updated 04:36 am EST, Sat February 22, 2014
A larger iPhone 6 could bring Apple challenges for general usability
If the rumor mill is to be given any credence, Apple will be releasing an iPhone with a larger display, possibly between 4.5 and 4.8-inches, along with a larger 5.5-inch or 6-inch 'phablet' later this year. Although Apple has been content to run its own race historically, the rise in popularity of large Android smartphones, and the expectations of Wall Street, almost demands that Apple offers an iPhone that appeals to users who prefer larger displays. In fact, it would be more of surprise come the unveiling of the 'iPhone 6' if Apple were to release only another 4-inch device. Until now, Apple's seeming reluctance to embrace a larger iPhone has revolved around one-handed usability and what it considers to be unacceptable trade-offs that compromise the user experience. If Apple does indeed launch an iPhone with a larger display, how will it maintain the usability of an iPhone with a larger display?
The accidental rise of smartphones with large displays
When the iPhone was launched in 2007, its 3.5-inch display was widely considered large and unlike anything previously seen on a smartphone. For many, it still remains the perfect size from a purely ergonomic perspective. The sweep of a user's thumb across the full screen and down to the Home button while gripping the phone is quite natural and very comfortable. In the intervening years, Android phones gradually increased in size. HTC was an early pioneer of large screen Android phones, although it is now paying a high price for venturing into larger displays before the screen technology and battery life was properly optimised. HTC had success, though, as it was a clear point of differentiation over the iPhone, however, many customers who bought 4-inch plus HTC phones during that period soon regretted it because of poor battery life. Despite how critically well-received its subsequent large-screened HTC One X and the HTC One have been in the past couple of years, the rise of Samsung along with bad early user experiences with HTC's earlier efforts have seen it struggle badly in recent times.
4.3-inch HTC Desire HD pictured next to 3.5-inch iPhone 4. Credit: Trusted Reviews
Just like the rise in popularity of 7-inch tablets was a happy accident (early Android tablets only able to stretch Android out to 7-inches as it was not optimized to run on tablets until 2011 with the release of Android 3.0 "Honeycomb"), the rise in popularity of large screen smartphones is also something of a happy accident too. Android manufacturers are dependent on Google for their operating system and off-the-shelf ARM chips and/or designs. Even though Samsung fabricates its own ARM chips, until now it has been using off-the-shelf ARM designs and even uses chips by made by Qualcomm for some versions of its flagship Galaxy S smartphone range. This has almost forced manufacturers into using larger displays to accommodate multicore chips clocked at higher speeds, coupled with larger batteries to power them in order to remain competitive with Apple's iPhones just from a pure performance perspective.
Competitive advantage - Apple's custom 64-bit A7 SoC
Apple's competitive edge
The 32-bit Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 chip currently used in several flagship Android smartphones including the Google Nexus 5 is clocked at 2.3GHz and uses four cores to keep up with the performance Apple has been able to achieve from its custom-designed dual-core A7 64-bit chip clocked at just 1.3GHz. In fact, in single-core performance the iPhone 5s still manages to crush the Snapdragon 800 with a Geekbench 3 score of 1406 versus 913, despite being clocked at a massive 1GHz slower. This why the vast majority of Android phones between 4-inches and 4.5-inches are mid-range devices running less powerful chips - they have less thermal space to run faster chips, plus they have less space for higher capacity batteries. Apple, by contrast, also makes and optimizes its software to run on its custom chips, which is a unique advantage that allows it to create powerful, but thin and compact smartphones as they don't need to pack in larger batteries that offering larger screened phones as a 'feature' has seemingly necessitated.
Only recently, Sony released the Xperia Z1 Compact, a 4.3-inch device that packs similar internals to its 5-inch Z1 flagship. However, it is much thicker than the 7.6mm iPhone 5s at 9.5mm and also heavier at 137 grams versus the 112 grams of the iPhone 5s. It is device released to appeal to the many Android users who don't necessarily want a smartphone with a 5-inch or greater display, Until the arrival of the Xperia Z1 compact, there has been a noticeable gap of high-powered and fully features 4- to 4.5-inch Android smartphone segment.
Xperia Z1 Compact - a rare, compact, yet full-powered Android smartphone
Usability of large screen phones is all in the grip
Regardless of what led to rise of 5-inch and larger Android smartphones, there is no doubt that they are now very popular with a lot of users. According to TECHAnalysis, the market for 5-inch or larger smartphones is projected to reach a whopping 240 million devices in 2014, a trend that Apple has no doubt been following. Although Apple eventually increased the iPhone display to 4-inches with the arrival of the iPhone 5 in 2012, it has still been keen to tout its continued one-handed usability. It is hard to argue with Apple on this point, although I believe it also has had to do with how users have traditionally gripped their smartphones. If you have an average-sized hand like I do, and you grip the iPhone with your fingers wrapped around the far side of the iPhone, it is still ergonomically comfortable to navigate the display, type and use the Home button. If I try to do this with the 4-95-inch Nexus 5, I cannot get anywhere near to using the device in the same way - in fact, it is just about impossible for me to do so one-handed.
Nexus 5 is difficult to use one-handed with traditional grip
However, I also manage to use the 4.95-inch Nexus 5 with one hand just as easily, although I had to change my grip when using the Nexus 5 in order to achieve this, as pictured below. I didn't like earlier iterations of large-screened Android devices as they were thicker and heavier, much harder to use one-handed. However, as larger Android devices have become thinner, and the display bezels narrower, the general usability of these devices has improved markedly. Display technology has also improved significantly in this time, becoming less power hungry. This has, in turn, has also helped Android device makers reduce the battery footprint, resulting in the thinner 5-inch Android devices we are now very familiar with. With my fingers repositioned to cradle the Nexus 5 (and other similarly sized Android devices) from behind the phone, I've found that this liberates my thumb to comfortably navigate a much larger display just as comfortably. Coupled with Android's Gesture typing, and one-handed use of larger Android devices is more than acceptable.
Using the Nexus 5 one-handed with adjusted hand position is much easier
The advantage of having a larger smartphone display is pretty obvious, just as the disadvantages are pretty obvious. With a larger display, you can more of websites and other content, while also reducing strain on your eyes, but it is less pocketable. At the same time, Apple has kept the smaller displays on its iPhones highly usable by moving to high DPI Retina displays, keeping font sharp, while also using functions like Reader in Safari, to keep text easy to read. As the millions of iPhone sales are testament to (it sold 33.8 million of them in the last three months of 2013 alone), a lot of people also prefer smaller, more compact smartphones. As mentioned above, the recent arrival of the Sony Xperia Z1 Compact is an indication that there are a lot of Android power users who also want a more compact, yet still powerful, smartphone.
iPhone 5s, full-powered, easy to use one-handed with traditional grip
On screen navigational controls help with usability
Another reason that 5-inch Android smartphones can be used comfortably with one hand (albeit with a different grip) is that devices like the Nexus 5 have dropped physical navigational controls including Home buttons and Back buttons for onscreen software controls. If Apple moves to a larger iPhone of between 4.5- and 4.8-inches, a rumored bezel-less design will go a long way to making it easier to get around with your thumb. Another complication in this scenario is what Apple would do with its iconic Home button. The software-based Home button in the Nexus 5 helps to keep the ergonomics of using its larger display more manageable. Although it would only amount to two or three millimeters if the Apple retains its Home button on an iPhone with a larger display, it could well make using it one-handed less comfortable than if Apple moved to a software-based Home button as well. Doing this might make it easier to use, but it would make it more difficult for vision-impaired users, for example, to quickly determine the orientation of such an iPhone in the hand. The extremely successful Touch ID, is also built into the Home button in the iPhone 5s, while the Home button is also used for activating Siri and for multitasking. As such, it seems unlikely that Apple will drop it at this juncture, despite speculation it might drop the Home button dating back to 2011.
Reaching the Home button on the iPhone 5s is comfortable with a traditional grip
Some interesting Apple patents
However, Patently Apple has uncovered an Apple patent that would see the Touch ID fingerprint sensor embedded transparently within the display of an iPhone and only be visible when in use. According to Apple, "Placing components that would typically be found on the surface of an electronic device enclosure behind a transparent display may increase the surface real-estate of the enclosure for a larger display or additional components. Further, the aesthetics of the electronic device may be greatly enhanced by not cluttering the device enclosure with always-visible components, but instead creating a more seamless electronic device where the components are only visible when they are in use." It is clear to see here that Apple has been considering what it might do to better accommodate the Home button and Touch ID sensor in a device with a larger display. Alternatively, Apple has also previously been awarded a patent for "Device, Method and Graphical User Interface for Manipulating User Interface Based On Fingerprint Sensor Inputs" (WO2013173838) that describes an alternative way of navigating a device with a touchscreen that where the Touch ID fingerprint sensor built into the Home button could also act as a trackpad. If Apple adopted this approach for a smartphone with a larger display, it wouldn't matter if a user couldn't reach across all sections of the display, as they could easily navigate it one-handed from the Home button. Either way, usability of an iPhone with a larger display clearly remains a chief concern for Apple, though it seems determined to resolve the issue.
Could an iPhone 6 feature an embedded, transparent Touch ID and the Home button? Credit: iPhone 6 concept by Nowhereelse.fr
A larger iPhone seems inevitable and will be great for user choice
Ergonomics and Home buttons aside, it makes a lot of sense for Apple to offer a larger iPhone simply given just how popular they have become, particularly in emerging Asian markets that are playing a pivotal role in Apple's plans for future growth. Hopefully, when Apple delivers a larger iPhone, it does so along side an equally powerful new 4-inch model as well, so that users who a happy with a smaller device don't have to make do with a less powerful device as many Android users have been forced to do. I see no reason why Apple would necessarily offer a different chip in a larger iPhone model as the iPad Air and iPad mini with Retina display both use the same A7 chip as the iPhone 5s, although it is clocked slightly faster in the iPad Air. Apple has the technological capability to ensure that future 4-inch iPhones have the same amount of power as larger devices, as it has demonstrated time and again. Apple already offers tablets in multiple sizes, as well as notebooks in multiple sizes. Even though Apple's resurgence throughout the last decade and dominance into the current decade has been built on a lean product portfolio, adding at least one more screen choice for the iPhone will help to bring back customers who have been craving a larger iPhone, but may have switched to Android for a larger display.
If there is one thing that Apple can do to make Samsung nervous, it is to introduce an iPhone with a larger display. If there is something else that Apple can do to make Samsung even more nervous, it is to introduce a new device into the popular 'phablet' space, where Samsung devices currently rule. According to the latest rumors, it is possible that if Apple releases such a device, it may not carry the iPhone brand, but a new brand altogether. 'iSlate' springs to mind as a possibility, as it is a product name that Apple has previously registered and was for a time thought to be the name it was going to give the what became the iPad. Such a device could well pick up a different product name in order to differentiate from both the iPhone and the iPad product line. Who knows, it might even pick up a stylus, as Apple has also filed a patent on such an implement.
By Sanjiv Sathiah