Pragmatic Display Sizes for the Next iPhone

As I write this, the leading theory from the Apple rumour mill is that the next iPhone will come in two sizes, both with larger displays than the 4-inch one found in the iPhone 5 series.

For designers and developers of iOS apps, however, pixels and display points are of more interest, as changes in display layouts and pixel density will determine how much effort we’ll need to put into updating our apps.

Since there doesn’t seem to be much consensus on that front, I’m going to try armchair theorising my way to some answers. To do this, I need to make a few assumptions:

The iPad Air’s display will increase to pixel-tripled Retina

This may seem like an odd place to start, but bear with me.

The iPad Air features a 2048 × 1536 pixel, @2x Retina display (‘@2x Retina’ refers to a display that uses four pixels for each display point, arranged in a 2 × 2 matrix). At 264 pixels per inch, the Air’s display has – alongside the fourth-generation iPad – the lowest pixel density of any iOS device currently on the market.

The cheaper iPad mini with Retina display features a 326 ppi display and mostly the same internal hardware. Side by side, the mini’s display is noticeably more crisp than that of the Air. (The colour gamut on the mini is smaller, however, leading to a slightly washed-out look.)

To better-differentiate the Air as a premium product, then, I expect Apple to increase its resolution to @3x Retina (i.e., pixel-tripled) at some point – not in 2014, but next year perhaps.

Assuming the physical size of the display remained fixed at 9.7 inches diagonal, such an iPad Air would have a 3072 × 2304 display at 396 ppi.

Any new iPhone will feature display technology already used by Apple, or introduce technology that later spreads to other products

Despite its preoccupation with the end-user experience, today’s Apple is deeply pragmatic. It would rather bring out a very good product at an accessible price than a product that is optimal but prohibitively expensive.

Apple therefore has a bias towards existing manufacturing processes, which require less retooling and are more efficient to operate at scale. I expect that, wherever possible, Apple will repurpose existing display technology wherever appropriate.

(Take the original iPad mini, for example. Released in October 2012, it used the same 163 ppi display technology as the iPhone 3GS, which Apple had discontinued a month earlier.)

The corollary of the above is that new display technology is likelier to be chosen if it has the potential to spread across product lines.

A 1080p iPhone is plausible

Until the iPhone 5, iPhone models featured a display layout of 320 × 480 points (640 × 960 pixels on @2x Retina displays).

For the iPhone 5, Apple changed the height of the display, increasing it to 568 points (1136 pixels), while retaining its 320-point width. This created a display with the unusual aspect ratio of 71:40. This is very close to 16:9 (15.975:9, to be precise) – the most common ratio for widescreen video content.

Until consumer 4k goes mainstream, 1080p video at a 16:9 aspect ratio is the industry standard for high-definition video.

For now, an iPhone with a 1080 × 1920 display, capable of displaying 1080p content at native resolution, would be the logical progression of the aspect ratio change Apple made with the iPhone 5.

New display layouts are coming

For apps that made use of standard iOS design patterns, the move to a taller iPhone display entailed minimal change; in many cases, the main content area simply expanded to show a little more content than before.

It’s telling, therefore, that Apple is encouraging developers to start thinking in terms of size classes and scalable user interfaces, rather than specific pixel or point dimensions.

That’s far from a guarantee that we’ll see new display layouts in the next iPhone, but it seems safe to assume that the 320-point display width is no longer sacrosanct.

In summary:

  1. An updated iPad Air will gain a 396 ppi display,
  2. New display technology is likely to fit into more than one product line,
  3. A 1080p iPhone is a possible goal for Apple, and
  4. New display layouts are an option.

That leads me to…

The iPhone Air, the iPhone 6 and the iPhone 5c

iPhone Air, iPhone 6, iPhone 5c

iPhone Air
5.6-inch, 1080 × 1920 @3x Retina display (360 × 640 points) at 396 ppi

The iPhone Air1 is the result of the above conjecture. It includes a large, pixel-tripled 1080p display, and an expanded display layout.

iPhone 6
4.5-inch, 720 × 1280 @2x Retina display (360 × 640 points) at 326 ppi

The iPhone 6 is a conservative guess at a 4.x-inch iPhone, taking the same display layout as the iPhone Air, but using the existing 326 ppi display technology found in the iPhone 5 series.

Why not a pixel-tripled sub-5-inch iPhone? It’s entirely possible, and indeed the prevailing rumour right now seems to be for a 4.7-inch, @3x Retina display. At 416 ppi, however, it doesn’t map to any existing or anticipable display configurations, so it’s out of scope here.

iPhone 5c
4-inch, 640 × 1136 @2x Retina display (320 × 568 points) at 326 ppi

Finally, the iPhone 5c lives on, now the sole 4-inch iPhone2, competing on price and personality.

Of course, in the absence of information about Apple’s plans, anything that seems ‘pragmatic’ to me is inevitably backward-looking. I can’t take into account, for example, any planned display technology that will only spread to as-yet-unreleased products (e.g., a watch, or a larger iPad).

Nevertheless, the 360-point wide display layout has a certain elegance to it. Although I expect my guesswork to be off the mark, the 720 × 1280 @2x canvas is what I’ll be using over the next few months to vet my iOS designs in anticipation of the next iPhone.

  1. Why ‘Air’? The iPad Air is the most expensive iPad, while the MacBook Air is the cheapest portable Mac. So that’s neither here nor there. From a marketing point of view, though, ‘Air’ denotes a device that is powerful yet slim and lightweight. A large iPhone with the best hardware in the lineup would surely qualify. ↩︎
  2. As John Gruber asks on Daring Fireball, “What about the 4-inch size?” In 2013, with the iPhone 5c, Apple packed the internals of 2012’s iPhone 5 into a new enclosure and marketed it as an entirely new product. Perhaps a similar strategy might make sense in a multi-sized iPhone portfolio: premium devices with screen sizes over 4 inches diagonal, supported by a 4-inch c-class iPhone featuring last year’s hardware in a smaller form factor and at a lower price point. Larger devices with the latest hardware would command higher prices while paving the way for smaller, cheaper, more-efficient trailing devices a release cycle later. ↩︎