it’s small increase, I felt certain we won’t see a larger screen from Apple for years. They don’t like a lot of churn on screens sizes. So I suspect we won’t see another screen size for at least another two years at minimum.

  • pk_de_cville

    Tim,

  • pk_de_cville

    Your comments section doesn’t work well on my iPad3, latest SW. Doesn’t let me update or edit well.

    • steve_wildstrom

      We know, because we struggle with moderation from iPads. This is a problem in the Disqus commenting software. We are looking for a solution.

  • bobbcat

    Retinal display makes up for the 4-inch screen size. iPhone simply never fails to exceed expectations for many, many people. Simple as that.

    • Quicksingle

      The only problem with your comment is that HTC and Samsung displays leave the iphone 5 in the dust, and they are done on bigger screens.

      • joshalfie

        And what are you basing that on? PPI? Resolution? There are many other factors that contribute to screen quality.

        Even the best reviewers state that the Retina Display is still one of the best. Hardy “left in the dust” as you put it.

        • bobbcat

          I would imagine that Quicksingle has never seen a retinal display side-by-side with the HTC or Samsung display. Even its comparison with the non-retinal of the iPhone 4S is quite striking.

  • Quicksingle

    Nice article Tim. Once you have been using a larger screen, you just can`t go back to a small screen, it is a poorer visual experience. I actually feel pity for people squinting at a small screen.You are right that customers deserve choice.

  • DarwinPhish

    At some point Apple is going to release a much large iPhone , probably closer to 6 inches than 5. During the announcement they will show a video with Jony Ive talking about they wanted to make a phone optimized for two handed use.

  • Lizzy

    I love Apple phones…There are different operating systems out there…Some of which are mentioned here http://www.become.com/hub/electronics/phones-communications/smartphones-brands-operating-systems-accessories/ Did anyone have a good experience with an operating system other than Android? Are other systems easy to use?

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