If you were around to experience the early days of the iPhone, you probably remember that each new model had expected to be thinner and lighter than the one before. A trend that was common with most handheld devices at the time, including the iPod and even gaming consoles like the Nintendo DS. But over the past eight years, things have changed.
The size and weight of the iPhone aren’t as much of a concern to Apple as they used to be.
The iPhone is now larger and heavier than it ever has been. The question is why making smartphones smaller and lighter is no longer a top priority for most manufacturers, and what that means for users. If you want to understand the state of today’s smartphone market, we have to contrast it with what it looked like back in 2007, when the first iPhone was released.
Back then, smartphones took on a completely different form. They had small low quality screens and plastic keyboards with control buttons.
There were no massive app stores to expand a device’s functionality and only a few people used all of the features of these smartphones anyway. That may sound strange since they weren’t capable of doing much, but it makes sense when you consider the user experience of various tasks. Checking and replying to emails, browsing a website, and managing calendar events were slow and tedious processes.
Not to mention the mobile versions of these applications were very barebones and lacked a lot of capabilities offered on a desktop computer. So while smartphones served as a supplemental device, computers were still king and accounted for the vast majority of internet activity. Now that you have a better understanding of how smartphones were used, their design probably makes more sense.
Small and compact was the name of the game. Consumers wanted something they could throw in their pocket and quickly use one-handed. It’s also worth considering that there wouldn’t have been many benefits of a larger form factor. A bigger display wouldn’t have been as helpful as you might imagine since they didn’t have multitouch and mobile apps weren’t optimized for larger screens, and it would’ve had a detrimental effect on battery life.
Not to mention people weren’t watching videos and playing games on these types of smartphones back then, since the technology simply wasn’t there. So the smartphone’s form factor before the iPhone era was sort of stuck with this half display half keyboard design, while certainly more capable than standard flip phones, was more complicated and clumsy to use. That’s why when the iPhone was revealed in 2007, it caused so much disruption in the smartphone market.
It was a device no one thought was even possible to make at that time. Its display was three and a half inches, which was 50-75% larger than the average smartphone, and it had a single navigation button. Compared to the dozens of plastic keys that littered other models. But even more impressive than its design was the iPhone’s software.
Not only was it super easy to use, but it was more capable than any other device onthe market. And Apple took things to a whole new level with the App Store, which led to the famous ad slogan “there’s an app for that.”
And understanding how the iPhone’s functionality has changed is important since it directly influenced Apple’s design decisions. In the beginning, the iPhone’s technology was still in its infancy and therefore it was being refined and improved pretty dramatically year after year.
Just consider how, after just one year of being released, Apple completely changed the iPhone’s design, transitioned to a 3G network, offered color options, and added GPS hardware. Right out of the gate Apple could be very aggressive with improvements since so many needed to be made.
And one of the biggest improvements Apple emphasized was making the iPhone thinner and lighter almost every single year.
The iPhone 4 was thinner than the 3GS, the iPhone 5 was thinner and lighter than the 4S, the iPhone 6 was thinner than the 5S, and the iPhone 7 was lighter than the 6s. And these reductions in thickness and weight were often proudly mentioned during keynotes. But beginning in 2017 with the iPhone 8, 8 Plus, and X, it became clear that being the thinnest or lightest was no longer Apple’s priority.
Because with each new release, the iPhone would become thicker and heavier. Until we wound up with the iPhone 11 Pro Max, which weighs in at nearly half a pound and is the heaviest iPhone in history. Although it did come with significant improvements.
So how and when exactly did Apple’s trend toward small and light completely change to big and heavy? Well, it all started in 2014 with the iPhone 6. You see, for a few years leading up to its introduction, Apple had been under pressure from consumers and competitors to make the iPhone’s display larger.
In 2011 Samsung had a 4.3” display in their Galaxy S II and a 5.3” display in their Galaxy Note. While Apple was still using a 3.5” in their iPhone 4S. So a year later in 2012 Apple did cave to the pressure a bit by upgrading the iPhone 5 to a 4” display. Now you may be thinking, that’s it? Why didn’t they at least match the Galaxy S II display size from a year before? Well, the answer is that Apple had always asserted that a smartphone should be useable One-handed. And by making the display too large, the device would become too unwieldy.
In fact, during the iPhone 5’s introduction Phil Schiller said this on the topic, “it’s really easy to make a bigger new product, everyone does that, that’s not the challenge. The challenge is to make it better and smaller.” That’s why Schiller made it clear that the iPhone 5 not only had a larger 4” display, but it was also 18% thinner, 20% lighter, and even smaller volumetrically than the iPhone 4s.
That way, the iPhone 5 satisfied Apple’s design goal of a more compact phone, while also delivering a larger display that customers were begging for But it soon became clear that a four-inch display wasn’t good enough and Apple had to be more aggressive in competing with Android devices.
By 2013 the Galaxy S4 featured a 5” display, the Galaxy Note 3 had a 5.7” display, while the iPhone 5s featured the same 4” display as the 5. Apple had to make a decision, change its design goals with the iPhone, or stick to its existing philosophy of making compact phones and risk giving up even more market share to Android.
Well, in 2014 their decision became clear with the introduction of the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, which featured the largest displays ever at 4.7 and 5.5 inches. And while Apple did mention that the new models were thinner than the previous 5s, there was no mention of their weight Probably because the iPhone 6 was 7.5% heavier than the 5s, while the 6 Plus was 38% heavier.
Not only were they heavier, but they were also much larger. And you may assume that meant Apple simply gave up on the idea that a smartphone should be usable one-handed. But during the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus introduction Apple sort of found a workaround. They added a software feature called reachability, where you could double-tap the home button and the display’s content in the top half would slide down to the bottom half. Allowing you to reach anything you needed with one hand.
This is a feature that still exists today in iOS 13, although I’m not sure how many people use it. So with the 6 and 6 Plus Apple gave in to the demand for larger displays on the iPhone, which in turn made the devices bigger and heavier, but that was only the beginning. Smartphone manufacturers quickly became caught up in a sort of display race as they tried out doing each other year after year. This led to companies like Huawei testing the limits of how just how big they could make Smartphones.
In 2015 they released the Huawei P8 Max which had a 6.8” display and was closer in size to the iPad mini than the iPhone. Now Huawei quickly scaled back their P series size the following year, but it demonstrates how much pressure was on manufacturers to put the biggest display they could in their phones.
This is also what fueled the trend of thinner bezels since that was an effective way to include a larger display without making the device itself any bigger. But with all of these large, bright, pixel-dense displays being included in devices like the iPhone eventually led to another pain point for users. Battery life.
As the iPhone matured over the years, it became a much more capable device. And as a result, users were doing more with their iPhones than ever before. In fact, in 2016, more people worldwide accessed the internet through a phone rather than a traditional computer. And that meant smartphones needed more battery life to match their increased usage.
The problem is that the biggest and heaviest component in any smartphone is its battery. That’s part of the reason why Apple has always tried optimizing power efficiency on the iPhone, rather than simply making the battery bigger. But just this year Apple broke from tradition and included significantly larger batteries in their iPhone 11 models.
And while most people are happy with the improvement, there was a tradeoff. Both the iPhone 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max are thicker and heavier than their predecessors. The 11 Pro Max is the largest, heaviest iPhone Apple has ever made. But what’s interesting is that no one is complaining about it.
Consumers have made it clear that they want phones with large displays and true all-day battery life, and they don’t mind the compromises necessary to get there. Which is the complete opposite of the smartphone market back in 2007 when the original iPhone was introduced and completely transformed the industry.