updated 06:07 pm EDT, Thu September 5, 2013
Company may be feeling pressure from large-screen rivals
Even as Apple prepares to announce at least one and likely two new iPhone models with four-inch screens, the company has been said to be experimenting with different screen sizes for its iPhone and even iPad for some time -- with the Wall Street Journal the latest to confirm that Apple is evaluating plans to offer future iPhones with larger displays in 2014, possibly as big as six inches -- though the company is said to be favoring one of the test units with a 4.8-inch screen. The experiments are likely due to sales pressure from rivals such as Samsung, which have found a niche for "phablet" devices.
The iPhone 5 itself was a response to the trend in larger screen sizes, but added its extra screen space vertically -- a clever workaround that bypassed the need to redesign the entire chassis, lose the popular "one-handed operation" advantage, or change resolution and cause significant issues for developers -- all while adding both more room for battery and more screen real estate. Screen sizes overall, however, have continued to increase in the industry, as many buyers find that they can't afford or don't want both a larger tablet and a smartphone and opt to buy one device -- such as Samsung's recently-revamped Galaxy Note -- as their one mobile device.
For Android users, another factor behind the "one mobile device" idea is the lack of a unified, simple and automatic syncing engine like iCloud for iOS, which keeps key elements of a users' profile (such as photos, contacts, calendars, bookmarks and more) in automatic sync among devices. The range of manufacturers, customizations, OS versions and custom variants means that while some sync services are available, there is no universal sync quite like iCloud -- leading buyers to prefer to rely on one device rather than work to keep to two or more coordinated with the same data.
Still, for many buyers (particularly men, who tend to have larger hands), the rise to 5-inch and larger screens has not posed a significant issue, and can even be seen as a status symbol (or, in the words of some critics, compensating). On Wednesday, Samsung debuted the Galaxy Note 3, which offers a screen of 5.7 issues -- making it one of the largest screens available for a device that can still be used as a phone, though Note users tend to work with the device more like one would an iPad mini (which, at 7.9 inches, offers a far larger screen but has no built-in phone functionality).
Apple is said to be looking at displays of up to six inches, but it remains unknown what resolution or dimensions a future iPhone with a larger screen would use. The company has prided itself more on having the most color-accurate and high-resolution displays compared to rivals, but recent advances in screen technology have erased the latter advantage, and are steadily creeping up on the former.
Part of Samsung's ability to dominate smartphone shipments comes from its approach of offering dozens of combinations of features, screen sizes and price points. Whether Apple will eventually be forced to create a larger iPhone remains unclear: the company is known to spend a long time testing ideas before implementing them, and discarding prototypes and ideas easily.
The iPhone 5 has been slowly but steadily gaining marketshare in many markets, particularly North America -- despite the fact that the iPhone 5 is at the end of its cycle, and the other two models in the lineup are more than two and three years old respectively. The iPhone, despite what is now considered a "small" screen size, remains the most popular single brand of smartphone in the world, particularly with women and teens.
Apple may choose to keep the current screen size of the iPhone for certain classes of devices in the future, such as the forthcoming and lower-cost "iPhone 5C," and raise screen sizes for more premium models. Component suppliers and other sources tell the Journal that the company seems to be most interested in tests for a 4.8-inch screen, suggesting that the "iPhone 6" might again set a new bar for iPhone display sizes and likely retain the Retina resolution and color accuracy the company is known for.