The iPhone 5 display is gorgeous but it still isn't big enough

Taylor Martin
 from  Concord, NC
| September 28, 2012

Until last Friday, I had been using the iPhone 4S on my personal line since it arrived on my doorstep last October. It served me exceptionally well through tens of thousands of tweets, over 6,000 pictures taken, a few thousand text messages every month and hundreds of Instagram photos. And now my girlfriend is quickly falling in love with it and slowly forgetting my name …

Aside from the camera, one of the best features of the iPhone 4 and 4S was always the display. With the Retina Display, Apple had a serious edge over the competition, releasing a phone with a display touting 326 pixels per inch. Not only was it crystal clear, it was bright, reproduced colors more naturally than its counterparts and offered relatively high contrast levels.

Through my stint with the iPhone 4 and 4S, however, I always had one problem with the display I couldn't seem to shake: its size.

I don't have giant hands by any means – I'm average height and a little stocky. But my hands are big with short, sausage-like fingers, especially my thumbs. And big thumbs on a tiny display don't mix well.

Side by side with large Android phones like the Samsung Galaxy S III or HTC One X, the iPhone has always been comparably miniature. The iPhone 4S and every iPhone before it shipped with a 3.5-inch display. In contrast, the average Android smartphone is somewhere north of 4.3-inches nowadays and that number is only growing.

Most everyone was excited to learn the iPhone 5 would, in fact, host a larger display when Apple took the stage to make the new phone official. Apple not only added 0.5-inches to the corner-to-corner dimension of the display, they improved it in many other ways. As AnandTech deduced through close examination and testing, Apple improved the contrast, grayscale, brightness and gamut. Chris Heinoen of AnandTech explains just how impressive the iPhone 5 display really is:

"To put this in perspective, in the past few years I've reviewed probably 30-40 different displays, from PC monitors to TVs to projectors. Not a single one, out of the box, can put up the Gretag Macbeth dE numbers that the iPhone can, and perhaps one projector (which listed for $20,000) can approach the grayscale and color accuracy out of the box.

Apple obviously has very high control over what parts they use and what comes off their assembly lines. I don't know if they are having the displays individually adjusted after they are assembled, or if the quality control is very strict, or if I just got a remarkably lucky sample. I do know that if TV and PC Monitor vendors were able to provide displays that looked like this out of the box, professional calibrators would lose a good amount of business. The new panel in the iPhone 5 is simply remarkable in quality and if it were a PC monitor, I'd give it a Gold Award on the basis of its performance." 

Heinoen isn't the only person to praise the iPhone 5 display for its quality either. DisplayMate came forward to say the iPhone 5 has the best smartphone display yet. Even having the device in my hand and comparing it with the iPhone 4S, the display is noticeably brighter, warmer and more vibrant.

All of that said and despite all the improvements over the last model, I still can't quite cope with the size.

Apple did make the iPhone 5 display larger, but only by stretching it lengthwise, not in width. Keeping 640 horizontal pixels, Apple added 176 vertical pixels and 0.5-inches to stretch the aspect ratio to 16:9 from 4:3. The result is a display with the same pixels per inch as the 3.5-inch display before it, noticeably better video playback (less letterboxing) and more vertical content displayed which is particularly useful in apps like Mail or Twitter.

Some might like Apple's decision. Apple explains its reasoning for keeping the width the same on its iPhone 5 product page with a slight towards it behemoth competitors: 

"Anyone can make a larger smartphone display. But if you go large for large’s sake, you end up with a phone that feels oversize, awkward, and hard to use. iPhone 5 features a 4-inch display designed the right way: it’s bigger, but it’s the same width as iPhone 4S. So everything you’ve always done with one hand — typing on the keyboard, for instance — you can still do with one hand."

To those complaining that the display size on previous iPhones was too small, however, the iPhone 5 display isn't so much of an improvement as a technicality. It doesn't feel any larger because it's the exact same width, which is especially important for those of us with larger hands who struggle to type on the tiny keyboard with two hands. (I can't remember the last time I tried to type with one hand. I would rather use dictation.) And a taller display also means more panning in Safari – or using the Reader compatibility – since text doesn't reflow.

And this is why I'm all but certain my time with the iPhone 5 is limited. I kept the iPhone 4S around for its awesome camera. Had there been another smartphone with a camera comparable to the iPhone 4S last year, I may have switch to it. This year, the Lumia 920 looks to be the winner in image sensing – and display resolution to boot.

I've always been a fan of larger displays. The Galaxy Note II is high up on my wishlist. Because of this, it's pretty evident that I don't fall into the target demographic of the iPhone. Kudos to Apple for going bigger, but it just wasn't enough. Maybe next year.

What say you, folks? Have you had a chance to toy around with an iPhone 5 yet? How do you feel about the display size? Aspect ratio? The fact that Apple didn't change the width. It's clearly not enough for me. Where do you stand?

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