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Apple and the quest for a bigger smartphone screen

Marco Tabini | Oct. 10, 2013
Big smartphones are seemingly everywhere, but size isn't everything, and Apple may well be right to keep the iPhone where it is.

With the new iPhone models firmly out the door and racking up impressive sales, it has become obvious that Apple isn't in any rush to manufacture handsets that sport a bigger screen.

To be fair, a change in screen size would have been unlikely for this year's iPhone; to date, we've seen the product undergo a radical refresh roughly every other year, so it's really no surprise that the iPhone 5c and 5s are incremental—if excellent—updates to the iPhone 5's original design.

Still, big phones are everywhere these days—so much so that the press has felt it necessary to attach the horrible portmanteau phablet to those models so large as to tread into tablet territory. Thus, it's only natural to wonder whether Apple, which has so far steadfastly refused to budge on the form factor, will follow suit.

When bigger is better
Of course, there was a time, not so long ago, when the iPhone was the big phone. When it first launched in June 2007, it entered a market where manufacturers had spent decades miniaturizing the large, unwieldy handsets of the 1970s and 1980s. The focus was on smaller, not bigger—and even the smartphones of the time were large only because they had to fit both a keyboard and a small screen.

With the iPhone, Apple's great insight was to get rid of physical keyboards altogether. Given the industry fixation on smaller phones, the folks from Cupertino could have also decided to stick with something more like their competitors' tiny screens, ending up with a small form factor (think a square iPhone). Instead, Apple went with a full-size display, and the rest, well, is history.

And then there was the transition from the iPhone 4s to the iPhone 5, in which the company designed a bigger screen to accommodate a new, widescreen format. Remarkably, it managed to design a new handset that was bigger, but still managed to feel smaller than its predecessor: To this day, whenever I pick up my old iPhone 4 to test an app I'm working on, it feels massive in my hand, even though my eyes tell me that the newer model has a larger footprint.

The complex puzzle of design
All of this is to say that Apple isn't afraid to change its products' form factor; as with almost everything else that the company does, however, it's very careful about what changes it makes. Instead of "the biggest phone," the company wants to make "the ideal phone."

The most obvious advantage of a bigger screen is that you have more pixels to work with. That means being able to display more of a webpage or text document, and, ideally, taking full advantage of high-resolution video to produce crisper, more detailed images.

 

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