26 Mar 2016

Small flagships

Apple launched the iPhone SE — a 4-inch iPhone that’s a big upgrade over the previous iPhone with that size, the 5s. The SE has a lot of the technology from the iPhone 6s. It has the same excellent camera, with Live Photos and a higher resolution. As for video, it supports Ultra HD and slomo at 1080p at 120 FPS and 720p at 240FPS. The SE supports Apple Pay, has 2GB memory, and the A9 processor. In many ways, it’s a smaller iPhone 6s, a great 4-inch phone. People who want small phones don’t necessarily want midrange phones.

As Anandtech points out, there are a few Android OEMs trying to make high-end phones with roughly the same screen size as the iPhone 6s, at 4.7 inches. But not at the 4-inch size. If that’s the size you want, the iPhone SE is the only game in town. This is important to women, who generally have smaller hands. The move to phablets ignores half the population, and is therefore a poor reflection of the industry.

Even before the iPhone SE announcement, the iPhone catered better to people who want sub-5-inch phones. Flagship Android phones are all big [1]: the Samsung Galaxy S7 at 5.1 inches, the Nexus 6p at 5.7 inches, the Moto X at 5.7 inches, the LG G4 at 5.5 inches, the OnePlus Two at 5.5 inches, and the Xiaomi Mi5 at 5.2 inches [2]. Notice that the smallest among them is 5.1 inches. If you want a sub-5-inch flagship phone, you are stuck with the iPhone 6s.

The iPhone 6s Is the Perfect Size of Phone for Me

I found the iPhone 6s to be the perfect size of phone for me — it’s small enough that I can use it single-handedly, which is an important use case for me, say to check my shopping list while holding a shopping basket in my other hand. Or when I take a walk in the garden with a teacup in one hand. Or if I get a call when I’m having a meal.

4.7 inches is big enough for me that I didn’t feel it cramped or limiting. I rarely felt the need for a bigger screen. I could do everything I wanted on the iPhone 6. Smaller phones like the 4-inch iPhone 5s are even better one-handed, but cramped and limiting. 4.7 inches is the perfect size for me.

If, like me, you want a 4.7-inch or so phone, the iPhone is the only great option.

Three Great Options

Now, in addition to a 4.7-inch and a 5-inch+ phone, Apple offers a third great option, at 4 inches [3]. So, whether you want a 4-inch, 4.7-inch or 5-inch+ phone, Apple has a flagship phone for you. Android flagships exist only at the 5-inch+ end of the market.

Which is counter-intuitive, since Android OEMs are engaged in a bloodbath, as they all make similar devices. You’d think that one of them would have the sense to do something its competitors aren’t doing, rather than churn out one copycat phone after another. Maybe they’ll now make an S8 Mini or LG G6 with a roughly 4-inch screen. Which would be great.

More important than the size is the price, in India. I think the SE will be disproportionately successful in India as compared to developed countries.

What Apple Should Have Done Better

The iPhone SE falls short in many ways, unfortunately.

First, the battery life. The SE should have had a battery that lasts all day no matter how heavily you use it, like 16 hours of turn-by-turn navigation, hours of Ultra HD video, thousands of photos, or hours of use as a mobile hotspot. Or if you return from vacation and upload thousands of photos to OneDrive or Dropbox, it shouldn’t run out of battery. I keep one charger at my office and one at home, to work around poor battery life on ALL the phones I’ve used. Every single one of them, even the iPhone 6s, has on occasion needed to be charged a second time in 24 hours. And that’s bad.

The SE should have had such a huge battery that this problem will never occur again. Maybe a 4000 mAh battery — that’s bigger than the 6s Plus [4].

A millimeter or two of additional thickness is nothing to worry about. Apple has become so obsessed about this that they are measuring fractions of a millimeter! Instead of obsessing about reducing 7.6mm to 7.1mm, Apple should have made it 9mm.

Extra thickness is a great tradeoff for almost all phones, but especially so for a 4-inch phone, which is very comfortable to hold in your hand and takes little space in your pocket. Phablets are already big in two dimensions, so you need to be careful about making them thicker. A 4-inch phone can be much thicker with no noticeable disadvantage. Easily 9mm.

Second, Apple should stop selling 16GB phones, since that’s not enough, resulting in a poor user experience. That’s okay for a ₹10K phone, not a ₹40K phone. Apple has historically been great at not offering choices that result in a poor user experience. Continuing to sell 16GB phones despite wide criticism in the tech press is short-sighted. And inexcusable for a ₹40K phone, that too when you can get a ₹10K phone with 32GB. 32GB should be the new minimum.

Third, Apple should reduce the bezels on all iPhones. That will make them easier to hold, take less space in your pocket, and have a bigger screen for the same total size.

Fourth, the SE’s screen has a lower resolution of 326 pixels per inch, compared to the 6s Plus’s 400. This is a noticeable difference. The SE also has a low contrast ratio of 800:1 compared to the 6s’s and 6s Plus’s 1300:1. Apple should have fixed these by increasing all iPhone screens to 400 pixels per inch and 1300:1.

Fifth, the SE has a first-gen fingerprint sensor, not the one in the 6s, which is superfast and ultra-reliable even if you don’t hold your finger steady. It’s so good that I tried — and failed — to trip it up. After having used it, I don’t want to go back to the less reliable, slower one.

Sixth, the SE has worse cameras. The back camera misses optical image stabilisation. And it’s front-facing camera is a paltry 1.2 megapixels [5] rather than the 5 megapixels of the iPhone 6. The cameras should have been as good as the 6s Plus.

The SE should have been better in all these important areas — battery life, storage, bezels, screen quality, fingerprint sensor and cameras.

It’s for the SE to miss things that haven’t been proven to be important in practice, like 3D Touch, a barometer or LTE Advanced. The SE’s screen lacks “dual-domain pixels for wide viewing angles”, as Apple calls them, but since it’s anybody’s guess how much they help, I suppose it’s fine to omit them.


The iPhone branding has now become confusing. What does the SE in iPhone SE stand for? Not “Still Expensive”, as someone on Twitter conjectured. It apparently stands for Special Edition. Who would’ve known that? Besides, nothing special about it. It’s worse than the iPhone 6s Plus in a dozen ways. This is insincere marketing bullshit.

Similarly, what did the C in iPhone 5c stand for? Cheap? What about the S in 6s? None of these make any sense, and tacking on arbitrary labels makes it hard for customers to pick the right model for them. And it makes Apple like Samsung.

Apple should instead call the three sizes of iPhones iPhone Mini, just iPhone, and iPhone Plus. So, the 4-inch iPhones should have been called Mini, the 4.7-inch ones just iPhone, and the 5.5-inch ones iPhone Plus. This applies to older models as well, like the iPhone 6 Plus or 5s — they should be renamed iPhone Plus and iPhone Mini.

Apple shouldn’t give names within a particular family like 6, 6s or SE. Instead go by when they were introduced, like iPhone Plus (2014). This is how Apple differentiates Macs, and it should be applied to the iPhone as well. Dump all the meaningless model numbers like 6s, 6, 5s, 5c and SE. They mean nothing to buyers, and only serve to confuse them.

Too Many Models

Naming aside, there are now too many iPhones:


And that’s not counting the 5s, 5c and 4s that are still sold. This makes it confusing and messy.

Apple should sell only one model of iPhone at a given screen size, which would be the latest model. So, at the Plus size, we’d have only what’s today called the 6s Plus. The 6 Plus would be discontinued. At the normal size, we’d have only what’s today called the 6s. The 6 would be discontinued. At the mini size, we’d have only what’s today called the SE. The 5s and 5c would be discontinued [6].

And, as I wrote above, all iPhones should be brought to parity with the 6s Plus in battery life, screen, camera and fingerprint sensor. There’s no excuse for a ₹40K phone being intentionally limited. It’s fine at 20 or at most 30K, not at 40K.

When I say that the iPhone model lineup has become too confusing, we can look at it by price rather than by screen size. Here’s how the models are priced [7]:

6s Plus: 66K

6 Plus: 56K

6s: 53K

6: 46K

5s: 26K

These are priced so close to each other that it’s hard for a buyer to decide which one to buy. If a company sells different models of a product, whether a phone, a car or a chair, they should be spaced far apart in price so that buyers instantly know which is right for their budget.

So, get rid of the 6 and the 6 Plus, resulting in this much simpler lineup:

6s Plus: 66K
6s: 53K
5s: 26K

Now the price gap is a healthy 13K rather than a confusing 3K. This makes it much easier for a buyer to figure out which iPhone she wants, rather than trying to choose between a 53K and a 56K phone.


In summary, Apple has always had an advantage over Android at the sub-5-inch size, with the 6s, which I’ve found the ideal size of phone for me. They’ve now extended that advantage down to 4 inches.

The SE should have been better than it is. It should have a battery that lasts 24 hours no mater how heavily you use it, like 16 hours of turn-by-turn navigation. It should have had at least 32GB storage, and the same great camera, screen and fingerprint sensor the 6s Plus has.

Apple’s iPhone lineup has also become too confusing. Apple should fix that by selling only one iPhone at a given screen size — the latest model. In other words, have only the 6s Plus, 6s, and SE.

[1] Actually that is true even with the iPhone: if you’re choosing between the iPhone 6s and its Plus variant, and you are neutral about the screen size and don’t care about the extra cost of the Plus, you’ll get better hardware with the Plus: a much better battery, a noticeably higher resolution screen at 401 pixels per inch rather than 326, and optical image stabilisation for both photos and videos.

So, both iPhone and Android require you to accept a bigger-than-5-inch phone if you want the best phone. If you want a sub-5-inch phone, you have to make sacrifices.

But far fewer of them on the iPhone side of the fence. If the iPhone 6s is the right size of phone for you, there’s no comparable Android phone.

[2] If you’re trying to measure the size of the phone in your hand or pocket,  screen size is a poor proxy, since it doesn’t account for the bezels.

And because the size of the phone is proportional to the square of the diagonal. A 5-inch phone is more than 50% bigger than a 4-inch phone, not 25% bigger. Measuring the diagonal is misleading.

A better measurement is the area of the front face. By that measure, the SE is 11 inch², the iPhone 6s is 14 inch², the Xiaomi Mi5 and Samsung Galaxy S7 are 15 inch², the Nexus 5x is 17 inch², and the iPhone 6s Plus and Nexus 6p are 19 inch². In the rest of the post, I’ll go back to the traditional diagonal measurement since it’s widely understood.

[3] Making the iPhone SE 4 inches will also reduce fragmentation as opposed to picking another size, like 4.3 inches or 3.8 inches.

[4] And the 6s and 6s Plus should have also been upgraded to big batteries, again like 4000 mAh. The three iPhones should have the same battery life as measured in hours, not in mAh.

[5] I think phones should have dual Ultra HD cameras. When I do a video chat, I would want the other side to see me in Ultra HD resolution, which is impressive compared to 1080p. Few people have the bandwidth for that, but those who do should be able to use it. If they can’t, then it means that their phone is the bottleneck, and while that can happen with a ₹20K phone, it shouldn’t happen with a flagship.

[6] What about people who can’t afford the best model at a given screen size? They have four options.

First, they can go with another model, either a cheaper one or a costlier one. Someone who would today buy the 6 Plus will instead upgrade to the 6s Plus, crossgrade to the 6s, or downgrade to the SE. Those are plenty of great options. There’s no need to support all combinations of screen sizes and models. That way ends in becoming Samsung.

Second, Apple can sell refurbished phones of earlier models, at a lower price. Refurbished phones would have the same warranty as new phones. And buying it from Apple is safer than buying it from a stranger you contacted via Olx. If you get a defective phone on Olx, you’ve lost all your money. So, in the above example of someone wanting to buy a Plus-sized iPhone but not being able to afford the 6s Plus, they could buy a refurbished 6 Plus from Apple. Or Apple can outsource this to Amazon or Flipkart.

Third, Apple could lease new devices. Rather than buying a flagship phone for ₹50K, you could lease it for one year for 30K. This would be attractive to people who can’t afford or don’t want to make a one-time payment of 50K.

Fourth, taking this one step further, Apple could also lease iPhones by the month. People who may not be able to afford a one-time payment for 30K may be able to afford paying 2500 a month.

These are four ways in which Apple can cater to people who can’t afford the best model.

[7] These are the prices from Flipkart, for the cheapest color of each model. I’ve excluded 16GB phones. So for the 6 and 6s series, this is the price of the 64GB model, and for the 5s, this is the price of the 32GB model.

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