The Case Against a 4-Inch iPhone

Ben Bajarin / April 17th, 2012

As a regular part of my job I evaluate many different devices. I don’t always publish this analysis publicly but nearly every new device passes through our “labs.” When it comes to smartphones, or pocket computers as I like to call them, I get to test and review and analyze all the new android devices, Windows phone, and Apple products. In case you haven’t noticed the trend, smartphones are getting larger screen sizes all the time.

For me, to do the kind of analysis I want, I always use the device as my primary phone. The current device I have been using is the HTC One X, which I like a lot. As I review these devices one very interesting thing stands out. As much as I love using a larger screen smartphone, you notice very quickly that it is very difficult to operate with just one hand. What I mean by that is that my thumb cannot reach all four corners of the screen without having to shift the phone a bit and adjust my hand somewhat awkwardly. This is less of a big deal on Android devices home screen because generally app icons don’t fill the entire home screen. However, during the using of applications, all of the screen real estate is used and with many apps this is when the difficulty of one handed operation becomes noticeable. This is something that does not become glaringly noticeable until you use a smartphone with a larger screen as your everyday phone in everyday situations.

I’m roughly the average height for a US male and I have to imagine that my hands are roughly an average if not slightly smaller than average size. The iPhone’s 3.5 inch display is exactly perfect for me to hold the device in one hand and reach all the active areas of the devices screen. This is not the case with every phone that I use where the screen size is larger than 4-inches. I can only imagine the pains humans with smaller hands go through in using such large screen smartphones.

Yesterday I came across an article pointing out roughly the same thing but making a bigger deal about some of the developer issues around a 4 inch screen and particularly apps being used in landscape mode. There’s a lot of merit to that argument but I would emphasize that the lack of being able to operate with one hand easily could be the strongest case against a 4 inch iPhone. On that point Dustin Curtis makes the same point about screen size issues and one handed navigation on this post and has a nice chart between the iPhone 4s and the Galaxy S II.

I genuinely like using smartphones with larger screens but they certainly come with tradeoffs. I firmly believe that a 4.3-4.7-inch screen is probably the largest possible screen size for the mass market with 4.7 perhaps pushing it. Many of these larger screen smartphones sell well and I do believe there are segments of the market that desire 4-inch and larger smartphones.

So the debate really comes down to how important is an uncompromising one handed operation to the overall smartphone experience. One of the things I have found in my own personal analysis is that because I use an iPad regularly I find less of a desire for a larger smartphone. This is why a strong case may be made for larger smartphone screen sizes in other parts of the world where the smartphone is the primary computing device–for the time being. I believe this is why the 5-inch Galaxy Note is selling well in Korea.

Of course, should Apple decide that a 4-inch screen should become the new normal or as a part of a larger iPhone lineup, I would have to imagine that they would take this issue into consideration. Perhaps one way to solve this problem could be adding more device operation support into Siri. This way voice would become a more fundamental way to operate your iPhone. This would eliminate to some degree any issue with one handed device operation and make voice operation a more prominent feature.

Speaking of lineups, Apple clearly now has a strategy to have an iPhone portfolio of products in the market. Currently it is a good, better, best, strategy with the 3GS, 4, and 4S. The question will be in the longterm about how different form factors may play into this good, better, best, product lineup. The same can be said with the iPad, which is why I think the iPad Mini is such a hot rumor.

Ultimately, variety in a product portfolio is a good idea. Apple is yet to vary the screen size offering in the iPhone and iPad–yet they do with other computing products. I do believe it is logical that this trend would continue in all the screens in which they choose to compete in hardware. My personal use case may be that 3.5″ is the right screen size given how I use the device but for others their use cases may demand a larger screen. That being said, understanding the tradeoffs and use cases for different size screens is key for both the device experience and the problems that need to be solved in order to maintain a consistent quality experience.

I’d love to hear more opinions on this topic.

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Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst and the head of primary research at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research and he is responsible for studying over 30 countries. Full Bio
  • I have been using 3.7 inch android and Windows Phone devices, and feel that is the maximum size that is comfortable for single hand usage and for the pocket.

    A 4 inch device may be thought of, if Apple can reduce the surrounding bezel, so that there isn’t a significant change in dimension.

  • Brad Kompelien

    As with computers, a consumers primary reasons for using their phones differ…gaming, social apps, internet browsing. etc. Based on the use case, a good argument can be made for several different size screens. As you mentioned in the article, it may be time for Apple to include several different phone screen sizes in their product portfolio, as they do in computing, to allow consumers to choose the screen size that fits their individual use case. Being everyone’s hands are different sizes and if one handed operation is key to a phone’s success, Apple’s software could allow a user to choose “Full Screen” and “3.5 In. Screen” views in the case of a 4 in screen product. For gaming, Full Screen could be used. For checking the weather and accessing apps, the 3.5 In Screen could be used.

  • Yacko

    It’s going to be the same phone size, the bezels will get smaller. Same thumb reach as before.

  • Leland

    I’ve used my brother-in-law’s Galaxy Note, and apart from the act of waking it up, it’s purely a two-handed device. I never saw him use it one-handed, either. The catch is that it’s too small for two hands to touch it at once — one holds it while the other taps around the screen — so you’ll never lay it on your lap, a tabletop, or an airplane seatback tray while typing. It looks great on display at a store, but it’s so awkward in real usage that I think the only reason it exists is because Samsung/Android has nothing else to offer in terms of software innovation.

    Thanks for taking the time to take the pics and post them. Half of the usability of the smaller size is thumb reach, but the other half is being able to grip the phone across its back. The Note failed badly on both of these counts, and my hands aren’t terribly small, either. In your pics of the 4.7″ and 4.65″ phones, it looks like your fingers barely reached around the back — is this indeed the case in regular use, or did they just happen to fit like that when you took the photos?

  • Leland

    I’ve used my brother-in-law’s Galaxy Note, and apart from the act of waking it up, it’s purely a two-handed device. I never saw him use it one-handed, either. The catch is that it’s too small for two hands to touch it at once — one holds it while the other taps around the screen — so you’ll never lay it on your lap, a tabletop, or an airplane seatback tray while typing. It looks great on display at a store, but it’s so awkward in real usage that I think the only reason it exists is because Samsung/Android has nothing else to offer in terms of software innovation.

    Thanks for taking the time to take the pics and post them. Half of the usability of the smaller size is thumb reach, but the other half is being able to grip the phone across its back. The Note failed badly on both of these counts, and my hands aren’t terribly small, either. In your pics of the 4.7″ and 4.65″ phones, it looks like your fingers barely reached around the back — is this indeed the case in regular use, or did they just happen to fit like that when you took the photos?

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