The New iPhones Are Big So You Won’t Put Them Down

Apple’s latest designs mark the end of casual, one-handed smartphone use. Instead, the device is meant to occupy more of your attention, more of the time.

Apple CEO Tim Cook on stage beneath an image of a new iPhone model. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP)

“Big news,” Apple’s website reads today, in text set over a photo of the new smartphone models the company just announced. Two big iPhones display what look like gaseous planets. Big ones, like Jupiter, but maybe bigger than that, even. These phones are big.

Big money, for one thing—almost $1,500 for the top-of-the-line. But more than that, big screens. The biggest one boasts a 6.5-inch display. But even the small phones are big now. The “entry” model, the iPhone XR, has a 6.1-inch display, almost three-quarters of an inch bigger than the iPhone 8 Plus, the previous large-screen model. The iPhone 8, which has the same footprint as models made since the 2014 iPhone 6, rocks “only” a 4.7-inch display.

All these numbers and letters muddle matters a bit. Here’s the message: The new iPhones are huge. Absurdly huge.

What’s going on? Bigger, costlier devices generate more profit, for one part. But for another, consumers seem to want bigger phones. They also want big houses, big cars, big televisions. Big is good, small is bad. But Apple also has been pushing bigger models on its customers, so calling the trend a consumer choice is misleading and incomplete.

Instead, Apple is making a statement about how you ought to use your smartphone. Not casually, but wholly. With your entire face and body involved. Both hands gripped fast to the device, held close, so the external world can recede and the smartphone’s can take its place.

Smartphones have been getting bigger for a long time. Samsung’s Galaxy S9 has a 5.8-inch display. iPhones have been swelling steadily from their original 4-inch screens. Back in 2014, when Apple announced the iPhone 6 with its larger 4.7-inch screen, my colleague Robinson Meyer wondered how people with smaller or even normal-sized hands, especially women, might be able to hold these massive objects. “These are huge devices,” Meyer wrote, “and they will require big hands.” Now they seem comparatively modest.

I still use one of those 4.7-inch models, and it feels too big to use comfortably. And that’s as a man with normal-sized (not small!) hands. If I hold the device in my palm, I can’t easily reach its opposite corner with my thumb. At one point, I became concerned that I was contracting a repetitive-stress injury from reaching across my device so much. It’s not as if Apple didn’t know this was happening. The company even installed a software action, “reachability,” that brought the screen image down for easier tapping. The only reasonable conclusion is that the swelling smartphone represents a deliberate plan.

For years now, I’ve been proposing metaphors to characterize the various iPhone generations. In the early days, as a gadget, the iPhone was like a toy dog: an accessory that took center stage, that users tended to and doted upon. Soon, the curiosity faded and the device became an obsession, like a cigarette. Eventually, the obsession normalized into ritual, and smartphones worked like a rosary, an amulet through which information flowed. Once the phone started to offer access to all information, it became a generic, blank window, a rectangle through which the entire universe can materialize.

That brings us to today. The next logical step for the rectangle is to enlarge it, so it takes up more of the user’s vision and attention. More search results per page. A bigger digital map. A grander scroll of endless social activity. Who needs an 80-inch television in the den when a 6.5-inch smartphone inches from your face offers a larger effective field of view? Bulky, dorky virtual-reality goggles are unnecessary when infinite alternate universes can be made accessible just by raising a thin, glass rectangle to the face.

The new iPhones are hard to use one-handed because they represent the beginning of the end of one-handed smartphone use. That’s a relic of an era when there were alternatives, when a phone could be tapped or tousled in-between unrelated, external actions. Now, instead, there will be two ways to hold a phone, rather than dozens.

First, in the fist, around its width, in a ready state, as if gripping the hilt of a sword. Even this will be a challenge due to the devices’ wider girth, whitening the knuckles in the process. Get ready to deploy your iPhone, for soon you will need it.

And second, raised to the face—which will unlock it automatically. You need two hands now, to steady the apparatus and to operate it from edge to edge. Almost all of your attention already flows through the device in your pocket. Now, when it does, the nuisance of other diversions will be eschewed thanks to the difficulty of doing anything else while holding the thing. At last, the iPhone can stop competing with the worldly distractions that might draw its naïve user away from it.

Ironically, the new, bigger iPhones also come with new software meant to help users manage the time they spend attached to their devices. The feature, called Screen Time, provides information, graphs, and controls to help users see how much time they are spending on their phones, and with what apps. Feeling a little too drawn into Instagram or Facebook? No problem, just use Screen Time to add a limit, and the phone will shut you down.

Sort of. As the Wall Street Journal’s Joanna Stern discovered, Screen Time notices can be ignored with the tap of a button. Apple gets to eat its cake and have it, too: By including Screen Time in iOS 12, it outsources the responsibility of reducing smartphone usage to the user, not the device manufacturer. And besides, limiting one app just offers an opportunity to jump into a different one. And so the iPhone, ever bigger and more expensive, can continue its conquest of human attention even while appearing to help combat it.