I held onto my iPhone 4s longer than any self-respecting tech writer should have. Though my contract expired years ago, I let the launch of the iPhone 5 pass me by. And the 5s. And the 6. Only when my poor old phone could no longer bear the weight of the apps I was trying to download did I finally cave and buy an iPhone 6.
I didn’t cling to the 4s because of its functionality or some bizarre sense of nostalgia. Truth be told, that phone was a pain in the ass at the end, slogging through even the most basic tasks and randomly killing apps. No, the reason I kept it was simple: I liked how it felt in my hand. Given the role phones plays in our lives, the industrial design is just as important as the user interface. I spend a lot of time holding my phone. If it’s not in my hand, it’s probably stuffed into my back pocket, which makes me thankful that my jeans have some built-in stretch.
As it turns out, quite a few people prefer smaller phones. Yesterday at its keynote event, Apple revealed that 30 million people bought its 4-inch phones last year. That’s almost 8 percent of the 232 million phones Apple sold worldwide last year. And according to mobile analytics website Mixpanel, the iPhone 5s is currently the company’s second most popular phone, second only to the iPhone 6 (and ahead of the 6s and 6 Plus). Obviously there’s a market for smaller phones, one Apple would be silly to ignore.
Phones have been trending large for almost five years now, and the iPhone 6’s 4.7-inch screen was Apple’s acknowledgement of that. There’s no denying the 6 and 6S have been a huge success—Apple set all of its revenue, profit, and iPhone sales records after the bigger handset appeared in 2014. But the super-sized form factor drew consternation from people who weren’t ready to trade in their smaller screens.
So now we have the iPhone SE, which is essentially an iPhone 6s stuffed into a 5s case. It has everything you’d expect from the latest iPhone: The A9 processor is three times faster than the chip in the 5s. There’s a 12-megapixel camera that also captures 4K video. It has Touch ID. You can get it in rose gold and it starts at $400. The only glaring omission is 3D Touch functionality.
The tech is new, but the design is so four years ago. Look past the matte edges and the SE logo and this phone is a dead ringer for the iPhone 5s. This is perhaps one of Apple’s most telling design admissions to date. The fact is, the iPhone 5 (and 5s) has long been the golden child of Apple phone design and a benchmark for phones in general. “It just feels beautiful in the hand,” says Jared Ficklin, co-founder and designer at argodesign. “It has this cutting feel to it like you’re holding onto something substantial.”
When Apple launched the iPhone 5, it was a moment full of firsts for the company. It was the first iPhone with a fully custom processor. The first iPhone with a Lightning connector. The first iPhone with LTE. Yet for all the technical achievement, its design was what surprised people most. It was bigger than the 4s, yet somehow lighter and more lithe. The back was aluminum , not glass, making the device much more durable. Its 4-inch screen (half an inch bigger than the 4S) had a 16:9 aspect ratio, the cinematic standard that every phone now conforms to. The screen didn’t quite reach the edges of the phone; the boxy, slightly rounded edges were of chamfered aluminum. It was beautiful and, more importantly, it fit perfectly in the hand. It was just narrow enough that even a small-palmed lady like myself could manipulate it with ease.
The iPhone 6 was a major departure from that. It was a lot bigger and just a bit thinner, with a 4.7-inch screen and smooth, rounded edges. The specs made it a better phone, but it felt a little bit wrong, as though you were holding a slick $650 bar of soap. “People really lamented the loss of purity,” says Gadi Amit, founder of New Deal Design. “I think there was something very striking and direct and simple in the gestures of the 5 that made it be perceived to be more elevated compared to the 6.” The iPhone 5, which happened to be the last phone designed under Steve Jobs’ leadership before his death in 2011, had an elegance rooted in the way the aluminum and glass work together. It felt streamlined, yet substantial, which is different from the iPhone 6, which feels substantial in size alone. Plus, unlike the ubiquitous rounded corners of the 6, the iPhone 5 didn’t really look like anything else on the market at the time.
Now to be fair, the iPhone 6 is handsome enough with its soft, organic form. And using it to read and watch video is a delight. But a bigger phone simply isn’t for everybody, especially those with smaller hands (or those buying their first phone, another target market for the SE). After a year with my iPhone 6, I’m only now reaching the point where my ergonomic workarounds don’t feel like workarounds. I used to text horizontally, but that became nearly impossible given the 6’s screen length. Reaching the upper left corner requires my hand to do a little jig to get the phone to slip down in my palm. This is not at all uncommon, even for people with average-sized hands. Amit says upgrading to the 6 required him to move his navigation apps from the top left corner of his screen to the center so he could reach them with his thumb. Other things changed, too. “I used to run with my phone,” he says. “But now it’s too cumbersome.”
In the grand scheme of phone usage, these are trivial complaints. The truth is, people tend to adapt to whatever device they use most often (somehow even my mother handles the 6 Plus without issue). But for the average person, the iPhone 5 hit an ergonomic and aesthetic sweet spot. “There’s a geography to a small phone that becomes thumb-oriented,” Ficklin says. “The reach on the larger screen means relearning geographic patterns that are engrained in muscle memory.”
Still, big screens make sense for a lot of reasons. Apple was reacting to a market in which ever-increasing screen size was an expectation. Today, so much of what we use our phones for—reading, watching videos—is well suited to a larger screen. The fact that the industrial design changed so thoroughly in tandem with the bigger screen size is as much a nod to style as it is ergonomics. Both Ficklin and Amit say that while they think the shape and materials of the iPhone 5s are superior to those of the 6, the design of the iPhone 5 is not well suited to scaling up. It would be too heavy, for one thing, and those beautiful edges would become a nightmare. “A sharper edge on a large phone would’ve felt uncomfortable to some degree,” Amit says. “If you were trying to stretch your thumb against the screen, you’ll press the palm of your hand into a shaper corner.”
Now, one design isn’t objectively better than the other. What feels good to you might not feel good to me. And inevitably, there will always be tradeoffs when it comes to personal technology. But with the SE, Apple is acknowledging that personalization is about more than accessorizing—it’s much more fundamental than that. As the phone market matures, Apple has to provide more solutions that fit the specificities of more people. “One size fits all doesn’t work in technology,” Amit says. “You need many options.”