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  • The iPhone 5 Speculation Report: What Do We Really Know?

    May 18th, 2012

    Since Apple moved the last iPhone upgrade from summer to fall, it is now assumed that this timetable is set in stone.  And I won’t say postponed, because Apple never said they were following a specific upgrade schedule. In any case, five months isn’t too early to take a ride on the speculation train, and it’s really crowded.

    One of the most rampant rumors is the possibility that Apple will offer the next iPhone, supposedly labeled the iPhone 5, with a larger screen, probably four inches. Now the logic behind this move — or lack thereof — will be discussed later on. There are serious design considerations to consider.

    First, of course, is the aspect ratio. All iPhones up till now, with or without the Retina Display, have had a 3.5-inch screen with a 3:2 aspect radio. In contrast, the aspect radio of the iPad, all versions, is 4:3, essentially the equivalent of standard size TV. While convenient to hold, the downside is that 16:9 widescreen movies will be letterboxed. But I don’t see many customers complaining.

    In any case, developers are accustomed to working within these two constraints. There are over 600,000 selections at the App Store, with over 200,000 optimized for the iPad. At the same time, developers are busy adding higher resolution artwork for their iPad apps to support the new Retina Display. Older apps don’t look bad; text is sharp, but artwork isn’t quite as crisp.

    Now the supposed reason for the iPhone to move to a larger display is all about the fact that Android and Windows Phone handsets already exceed four inches, with a very few over five inches. Certainly if your eyesight isn’t as good as it used to be, you may appreciate having a bigger screen. But there is one serious tradeoff, and that’s the size of the device. The existing iPhone fits conveniently in the hands of most people, and stores comfortably in your pants or shirt pocket. It may, however, be a squeeze for a purse, as Mrs. Steinberg tells me.

    Now with a 4-inch Retina Display, how does Apple configure a rumored iPhone 5? The media, tech and otherwise, usually can’t get past the screen size and seldom considers the consequences. If Apple keeps the 3:2 aspect ratio to ensure compatibility with existing apps, is the resolution changed? Or will the Retina Display just be a hair less sharp? The difference may be barely noticeable unless you look at the things side by side. But even if Apple reduces the border around the display, and maybe makes the Home button thinner, perhaps rectangular, to keep it readily accessible, the overall size of an alleged iPhone 5 has to be somewhat larger.

    How large is too large for a smartphone? It’s a sure thing that Apple has been testing all sorts of designs to find the ideal (and most ergonomically suitable) configurations. That you hear of orders for a 4-inch Retina Display doesn’t necessarily mean such an animal is forthcoming. That and other sized LCD panels may be ordered simply for testing purposes.

    If Apple keeps the width and extends the height to allow for a 4-inch diagonal measurement, it may be a more suitable configuration for portability. But once the aspect ratio is altered, hundreds of thousands of apps will have to be modified to remain compatible, to fit the screen properly. I’m sure many developers are already working hard enough to support the new iPad’s higher resolution screen. Does Apple really want inconvenience them even further?

    Yes, I realize that the Android alternative is far more fragmented, so it’s not as if the grass is greener on the other side of the tracks.

    My feeling is that, if the iPhone’s screen gets bigger, Apple will increase the unit’s size as little as possible with clever positioning of all the components. Or maybe they will decide they don’t need the media designing hardware for them, and they’ll keep the next iPhone’s display at 3.5 inches.

    Certainly LTE support is a given. Supposedly the latest chipsets will be available in good quantities for an iPhone 5. One hopes they will be more power efficient, so Apple won’t be forced to enclose much larger batteries as Android smartphone makers are forced to do. The key is that battery life remain roughly the same as it is now, if not better.

    The remaining features become even more speculative. The new form factor might be thinned by use of so-called in-cell technology, which combines the screen and touch sensors into a single layer. Or maybe Apple will use the extra space to house a thicker battery.

    Another bit of speculation talks of haptic touch technology. Some of the recent Apple patent filings have revealed their take on that method, which is designed to provide a faux tactile feedback when you tap a button or a key on the keyboard. More advanced haptic technologies even provide a degree of flex so you believe that you are typing on a physical rather than virtual keyboard.

    Other than LTE and perhaps a new case design, very little about the next iPhone is a given. And I haven’t even begun to consider what changes Apple might have in store for iOS 6. But that, at the very least, will likely be known in June at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference.

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