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The problem with the rumored 4-inch iPhone

Mark Gurman, writing for 9to5Mac about the rumored 4-inch iPhone Apple may release in 2016:

Some Apple users have explained that they prefer the smaller size to the 4.7-inch iPhone 6s and 5.5 [inch] iPhone 6s Plus displays as it is easier to use with one hand. The device’s technical specifications will fall somewhere between the iPhone 5s and iPhone 6s.

Count me among the “some Apple users” who prefer a smaller phone. After nearly 18 months of use, my iPhone 6 still feels awkward. When I’m holding the handset with one hand, I can’t reach software buttons placed in the screen’s upper corners. My wife (who has smaller hands) finds the 6 even more frustrating. Not only can’t she navigate one-handed, but the phone won’t fit into the miniature pockets sewn into most women’s clothing. We both pine for a more pocketable, more “thumbable” phone.

So I’m glad Apple plans to release an updated 4-inch unit. But I’m disappointed that this “iPhone 6c” won’t match the “big boy” phones, spec for spec. The feature differences put small-phone aficionados in a difficult place: caught between performance and pocketability.[1]

In my ideal world, the three phones would cycle in lockstep. Every year, Apple would release three iPhone models: the 4-inch, the 4.7inch, and the 5.5 inch. All three phones would boast identical specifications (other than screen size). You can’t call the smallest phone the “Minus” (that sounds pejorative), so maybe you’d brand it the “iPhone Mini.”

Alas, this dream scenario won’t come to pass. Based on the rumors, the 4-inch phone in Apple’s pipeline will lag behind its bigger brethren. And, considered practically, this makes sense. A larger phone chassis provides extra volume. Extra volume means a larger battery. A larger battery can run more power-hungry hardware—things like extra RAM and faster-clocked processors.


  1. Customers face a similar conundrum when choosing between the standard iPhone size and the “Plus” size. If the iPhone 7 Plus retains its hardware advantages over the standard 7 (i.e. hardware OIS, battery life, and/or the rumored RAM bump), it’ll be impossible to pick a phone based on size preference alone.  ↩
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A taller iPhone: ergonomically problematic?

In recent weeks, rumors of an iPhone with a larger screen have resurfaced. A forum post on the Verge, subtly substantiated by Apple insider John Gruber, imagined how Apple could increase the device’s screen size without expanding its actual footprint. By sliding the earpiece up and shrinking down the home button, Apple could pack in more vertical pixels, transforming the iPhone’s screen from a squat 3:2 to something nearer 16:9.

Now, I’m all for a larger iPhone screen. The current version does feel small. But this particular idea has its problems.

My own misgivings have to do with button ergonomics. The current iPhone’s home button is already tricky to press, particularly when the device is held with one hand. If I grip the phone securely, my thumb can’t reach the home button. I’m forced to shimmy the iPhone “up” my grip, balancing it on my index finger. While my thumb stretches, I lose its stabilizing anchor point. The combined effect? It feels as if the phone wants to flip over my fingers and tumble to the ground.

And what if, as the rumors suggest, the home button gets smaller and slides further down to accommodate a taller screen size? Well, in short, a things get worse:

  • First, as the home button moves down, hitting it comfortably will mean holding the iPhone even higher in my hand. More weight will hang out into the air, making the device less stable.
  • Second, a smaller home button would be a harder target to hit. My thumb would take longer to find the button. This would leave the phone unanchored (and vulnerable to drops) for longer stretches of time.
  • Third, shifting the home button downward would mean that my thumb presses down slightly closer to the device’s bottom edge. As with a lever or see-saw, moving the contact point away from the fulcrum results in more movement. It’s tough to maintain a firm grip on a moving object.[1]
  • Finally, with the home button relocated near the phone’s bottom, there’s a greater chance that my thumb will unexpectedly slip off the edge. Suddenly, I’ve lost that anchor point completely. My reflexes might not fire quickly enough to tighten my grip—and prevent the phone from flipping backwards, out of my hand.

  1. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the home button is notorious for wearing out. As the phone ages, only overly-firm, exaggerated presses register with the OS. These heavier taps make the phone shift and shimmy even more.  ↩

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iPad ergonomics

iPad ergonomics
Top half courtesy of Safety & Health, University of Western Australia. Via Sciblogs. Bottom half courtesy Peter Belanger/Macworld.

As the iPad cannibalizes the traditional PC market, more knowledge workers are relying on Apple’s tablet for getting things done. One unfortunate side effect of a tablet-based workstation? Deplorable ergonomics.

Most ergonomic guides recommend you mount your monitor at (or just below) eye level. That’s tough to do with iPad docks currently available.

On the other hand, you could argue that the iPad is ergonomically superior to laptops. With the iPad, it’s at least theoretically possible to raise the screen higher (even if few people do it). A laptop locks the screen at keyboard height.