Looking Back at Our Ridiculous 3.5-inch iPhone Displays

| Editorial

The original Apple iPhone started out with a 3.5 inch display. That worked great in 2007 for a telephone that could also run a few Apple apps, but in 2014 we do so much with our iPhones that a larger display is a must. That fact becomes oh, so obvious when one places three smartphones: iPhone 3GS, iPhone 5s, and an Amazon Fire Phone side by side.

[Note: this is an editorial with some author observations, not a formal review or technical comparison of products.]

L-R: Apple iPhone 3GS, iPhone 5s, Amazon Fire Phone

The idea that we could function these days with a 3.5 inch smartphone display seems entirely ridiculous. It was only relatively recently that Apple, with the iPhone 5, switched to a 4 inch display and stayed there with the iPhone 5c/5s. Many think Apple waited too long, and I agree.

Along the way, we smartphone customers started doing so much more. We navigate with Google maps in a sunlit car going 65 mph. We watch Netflix in the doctor's waiting room — or read a Kindle book. We take fantastic photos and want to appreciate them right away. We monitor the local weather with Doppler radar. We do online shopping and banking. And we can even create modest text documents. All that requires serious screen real estate

Of course, I am aware of some that will counter. A smaller iPhone fits in the shirt or pants pocket better. It's easier to handle and operate with the thumb. Some of the women might feel that a 4.7-5.0 inch display smartphone is just to unwieldy.

The Modern Smartphone

I am here to suggest that all that has to be put behind us if we're to properly exploit a modern smartphone. Look again at the photo above. You can't even begin to read an article at the Mac Observer with a 3.5 inch display. The 4-inch iPhone 5s in the middle is better, but the Amazon Fire Phone (4.7 inches) on the right shows signs of displaying the web page in a more pleasing fashion.

To emphasize the point, when I reviewed the Samsung Note II, "An iPhone Veteran Evaluates a Samsung Galaxy Note II," I wrote this:

When it comes to browsing the Internet, a 5.5-inch display beats a 3.5 or 4-inch display handily. When it comes to pressing a smartphone into the kinds of things we often see promoted, like the mobile viewing of sports, a 5.5-in. display is a delight. If you're on an airplane and want to watch a movie, the difference is substantive.

L-R: Samsung Galaxy Note II, Apple iPhone 5

Even so, I recognized that a 5.5 inch phablet isn't for everyone because of its sheer size, and I was under no illusions that Apple should try to immediately emulate the Galaxy Note II — at that time.

What Took Apple so Long?

Times have changed now. Rumors are that Apple will release two iPhones on September 9. The most likely is a 4.7 inch iPhone 6, and it would be pretty close to the size of the Amazon Fire Phone in the first photo above. I think it'll be perfect. There are other rumors that suggest a second iPhone with a 5.5 inch display. I think either of these phones will be most welcome and be gobbled up by the tens of millions.

Apple doesn't seem to have any really good excuse for being slow to recognize the need for larger displays. Sure, there may be some battery, display, and resolution issues to address. But Apple is just the kind of company that can solve those problems.

If you're interested, Rene Ritchie at iMore, awhile back, delved into the technical issues associated with increasing the iPhone display size. "Imagining a 5-inch iPhone 6."

Reaction to the Fire Phone

I'll be posting a review of the Amazon Fire Phone soon. In the meantime, when I hold it in my hand, I appreciate it immensely. It makes my iPhone 5s seem just too small to be a modern smartphone. Indeed, I notice the Fire Phone weight at 5.6 ounces vs. 3.95 ounces for the 5s, but that doesn't bother me. The extra heft of a larger phone pays off handsomely no matter what I do with it. Protective cases blur the difference anyway.

However, it wasn't until I actually handled the Fire Phone that all this was dramatically driven home. That Galaxy Note II was too dramatic a difference to appreciate the subtle advantage of the 4.7 inch format. Besides, how does one carry around a 5.5 inch (display) phablet that weighs 6 or 7 ounces? (Without a purse or giant belt holster.)

For now, my feeling is that our smartphones are getting bigger displays simply because we demand so much more of them. Amazon and Samsung get that, and I'm looking forward to Apple finally joining the club. For now, I'm loving the 4.7 inch size, and it think that's the sweet spot in 2014.

Looking back, with some nostalgia, it's amazing how ridiculously small a 3.5 inch smartphone display has become.

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Comments

ReggaeFire

I’m certainly in the minority, but I prefer the smaller screen. It’s far easier to use one handed.

If Apple (or anyone, really), made a new phone with a 3.5” retina level screen and a good camera, I’d buy it happily in a heartbeat.

Although I grudgingly bought an iPhone 5, I never grew to like the screen size. If I want something to watch movies on I’ll use my tablet, not my phone.

dlstarr7

I agree with ReggaeFire.  I really don’t like these larger screens and would happily buy a 3.5 or even smaller smart phone.  I had a Veer for a bit, and it was an awesome size for a phone.

xmattingly

Chalk me into the column favoring one-handed operation. My most recent experience has been switching from a three year old iPod Touch to an iPhone 5s. My phone does fit comfortably in my pocket and is still easy to hold, but unlike my old iPod, I can no longer palm it (conceal it in my hand). I almost exclusively use my phone one-handed, and with that usability in mind, even that added 1/2 inch of real estate makes it fairly difficult to reach the opposite corner with my thumb (and my hands are not small).

With that in mind, if/when Apple sells a larger phone with an extra 1- 1 1/2 inches of screen, then you are talking about a “phone” that can no longer be operated one-handed. Which might make more sense if peripheral devices are part of the equation, such as bluetooth headsets or the theoretical iWatch.

There has been a LOT of noise in the news about iPhones with bigger screens, but I haven’t seen anyone talk about whether or not there will be a lesser “iPhone 6c”. I would propose that is what will become of the current “5s”; a cheaper, repackaged version of the currently most advanced phone. And maybe that will be the formula for the foreseeable future: Newest phone gets the most advanced processor + larger screen, lower-priced “new” model is offered with last year’s processor + 4” screen. Rumored upcoming Apple products are starting to fit a lot more clearly in the overall picture, now…

JonGl

A phone is still a phone, and a phone you can’t use with one hand isn’t very useful in real life use. I know people with large phones, and I don’t see how they can do it. I play with them, and I can’t do it with one hand. Plus, they don’t fit in my shirt pockets. Without that, what’s the use of a larger phone. I don’t want to go back to the days of hip holsters, etc. A phone that can disappear into my shirt pocket or pants pocket without being noticed and noticeable is essential to me. In fact, I find the larger iPhone 5 screen to be on the border. We’ll see what apple does, but I fear that my next phone will be the 5s after the bigger phones come out.

Lee Dronick

I am in the camp of those who want a phone that isn’t too big to use one handed. Also as Jon says a size that fits nicely in pockets.

dhp

“You can’t even begin to read an article at the Mac Observer with a 3.5 inch display.”

I know, right? I can’t believe Apple wasted five years making minuscule phones that couldn’t even be used to read a simple web page! Now I’m saving up my money for a Mac Pro and 27-inch Thunderbolt display so I can finally read the Mac Observer on my computer!

Pudge Wagzs

I’m for the 4” screen and the size of the 5S. Anything bigger than that I will not buy.
Movies and major web browsing is for a tablet or laptop. I think at some point that phones will pass this fad of bigger is better and go back to a comfortable size and for their true purpose, a phone.

JoiseyPaul

I loved the 3GS.  I have a 5 now and it’s only okay.  The 3GS fit my hand really well and the size of the 5 does not seem different enough to be worth the less comfortable fit.  I’d be happy with a larger, retina display on the 3GS form factor. I am hoping the 6 has a better screen size to the way it feels in the hand (i.e. big enough display to offset the awkwardness of a bigger phone). I doubt that I’d opt for the phablet iPhone 6! My iPad mini is phab enough.

Lee Dronick

  their true purpose, a phone

More and more they seem to be for texting and for that purpose bigger may be better. It might be an interesting study to see if those of use who don’t want a big phone are people who text less than average.

JoiseyPaul

I typically text when on the phone with my left thumb in portrait mode, as I am doing now on my 5. (Curiously to me, I am primarily right handed). I text a lot and reaching the entire keyboard one handed is really important.

BenG

I am sure there are a lot of people who don’t spend their lives browsing the internet on the phone.  I would love to see an iPhone based on the iPad Nano size.  Cram all the features you can into that.

I have been waiting for the new iPhone announcements so I can get an iPhone 5s cheaper.  However, my 3” LG Encore got washed with my work clothes.  So I decided to get a stop gap phone to tide me over, then give it to my wife, who hates anything computerish.

I got an ATT Radiant (“smartphone”) at Best Buy for about $80, with Andoid 4.1.2 ( Jelly Bean) and a 4 inch screen.  It was horrible, both the size and the performance.  It would butt dial when I was in the shop - “hello? hello? is that you???”.  I would press the battery charge button and it would bring up the wi fi enabler.  I tried to sink with my Mac to transfer pictures (never did).  Kept creating blank home screens…  I returned it and got my money back.

I learned two things.  I don’t ever want another Android phone, and I don’t like big phones.  They do not sit well in any pocket, even if they will fit.

If I get an iPhone, I may have to get a “holster” to hold it.  I want an Nano iPhone.

geoduck

FWIW and to mark stop on the I Told You So crowd,  when Steve Jobs came out with the iPhone it was the right size. The screen, compared to the BlackBerries and other phones of the time was large. He was right that people didn’t want a bigger phone at the time. As the article points out, phones do more, and in 2014 people need bigger phones. That does not mean that Steve Jobs was wrong in 2007. Times change.

Now, Personally I have a tiny screen, crippled LG phone that does one thing, make phone calls (ok it also texts but it’s really kludgy to use). For all the other things people use their big phones for I carry an iPad. I don’t mind carrying two devices and it’s better than any phone for the other things. Think the TMO site looks good on a 4” screen vs a 3.5” screen. It looks great on a 10” iPad.

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