The iPhone 4S kept the same aesthetic as the iPhone 4, but will the next iPhone do the same? Photo: Jim Merithew/Wired
Now that the new iPad is here, speculation has shifted back to the iPhone — specifically, whether Apple will be upping the screen size of its Retina display smartphone. Developers and analysts tell us that a larger iPhone screen size makes sense, and should arrive in Apple’s next refresh.
But just how large will the next iPhone be?
On Thursday morning, Reuters reported that Apple’s next phone would come with a 4.6-inch display, significantly larger than the 3.5-inch display the phone currently sports. If true, a display that size would put the iPhone on par with big-screen stunners like the HTC Titan II, which has a 4.7-inch display, and the popular 4.5-inch Samsung Galaxy S II.
Despite the fact that Apple has kept the 3.5-inch display an iPhone mainstay since the phone’s debut in 2007, analysts are speculating the next-gen device is being primed for a face lift. “I would be surprised if Apple didn’t launch an iPhone with a larger display,” Canalys principal analyst Pete Cunningham told Wired. “The way people are using smartphones is changing.”
For one, Cunningham points out, users are watching a lot more video, whether it’s YouTube video of lizards playing Ant Crusher or longer streams of movies and TV shows from Netflix.
Photo and video manipulation, as evidenced by the launch of apps like Apple’s own iPhoto, are also becoming increasingly popular uses for smartphones.
“There are lots of people who prefer to perform image editing on the iPad, because the screen is larger. Having even a slightly bigger iPhone screen will definitely be a good motivation for artists to do editing on iPhone,” Alexander Tsepko, head of marketing at app development firm MacPhun, said. “Not to mention that a larger screen, especially a larger Retina display, is way better to watch resulting videos and photos.”
At the least, says IHS iSuppli analyst Francis Sideco, Apple could maintain the current phone’s physical form factor, but push the edges of the viewable display to the limits of the phone’s chassis. “Other competitive smartphones, especially in this tier of smartphone, are definitely trending to 4 inches and above, so the current version of the iPhone is definitely smaller than that,” Sideco said.
Cunningham said this was a “noticeable weakness” of the device. He expects the next iPhone will have a 4-inch or 4.3-inch display, rather than the 4.6-inch behemoth reported by Reuters. “I don’t think Apple can go much above 4.3 because of the need to meet so many different people’s needs,” Cunningham said. Unlike the 5.3-inch Samsung Galaxy Note, the iPhone is a mass-market device, and Apple will have to find the “sweet spot” for such a product.
As for the screen resolution of such a device, that’s up in the air. It would be convenient if a larger iPhone maintained the current Retina display resolution of 960 x 640, Tsepko said, and if Apple kept pixel density at 300-plus (the iPhone 4 and 4S have 326 ppi displays) visually it would be “magic.” Telfer thinks the screen resolution would scale proportionally to the iPhone’s current specs.
While a 4-inch or larger iPhone would certainly benefits users, it would also pose an extra burden for iOS developers.
“We’ve been pretty spoiled with iOS,” Adam Telfer, vice president of game development at XMG Studios said. “We had two screen resolutions we had to deal with, but now we have four: iPhone, iPhone Retina, iPad, and iPad Retina. This means we need to bundle four different kinds of assets all in the same download.”
So, with a higher resolution iPhone, developers would have to resolve five different types of assets. This means the size of an app, no matter what device it’s downloaded on, will be significantly larger.
A bigger display also means the way the device is held could change.
“Developers will have to re-write the UI of the apps from the scratch,” Tsepko said of a 4.6-inch iPhone. Another problem with coding for another screen size and resolution: Developers don’t have a way to test a new UI before the device is available for purchase, so there’s a period of time when users already have the new device, but most apps aren’t yet optimized for it.
But at the end of the day, it all comes down to the developers’ confidence in Apple — that Apple won’t create too many coding headaches, and that its hardware refreshes will entice consumer buy-in, just like always. “If users are more excited, and we get a larger user base because it has a 4.6-inch screen then we’re totally on board with that,” Telfer said.