There’s dread in my bones at every iPhone event now. Tim Cook and his pals stand on that stage and they smile up at the audience and they patiently explain to us why their new phones are their best phones even though those same phones have gotten too damn big. It seems like it’s been happening that way forever and is gonna keep happening until we’re balancing 50-inch TVs on our shoulders to talk to family and friends.
This is clearly evidenced not just by the new stuff, but also by the quiet death of the old. When the Apple Store went back online yesterday afternoon, the 4-inch iPhone SE (launched in 2016) was absent from the lineup. The phone, which was based on the iPhone 5s, was much beloved by people with small hands, pockets, and wallets. It was small and cheap, and now if you want something anywhere close to its price you’ll have to pay $450 for the two-year-old iPhone 7. Otherwise, you’ll have to go for the 5.8-inch iPhone Xs, which at $1,000 is more than twice the price of the iPhone SE at launch, and a whole lot bigger.
But everything’s bigger now! We went from thinking 4.7-inches was an outlandishly large size for a phone display to not even blinking at the 6.1-inch XR. The XR (5.94 by 2.98 by .33 inches and 6.84 ounces) is stuck squarely, size wise, between the 8 (5.45 by 2.65 by .29 inches and 5.22 ounces) and 8 Plus (6.24 by 3.07 by .3 inches and 7.13 ounces)—though it is the thickest of the three. That’s surprised a lot of people I’ve spoken with, who assume that cheaper means smaller.
They’re all distracted by the Xs Max, which like its name is maximum. In this case, size-wise. It’s a big honking phone—not quite as big as the Samsung Note 9 (6.37 by 3.01 by 0.35 inches), but at 6.20 by 3.05 by 0.30 inches, it’s still god damned beefy.
Which is crucial here, because while the 8 Plus might be the largest phone Apple’s released to date, the Xs Max and XR have larger displays. Displays (6.5 inches and 6.1 inches respectively) so large that they kind of feel too big to use one handed—particularly if you have tiny, baby hands like me. These phones are asking you to cover a lot of (very pretty) screen real estate one handed! In my brief time with them, I could feel the strain, and I’ll be very curious to see how they feel to use after a week or two, rather than a few minutes in a crowded lobby outside Steve Jobs Theater.
We keep striving for larger displays because phones are increasingly the primary device by which we interact with the internet. They’re what we watch movies and YouTube videos on, how we scroll through images, and for a significant number of people they’re the primary way we browse the web. Bigger displays mean more stuff to flicker in front of our eyeballs, and that’s a great thing! But that also means they could wind up being just more of a hassle for everyday use—at least for some segment of the population. As we’ve noted before, bigger isn’t always better. Apple seems to think differently. The Xs Max and XR are clear proof of that, as is the Apple Watch Series 4 which is larger than its predecessors.
I’ve bemoaned online and off the smartwatch’s terrible relationship with size. Many wearable makers seem to be striving to shrink a phone down and strap it to the wrist—which no one but Dick Tracy actually wants. Apple, particularly with its 38mm watch, defied the common design philosophy. And we’ve seen Apple work to prove the Watch isn’t simply an iPhone in miniature.
Earlier this year, Apple killed many of the watchOS 1 apps that were cramped clones of iOS apps shoved onto a device they had no business being on. It was a welcome change that made it feel as though Apple was starting to understand that wearables were a different category with a set of design demands apart from the Phone. Clunky clones weren’t what the Watch needed—apps intended specifically for the ecosystem were.
When rumors started to solidify suggesting the Series 4 watches would be larger, I was worried because here—HERE Apple was doing something so much smarter than its competitors. Increasing the size couldn’t possibly be a good thing.
I still feel that way, but I have to admit that a mere 2mm increase in size isn’t the end of the world. In fact, when you look at the new 40mm watch next to my 38mm watch, you have to strain to notice the difference in size. The new watch has a bit more curve, and a whole lot more screen, but when you mount them both on a wrist, they seem pretty dang similar.
But that’s just a 2mm increase. What happens if the bigger is better trend continues? We get another incremental increase and suddenly we’re at 42mm and 46mm watches—sizes much larger than the traditional watch size for smaller wrists. Another incremental update comes after that and we’re fast approaching just strapping an original 3.5-inch iPhone to our wrists.
We’ve already seen how this trend makes smartphone purchases more trying. In the past ten years Apple has nearly doubled the size of the phone, from the iPhone with its 3.5-inch display to the iPhone Xs Max with its 6.5-inch display. I don’t think any of our wrists are ready for that trend to translate to smartwatches.
So when does it end? It might pain this native Texan to say it, but sometimes bigger isn’t better! If you’re hoping to fit a cheaper phone in a pair of women’s jeans or wear a watch on a delicate wrist then Apple’s made the task more challenging and it stinks. Remember when the gag was phones keep getting smaller and will eventually be too tiny? That was nice. That did not prompt me to fear that my old iPad Mini will one day be the standard-size iPhone. Help us all if Tim Cook stands on that stage in two years to announce the new 7.9-inch iPhone XXs Maxx.