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The iPhone Report: There Must Be Three

Today’s iPhone lineup, for the very first time, includes three display sizes. You have the 4.7-inch iPhone 6, the 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus, commonly called a phablet, plus last year’s 4-inch iPhone 5s. Right now, the smallest version is, as in past years, two older models sold at a discount, or free with a typical two-year wireless contact for the iPhone 5c.

This year, however, there is reason to give last year’s iPhone 5s a much higher priority. Sure, the newest models are somewhat faster, and don’t forget the NFC chip for Apple Pay support. But most people won’t see the performance differences, and not everyone wants a large display. You give up convenience in exchange for big and bigger.

In fact, some people are wondering whether to upgrade to the latest and greatest or stick with a smaller iPhone. One of my friends, columnist Kirk McElhearn, publicly wondered whether the iPhone 6 suited his particular needs, and decided it didn’t, so he’s returning it and switching back to his iPhone 5s. I suspect he’s not alone.

So we have Apple introducing larger iPhones very much because the market has moved in that direction. One key selling point of the original iPhones was that you could do many functions with just one hand. When you start making a handset larger, it’s clumsier to handle, and the iPhone 6 Plus is mostly a two-handed device for many users and awkward for making phone calls. Apple is compromising here to cater to changed customer needs.

This usability question isn’t easily answered, and it probably requires a customer trying out different models to see which they favor. Surely if they are switching over from Android, and are accustomed to handsets of around five inches give or take a few tenths, the answers are fairly obvious. Go with one of the new iPhone 6 models.

For those of you used to the smaller iPhone, the decision is more difficult. Everything has its trade-offs. But if you’re in no position to travel to a store to try one out for yourself, Apple’s 14-day return warranty might be sufficient for you to take a chance. That’s what Kirk depended on as he used his iPhone 6 for a few days.

Of course, buying something, activating it and returning it can leave you without a phone for a few days if you don’t do it directly at the store. I understand that.

During the brief time I had an iPhone 6, I did consider what move I’d make. The iPhone 5s is in great condition, and everything works perfectly. The performance differences are mostly slight. Having the larger display makes for more accurate typing for me at least, and the iPhone 6 also has a brighter picture that is easier to read in bright sunlight. That, by the way, has been the achilles heel of recent Samsung smartphones equipped with AMOLED displays, only reviewers rarely mention that inconvenient truth.

That’s the positive.

The huge negative is that the iPhone 6 fits far more snugly in my pants pockets. I don’t wear super tight jeans, just normal fit, but still it gave me cause for concern. But I am probably overreacting, because I had plastic Samsung handsets in those same pockets for a number of months last year. Both were equipped with standard bumper cases, and they didn’t sustain any damage. I don’t expect an iPhone to have any problems.

Understand I would not consider ever putting a smartphone in my back pocket, whether sitting or otherwise. I think that’s a preposterous location, and it also makes the job of pickpockets easier. I keep a wallet in my side pockets too. But I do not believe that an iPhone 6 is unusually prone to bending, and it’s clear Apple’s testing process and the test results from Consumer Reports — no friend of Apple’s — indicate good durability.

Of course, the proof will be in the sales reports. If initial iPhone 6 sales continue at a high clip, Apple’s decision will be vindicated. But sales of the iPhone 5s will count for a lot as well, not just because it’s cheaper. If enough customers clearly demonstrate a strong preference for smaller iPhones, Apple will probably want to consider having three new models for next year, since the iPhone 5s will become the free model.

That’s just a suggestion, and I realize Apple won’t listen to me. But they should listen to Kirk McElhearn and others who have demonstrated clear concerns about the usefulness of the larger iPhones, despite the feature advantages. Apple sells multiple models of Macs to serve different needs as well. You can talk about customer confusion, but this trio represents a sensible distinct lineup that will give customers a reasonable choice without causing confusion. Indeed, I doubt that most Samsung sales executives can explain, without a cheat sheet, the differences among all those Galaxy smartphones. If Apple sticks with three, there shouldn’t be much confusion. iPhone 6 Mini anyone?