Why Taller is not Bigger

Had he lived, he could have been the spokeman!

One of the largest issues confounding Apple owners these days is the tiny screen they’re forced to use. While 3.5” was considered comically big when it was released in 2007 (at a time when the race was to create the smallest functional phone), the 3.5” screen nowadays is pint sized relic. When HTC released the 4.3” Evo in 2010, Steve Jobs called it a Hummer. But people got very excited at the screen size – where Apple decided to stick with 3.5” and increase the resolution, Android decided to see just how big the screens could get before they had to increase the resolution. Incidentally, 2010 was also the year the Dell Streak was released with a 5” screen. It was considered unusable and a completely niche product because it was too big. In the past year, the Galaxy Note sold 10 million units with a 5.3” screen. The upcoming Galaxy Note will likely sell even more. It has a 5.5” screen. And even the Evo’s 4.3” screen has been dwarfed in the pure phone category– the Samsung Galaxy S3 has sold 30 million units in three months. It sports a 4.8” screen.

So screen sizes have been going up in lockstep with Android’s popularity. So where does that leave Apple? First let’s take a look at the reasons why Android has been able to get so large while Apple trapped itself at 3.5”. This will be a bit dray and technical, so go drink a cup of coffee first.

Okay. The central issue of the screen size problem is the iPhone operating system, iOS. Unlike Android, which was built from the ground up to scale to all sorts of resolutions and screen ratios, iOS can only scale arithmetically. That’s why the iPhone4 went from 480 * 320 pixels to 960 * 640 pixels. But this pixel density increase allowed Jobs to seize a marketing opportunity – the Retina Screen. It was a nice screen, but it was an even better marketing move. While resolution is a factor in the perception of detail, it actually places fourth behind contrast ratio, color saturation, and color accuracy. That is why some people like the SAMOLED+ screen on the Samsung Galaxy 2 over the iPhone4S screen even though it lags in resolution and pixel density – the Galaxy S2 blows away the iPhone in the areas of contrast ratio and color saturation. Be that as it may, Jobs was able to link pixel density with quality, and this was a savvy move on two fronts – first, it gave the iPhone4 screen the reputation for being the best, and secondly, it created a situation where it was impossible for Android manufacturers to catch up. That’s because pixel density is calculated by both resolution and size. The real reason the iPhone had such a high pixel density was because it was so small – even if Android manufacturers matched the iPhone on resolution, their larger screens would, by nature, have lower pixel densities. It’s math and shit.

However, Apple was about to be hoist by its own petard. One of the problems with wrapping yourself in the Retina Screen cloak and sneering at inferior pixel densities is that you can’t go any lower without looking like a hypocritical douche. And this is where they were trapped. Any attempt at making the physically screen larger at the current resolution would disrupt “Retina Screen” density. The only way increase the screen size without dropping below “Retina” would be to move up the resolution arithmetically to 1440 * 960, but no one makes panels with 494 ppi. There was only one way to get out of the 3.5” trap they set themselves in. And it was the same solution that the cities builders figured out – if you can’t grow out, grow up.

Since there was no way to make the iPhone5 screen actually bigger without disturbing the pixel density basket they put all their eggs into, the solution was to tack an extra 176 rows of pixels at the top of the screen. This preserved the “Retina Screen” pixel density while putatively offering a modern-sized, 4” diagonal screen in a 16:9 HDTV screen ratio. In other words, this is the bigger screen you were looking for.

Except it’s not.

So back to the title of the article. The reasons people want a “bigger” screen is to make fonts easier to read. To make the keys easier to tap on the keyboard. To make links in the browsers easier to touch. Basically, the graphic elements in the iPhone’s 3.5” screen are too small for many users. That’s why they were looking for a “bigger” screen. The iPhone 5’s taller screen does nothing to resolve any of those complaints. The only way for the graphics to truly grow is to increase the height and width. By merely elongating the screen, they have done almost nothing to catch up to the larger, more involving and more productive Android screens.

So you can watch HD video without the letterboxing now, and there’s an extra row of icons. That’s about it. In return, you get letterboxing on many of your apps and pretty much all of your games, until the time their developers update them to fill in useless information on the sides. And it is indeed useless – they have to make one app to satisfy both iPhone5 owners and iPhone4S owners, which means the info on the sides can’t be integral to the app without making separate widescreen versions (which, if it happens, means there’s the possibility that you’ll have to rebuy those apps). Of all the things myriad Apple copied from Android, who knew fragmentation would be the number one feature in the iPhone5.

I have firsthand experience with these issues – I had a widescreen TV back in 2000-2005 when there was no actual HD programming. Everything on TV had black bars on the side. But it was nice for DVDs. When HD programming finally came, the shows were still composed for square TVs, which meant anything on the sides was extraneous. But it was still a good tradeoff for me because my rear projection TV was so much bigger than the square tube TVs at the time. You won’t get this trade off with the iPhone5 screen, which is .6” shorter than the one on the Galaxy S3.

So that, in about 1,000 words, is why the newest “big” screen from Apple is anything but. Happy marketing!

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