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Is iOS 10 Trying to Get You to Ditch Your Small iPhone?

Your phone has never looked tinier

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

Over the years, iPhone users have developed their own masochistic holiday. Every September, Apple releases a new iOS. And every September, people with older iPhones torture themselves over whether they should update. The proof is in Google’s autocomplete for every decimal point of every iOS system there ever was. (I’m very embarrassed for us all.)

There’s no question that the older an iPhone’s guts are, the less capable it is of accommodating the latest operating system’s more modern features. What’s often debated, however, is whether Apple’s updates are a matter of “planned obsolescence” for profit, or just a side effect of a fast-moving industry that must stay updated to keep afloat. With the release of iOS 10 this week, that debate has been renewed with a special fury. Especially because a good number of the operating system’s most prominent design tweaks alienate a very passionate class of Apple customers: those who swear that before they go big, the company will have to pry their compact fifth-generation iPhones from their cold, dead, and likely miniature hands. Is iOS 10 a passive-aggressive way for Apple to nudge these holdouts — who wax poetic about the hand feel of the 5, maybe even the 4! — toward what it considers the future of its flagship product? Let’s examine the facts.

Point: Technically, Everything Is Fine.

Let’s clear all the “… actuallys” out of the air by addressing the fact that iOS 10 functions pretty well on iPhone 5 hardware. The always thorough Ars Technica calls the update “a pleasant surprise for the iPhone 5 and 5C,” and says you should go for it. (They also call conspiracy theorists “silly,” arguing that “there is, to put it quite simply, no other company on Earth who is providing this kind of support for its phones.”) The review’s only real criticisms are that an updated iPhone 5 struggles with games, multitasking, and battery life. It all makes sense when you remember that old phones have aging GPUs/processors inside.

Counterpoint: The Small Screen Was Not Made for This World.

Ars seems to have missed one very important point, which is that push notifications on the iPhone 5’s screen are hideous and dumb. The extra text in each push notification overwhelms the already tiny screen, so that, as my estimable, iPhone 5-owning colleague Alison Herman demonstrates below, it can fit a total of two full Gmail text bubbles. Considering how squished the screen feels, the large display text at the top also wastes a senseless amount of space.

At least a few other Reddit users agree. “Not a massive fan of the update on my 5C, feels really cramped in Messages,” user “cpotey” wrote on a recent thread. “Personally I think there’s way too many icons in your face for the size of the screen, and the name banner at the top is far larger too. I can imagine this all far more reasonable on a bigger/newer phone.”

THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT APPLE WANTS YOU TO IMAGINE.

Supporting Evidence: Big Phones Are Popular and Apple Knows It.

Earlier this year, the mobile analytics firm Flurry released some stats that showed big phones, a.k.a. — sorry for using this word, I know it’s a disgusting word — phablets, are winning people over. In fact, phones with screens that measured 5 inches or more made up about 29 percent of the 2.1 billion smart devices Flurry tracked in the fourth quarter of last year. (And people were much less into tablets.) The good news here: Eventually people will stop using iPads to take photos in Times Square. The bad news: Apple knows that the majority of the population likes big phones, and will adjust its product lineup accordingly.

Closing Argument: This Is the Definition of Passive-Aggressive.

Let me tell you a story about the most shady roommate thing I’ve ever done: I collected all the half-eaten salsa jars my roommate had left in the fridge (there were, like, seven), and lined them up on their own shelf for her to see. The salsa jars disappeared later that week, and I got what I wanted without ever having to directly confront her. The oversize design of iOS 10 on the iPhone 5 is Apple’s salsa-jar consolidation. To quell the internet’s most indignant small-phone stans, Apple made sure iOS 10 wasn’t a dumpster fire of an operating system on the iPhone 5. But it made the new design just annoying enough to force users to reach their own individual conclusions as to how much better a big phone might be. This is exactly the kind of subtle mind-game trickery I’d expect from such a calculated (and successful!) company. I even applaud Apple for it. But unfortunately for all you holdouts, it hints that the era of the skinny-jean-compatible smartphone is coming to a close.