Using iOS On The 4 Inch iPhone SE

31 March 2016

Zac Hall:

Now for the super obvious part but some thoughts to follow: a smaller display means iOS must be a lot more compact. That part we all could have guessed, but I’ve also decided that the medium-sized 4.7-inch iPhone is the design target for iOS while the 4-inch and 5.5-inch iPhones adjust in either direction. Stretch out more than the default, or squeeze in more than the default. That being said, I do believe the 4.7-inch iPhone is likely the go-to model for most people, before you consider screen size preferences, price, and other specs.

It’s very trendy in the Apple blogger community to say that the 4-inch size is a better phone. This is justified because of the phone’s physical advantages, as in the iPhone 5 chassis fits more comfortably in pretty much everyone’s hands. No doubt, the phone is easier to hold. The iPhone 5 advert about thumb size, which Apple conveniently forgets now that its flagship devices are much bigger, is perfectly true.

However, the same people that argue for the smaller screen because of its physical usability disregard the important points of software usability, where the iOS user interface feels constrained and small. As Hall notes, there’s a strong feeling in how iOS is engineered that the target size for iOS design is the 4.7 inch display … with secondary adjustments for larger and smaller afterwards.

This is true in terms of system components (Springboard, Control Center, tab bars) and the third-party app ecosystem. Living day-to-day with a Twitter client where two tweets barely fit in a viewport is rough, especially when accounting for the fact a lot of social media posts feature tall attachments like photos and other embedded previews. There’s a natural tradeoff at play that will exist for many years, until technology develops things like stretchable, flexible, screens. If my only choices was a 4 inch phone or 5.5 inch phone, I would pick the big phone every time because of the larger canvas.

Thankfully, that choice of extremes is only a theoretical one: Apple sells a 4.7 inch iPhone. For me, this is the obvious choice between the 6 and 6 Plus options and continues to be the best compromise of usability in light of the iPhone SE. The additional diagonal dimension yields 40% more screen area. This makes a huge difference when using apps and when viewing media. Most people I know can also use the 4.7 inch chassis one-handed. I can reach all four screen corners with my thumb comfortably, lifting the phone gently to hit the top-right region. This is incredibly natural and beats the Plus phones all day long. Minor hand gymnastics bests two-handed operation.