Revisited: Larger iPhone @ 264 PPI

Perhaps Apple could call a larger iPhone “Retina” even if it was “only” 264 PPI. The problem with a 264 PPI display is that it seems to be a dead-end resolution. There’s no obvious upgrade path for that display. The iPad mini, introduced at a relatively low 163 PPI,  does have an upgrade path: Apple just has to move it to the standard 326 PPI display resolution.

Yes, Apple can have a 264 PPI product while others are in the 300+ range, because when all is said and done, the only thing that matters is if that 264 PPI display is beautiful enough, on an absolute scale (or relative to iPhone 5) to be able to stay there for a good while.

So, I now believe, Apple will have given the 264 PPI 4.9″ display a trial run on some prototype devices, and if it looked superb despite the lower number PPI, that would be grounds to make the appropriate compromise (lower PPI, but easier for developers) and release at 264 PPI. If it doesn’t look superb, then they’ll go to my previously predicted 326 PPI and force developers to do more work.

[Edit Feb. 22 2014: Competitors are announcing smartphones with 500-600 PPI screens, and while it seems to be overkill, they're still doing it. Perhaps it is just another form of the "megapixel race" camera manufacturers participate in, but still, we'll have to see these screens before dismissing them outright as "marketing".]

My take on the larger iPhone’s resolution

My favorite Apple bloggers (DF, RR, MA) seem to have come to a consensus on what they think a larger iPhone’s screen size and resolution would be. Their money is on 4.94″ @ 264PPI with the same 1136×640 resolution of the iPhone 5.

The argument looks good because this has a lot of similarities with what Apple did with the iPad mini. The iPad mini has the same resolution as an iPad 2, but with 163PPI instead of 132PPI. The touch targets on the iPad mini still work because they are exactly the same size as those of the iPhone’s. It is great because apps run as-is on an iPad mini. Developers have nothing to do.

But the iPad mini’s 163PPI has a clear upgrade path: good old 326 PPI retina. Super obvious.

However, a 4.94″ @ 264 PPI iPhone would be a dead-end. There’s nowhere for it to go but 528 PPI, which is overkill even by skate-to-where-the-puck-will-be standards. Furthermore, a 4.94″ @ 264PPI iPhone with a resolution of 1136 x 640 would not be retina. It also wouldn’t be competitive. That’s 3 important negatives right there.

Consider a 5.0″ iPhone at 1420×800 though. That’s exactly 326PPI. It happens to be 1.25X the iPhone 5′s resolution in each dimension. Same aspect ratio. If bezels get thinner, this size seems to make more sense. Here are the considerations:

- It is retina. It won’t need to get any better.
- It is a competitive resolution.
- It uses the same panels as the iPhone 5.

The downside I read that is being argued, is that apps need to be modified to use this new resolution. Well, guess what, we iPhone devs already have to support 1136×640 in addition to 960×640. That means we’re already trained for arbitrary extra rows of pixels. Having one more of those (with extra rows and columns) isn’t that much worse. It might be a good idea for us devs to take one for the team, to avoid our apps being letterboxed on the larger iPhone.

I’m going to go out on a limb and put my money on a nice-sounding 5.0″ @ 326PPI retina display larger iPhone :)

The difference between 7″ and 7.85″ is everything

Here’s why I think there will be a tablet from Apple that’s optimized for reading and has a 7″ retina display that runs iPhone apps unmodified, not a tablet with a 7.85″ display that runs iPad apps unmodified.

Perhaps you’ve read these Steve Jobs quotes before, they go something like this:

The 7-inch form factor is not a good size for tablet applications” and “7-inch tablets should come with sandpaper, so that users can file down their fingers so they can use them.

Note the words in bold.

Every rumor and theory about a smaller iPad I have seen seems to claim it will be 7.85″ with a 1024×768 screen. If that were the case, Steve Jobs would be right on the money with the above quotes. A 7.85″ 1024×768 display would be appropriate if the smaller tablet were designed to run iPad applications, because these applications could run unscaled on the device, at a 1:1 pixel ratio. However, the PPI of that 7.85″ screen would be 163. But the size of the user interface elements on iPad applications are tailored for a 132 PPI screen. If squeezed into 163 PPI, every button and control would become smaller, harder to accurately touch. Hence the need for sandpaper.

The same argument applies if the 7.85″ tablet had a retina display with the same resolution as the new iPad’s 2048×1536. It would have 326 PPI, but the UI elements of retina iPad applications are designed for 264 PPI. Sandpaper required.

But consider if the new tablet had a 7″ screen. What’s so special about 7″? A couple of very interesting things.

A 7″ diagonal screen (7.08″ to be exact) just happens to be the exact size of two by two iPod touch retina displays. That’s a 4″ x 6″ display surface. An iPod touch screen has 326 PPI. The 7″ screen would also have 326 PPI just like iPhones and iPods. This would yield a resolution of 1920 x 1280. This resolution would be able to run current retina iPhone applications pixel perfect using the traditional 4:1 pixel scaling, like retina displays do with non-retina apps.

What’s so special about that? By running iPhone applications on a larger screen, as opposed to running iPad applications on a smaller screen, you don’t need the sandpaper anymore. Heck, if you have fat fingers, you’ll rejoice. Larger touch targets are just easier to hit, but still look amazing, especially text, which will be drawn using the full 1920 x 1280 resolution. Anyone that finds the iPod touch or iPhone screen slightly cramped would love it, and could continue to enjoy amazing apps like iMovie, iPhoto, and other apps designed for iPhone.

So a 7″ tablet wouldn’t be an “iPad mini”, it would actually be more like an “iPod maxi”. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. A 7″ or 7.85″ tablet still has to have a clear purpose. To be able to do something far better than the smaller devices (iPod touch and iPhone) and far better than larger devices (the iPads).

The answer is: reading, and long “consumption” sessions. Reading is something that is not comfortably done on an iPad, compared to a dedicated e-reader like a Kindle. That’s because it is relatively very heavy (over 600 grams), and too large. The new iPad is even heavier. You can’t hold these up comfortably. They are also rather expensive, starting at $400, compared to a dedicated e-reader. That’s why my friends with iPads that like reading also bought and use a Kindle. Reading is also cumbersome on an iPod and iPhone, because they are just too cramped and tiny. For comfortable reading, you need a device that’s not more than 400 grams (determined by reading reviews of various e-readers), with a long lasting battery, a screen more tailored to reading than other iOS devices, and it has to be more affordable than an iPad.

The Apple “e-reader” I’m about to describe wouldn’t just be a great, inexpensive and sufficiently light reading device with a color retina display, it would also be a full iOS device capable of beautifully running iPhone apps.

An iPod touch costs $200. It is 0.28″ thick (7.2mm). It weighs 105 grams. If you think of a 7″ iOS “reader” device that is essentially 4 iPod touches put together in 2 x 2 formation, this device would end up being about 0.29″ thick (7.5mm), weigh 350g, and beautifully run retina iPhone apps unmodified using a perfect 4:1 pixel ratio. It would be slightly thicker for structural strength and extra battery space. It wouldn’t cost $800 because you don’t need 4 times the electronics.  It would have more battery life than an iPod touch thanks to far more battery space. It would also weigh less than 4 iPod touches because not everything is multiplied by 4. Cost? I’d say $250 because the larger 1920×1280 display would cost slightly more, even if it would be iPod touch quality (inferior to iPhone or iPad display quality) and Apple factories are already perfectly tooled to make 326 PPI iPod-quality displays.

Apple would also optimize the display for “reading”, meaning, applying anti-reflection, more precise dimming and other technologies to it that it normally wouldn’t need or desire for iPods, iPhones or iPads. Yet iPhone apps would still run nicely on it, making it far more multi-purpose than a mere Kindle with e-ink, even if still not as awesome for reading in bright daylight.

E-readers are a nice market segment exploited by Amazon, wide open for Apple to expand into and dominate with iOS.

Why the iPhone 5 will drop the 30-pin iPod connector

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The iPod connector is, quite simply, no longer needed. Not only do I think it will disappear with iPhone 5, but if it is replaced with another connector, it will be used solely for power. Not data.

Consider the following new technologies and capabilities that have recently been introduced by Apple. Each of these replaces capabilities previously possible only through the iPod connector:

  • PC-free setup: no longer requires you to plug into a PC/Mac for initial setup.
  • WiFi sync to iTunes: iOS backup, music/videos/app sync when plugged into power.
  • iCloud: Over-the-air iOS updates, backup, restore, app locker.
  • iTunes in the cloud and iTunes Match: – you don’t even need iTunes.exe for music.
  • Stream your home library: The iOS Music app now lets you do this over Wi-Fi (It’s true!)
And a couple more new things that are quite relevant:
  • AirPlay: Lets your devices output audio and video to 3rd party devices. Clock radios, home theater receivers, etc. It is the new way of sending audio to devices, and 3rd parties are already supporting it. The dock connector is used less and less.
  • Bluetooth 4.0: hours of low power communications on iOS devices.

So what’s left to keep the iPod connector? Transfer speed? Nope, if it work’s for WiFi sync and the other above listed features, it’s not key. iOS developers tell me that debugging is done through the connector cable. That’s something. Enough to keep the connector? I wouldn’t bet on it. iPad might keep it for projector use, but, hey, Airplay could help there.

But why would Apple want to get rid of the iPod connector? Why stir up trouble?

  • Design. Without the iPod connector, Apple has more design freedom for the iPhone. Edges can be tapered or thinner, the internals can be rearranged, a larger speaker can be added to the bottom edge, etc.
  • Harder to jailbreak. The connector is used by hackers as a point of entry for jail breaking. With the connector gone, it might be harder to hack the iPhone.
  • It’s ugly. It’s a connector. Things Apple usually likes to get rid of when possible.
  • No cable to include. Less materials to waste. Less cost.
  • Better for the user. The message that you’d want (or need in any way) to use a cable, gone.
  • 3rd party market entropy. New opportunity for 3rd party device makers to exploit.
  • The sooner, the better. iPhone 5 will probably outsell all previous iPhones combined, so it’s an excellent time to “move on”.
So here you have it. With no connector, power still needs to get into the iPhone, so I think we’ll see the MagSafe for iPhone or, less likely I would say, inductive charging.
I think I also need a blog post on why iTunes.exe is on the way out, too.

Bonus thought: I suppose it is too early to suggest that after the iPod connector, the next thing to go will be the stereo headphone jack. Bluetooth headphones must be pretty cheap to make now, and with Bluetooth 4.0, their battery would last pretty long. I would just not enjoy having to charge yet another device… So no, I guess.

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