I’m : a programmer, writer, podcaster, geek, and coffee enthusiast.

The iPhone Plus DPI argument

I’ve read a lot of counterarguments to my theoretical iPhone Plus and its 264 DPI display. I’d like to address the most common:

  1. It won’t qualify as Retina, so Apple won’t ship it. In the iPhone 4’s intro, Steve Jobs said that the threshold for not being able to see individual pixels is approximately 300 DPI. But then they shipped the Retina iPad at 264 DPI, because viewing distance changes the threshold.

    Apple changes its mind and bends its own rules as times, technologies, and market conditions change. Non-adherence to a marketing remark a few years ago won’t stop Apple from shipping a product today.

  2. There’s no point to making a larger screen with the same resolution. To be blunt, those arguing this need to broaden their horizons. A lot of people appreciate or need a larger screen so its contents are easier to see or touch, or more comfortable to read.

    Plus, much iOS usage is scalable: applications have font-size settings, maps and web pages scale, photos zoom. Even without more pixels, people with good vision would get more usable space by being able to zoom out more in scalable content or set applications to use smaller font sizes. (That’s why, in my mockups, I set Instapaper to a smaller font size on the “iPhone Plus”: to demo the usefulness of a larger physical screen even if the toolbars and buttons would all just get larger.)

  3. It would need to be at least 720P (1280 × 720). Who cares? 1136 × 640 is close enough not to matter for most people, and comes with huge advantages in app compatibility and OS maintenance since it’s not a new size.

  4. It couldn’t compete with large-screened Android phones with much higher DPIs. On one tech-spec checklist item, that’s true. But that has never stopped Apple before.

    Apple isn’t shipping higher-DPI screens yet because they’re choosing not to, not because they can’t. Higher-resolution screens have major downsides in battery life and GPU performance. The panels also cost more, but that’s only one part of the carefully balanced tradeoffs in mobile-device design. (Suppliers also may not be able to produce enough higher-resolution panels to satisfy the massive iPhone demand even if Apple could ship a sufficient GPU to give good performance without slaughtering the battery.)

  5. Apple wouldn’t ship multiple screen sizes because it would complicate the supply chain, or There has always just been one iPhone size, so they won’t add another one. Sure, it would be easier to just have one model forever. But Apple has broadened product lines as they’ve matured to gain marketshare, address more needs, and leave less room for competition.

    The four-product lineup is long gone. Today, Apple ships 24 distinct iPhone hardware models in two screen sizes.1 The iPad is even more diverse: 48 distinct hardware models,2 two screen sizes, and two densities of the larger size. They also sell 34 iPods,3 and a surprisingly diverse and conflicted notebook line.4

    Yet it works. People navigate the lineup well enough, and the huge network of well-regarded Apple retail stores helps tremendously.

Apple has left very few holes in their lineup that can be profitably filled. Almost nobody’s refusing to buy a MacBook only because one isn’t offered in their desired screen size. Almost nobody is seeking non-Apple portable music players only because they can’t find an iPod form factor that works for them. And now, since the release of the iPad Mini, almost nobody is saying that the iPad lineup needs another size.

Imagine if they only sold one laptop size. It would almost certainly be the 13” MacBook Pro, because that’s generally rumored to be their best seller. Imagine what a waste it would be for customers not to have great alternatives on both ends like the 11” MacBook Air and the 15” Retina MacBook Pro.

If it makes sense to add another iPhone size, and they’re losing many profitable sales by not addressing that market — both of which I believe are true — then Apple will add another iPhone size. The iPhone is Apple’s most important, most profitable product. They can sell multiple sizes.

I don’t think they need to wait until they can go to “4X” Retina density (in fact, I question whether that will ever be worth the battery cost), I don’t think they’ll care if it’s not exactly 720P, and they sure won’t give a damn that some Android phones shipped with higher-DPI screens and got worse GPU performance and worse battery life as a result.

  1. 4 iPhone 4 models (2 colors, 2 radios), 2 iPhone 4S models (2 colors), and 18 iPhone 5 models (2 colors, 3 capacities, 3 radios). This doesn’t count iPhones locked to different carriers, or unlocked, that share the same hardware as other models. ↩︎

  2. 18 iPad Mini models (2 colors, 3 capacities, 3 radios), 6 iPad 2 models (2 colors, 3 radios), and 24 Retina iPad models (2 colors, 4 capacities, 3 radios). ↩︎

  3. 12 iPod Touch fifth-generation models (6 colors, 2 capacities), 4 iPod Touch fourth-generation models (2 colors, 2 capacities), 8 iPod Nano models (8 colors), 8 iPod Shuffle models (8 colors), and 2 iPod Classic models (2 colors). ↩︎

  4. There are currently three very different Apple laptop lines, plus multiple sizes and spec baselines within each one, each of which can then also be custom-configured.

    And the lines overlap. Two lines have 15” models, and all three lines offer a 13” model. The 11” Air has a higher resolution than the 13” Pro. The 13” Air has the same resolution as the 15” Pro.

    It isn’t even clear which is “best”. You can’t get both the most storage and the best screen in the same model. The model that supports the most storage doesn’t support the most RAM. The models with the best screens don’t include Firewire, Ethernet, or a DVD drive. ↩︎