Looking Back at Our Ridiculous 3.5-inch iPhone Displays

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.