The iPhone 5 is the first iPhone to really shake up the original, iconic design that Steve Jobs introduced to a cheering crowd in January 2007. It’s still self-evidently an iPhone; no one would ever mistake it for any other phone, even if it was turned off. But for the first time since the original, Apple has changed the display this generation, giving it a new aspect ratio without changing its width.
Adding 186 pixels in height to the iPhone 5’s display isn’t much in the grand scheme of things, so this might seem like a subtle change, but the effect is still stark. Apple has been masterfully refining the iPhone’s core design every two years not just to change things, but to make the display truer to Cupertino’s original vision of what such a device should be. Any change to the way it looks head on needs to be taken as Apple rethinking the iPhone from the ground up.
Each iPhone so far has been a step closer to the ideal mobile computer Steve Jobs originally envisioned back in 2008. That means it gets faster, it gets thinner, it gets lighter; the software matures; new processes allow Apple to construct it of ever more durable materials. But nothing changes just because, and head-on, each iPhone should look the same: a 3:2 square of glass and a single iconic home button.
This year, for the first time ever, though, the new iPhone doesn’t look like the iPhones that came before it from the front. It’s taller. Why?
This year, for the first time ever, the new iPhone doesn’t look like the iPhones that came before it head-on. It’s taller. Why?
The most commonly cited reasons for the iPhone 5 becoming taller this generation are that it allows the iPhone 5 to more comfortably compete with 4+ inch smartphones from the competition and that it allows users and developers to take advantage of a more industry standard 16:9 aspect ratio on their smartphones. The former reason is hard to swallow: Apple has not been feeling the hurt from 4-inch competitors. Which leaves us the experience. Is a 16:9, 4-inch display experientially better than a 3:2, 3.5-inch display?
After a few days of using the iPhone 5, I’d say yes. More vertical room allows for more text and information to be displayed on the iPhone 5, which means less scrolling. In Tweetbot, more tweets display; in a web browser, you can see more of a web page in a go. There’s less thumb fatigue all around. Notification Center banners take up less of the display when they pop-up, as does Launch Center when you hit the home button twice. The result is a greater sense of immersion in the app you’re in. More app icons fit on the homescreen and in folders. If you are typing in a text field, the onscreen keyboard takes up less of the vertical area of the display, allowing you to see more of what you’re typing. It’s not an earth-shattering improvement, but it is a real one.
But if a longer 16:9 display is really a better experience than a 3:2 display, why stop there? There have been a number of funny parodies of the iPhone 5’s added length, culminating in the brilliant “Longest thing to happen to iPhone since iPhone” video, but these parodies are making a sound point. If 16:9 is so much better than 3:2, why stop there? Why not even longer?
One possible clue is that a 16:9 aspect ratio is HD video widescreen, which allows you to watch most widescreen videos without letterboxing. And it’s true that on the iPhone 5, watching a widescreen video is a more immersive experience: the video takes up all of the display with no banding, resulting in a more efficient and easier-on-the-eyes video experience than afforded by previous iPhones. Videos just take up more of the screen, proportionally, than they once did. Again, it’s a real improvement.
Another reason that Apple originally chose a 3:2 aspect ratio has to do with photography. 3:2 is the same aspect ratio as 35mm film. Apple knew from the beginning that photography was going to be an important feature on the iPhone, and designed the display to embrace it. It’s worth noting that the iPhone 5 still takes photos in a standard 35mm aspect ratio, letterboxing the photos when displayed on the new device. 16:9, on the other hand, is the aspect ratio of the HD video standard; a more comfortable fit for using your display as a camcorder. As more people use their phones to shoot high-quality 1080p HD video, changing the aspect ratio with the times just makes sense. You now get the best of both worlds: a proper 35mm aspect ratio for photography, and the use of the entire display as a viewfinder for when you’re shooting video.
So are these the reasons Apple increased the length of the display? I doubt it: clearly, Apple felt strongly that a 3:2 aspect ratio screen at 3.5-inches was the way to go for a smartphone display. Despite Apple’s happy assurances to the contrary, a 4-inch display makes it harder for people with normal sized hands (like mine) to operate the phone one handed with a single thumb. It’s not a big deal, but especially in apps that have buttons at the top left corner of the screen, you have to change the way you’re holding your iPhone to easily reach it, or stretch your thumb a little more than is necessarily comfortable.
Personally, my belief is that the true reason Apple had to change the aspect ratio of the device this generation was because of LTE. LTE has a number of problems inherent with the standard when it comes to isolating the antenna which make it particularly problematic when it applies to small mobile devices. LTE antennas get better reception in bigger devices. Since LTE also makes greater demands on a device when it comes to battery life than 3G, it makes sense to increase the aspect ratio of the display to help with isolating the antenna and to make room for more battery.
Apple thought through the implications and embraced the happy experiential accidents that emerged from making the iPhone 5 longer.
One of the things that puts Apple’s design ethos in an entirely different sphere than the competition is that they know how to turn problems into features. Apple bided its time with LTE, only introducing it to the iPhone when they were ready. When they did finally decide to introduce it to the iPhone 5, they knew they needed to make the device bigger. This much the likes of Samsung, Nokia, Motorola and HTC have already done. But what Apple did was think through the implications: they kept the width of the device the same, so it felt the same in the hand, and embraced the happy experiential accidents that emerged from making it longer.
Was the iPhone always supposed to have a 16:9 display? I seriously doubt it. But now that it’s here, it’s here for good. And it feels like this is the way the iPhone always should have been.