Breaking Apple cognitive dissonance

It’s fascinating to read tech pundits around the web rationalize their cognitive dissonance in declaring the iPhone’s 3.5-inch screen size as perfect once upon a time, backtracking to 4-inches, and now praising something larger.

The most influential opinion on this seems to be Marco Arment, who explained away the logical inconsistency by characterizing phablets in 2011 as mediocre. That Apple fans confused execution with concept, that it required Apple’s flawless execution — possible only today — to reveal the concept’s true value.

It’s an interesting theory…except it’s totally wrong.

Let’s start with what Arment has been widely quoted for:

The Apple fans who had previously defended the 3.5-inch screen — myself included — got the new one, got used to it, and never wanted to go back to the smaller screens. It turned out that while the larger screen did make the phone slightly taller, technological progress also let Apple make the phone thinner and much lighter.

We had resisted the idea of bigger screens not because we hated screen space, but because we thought they’d bring major costs in size and weight. But the iPhone 5 really didn’t.

The “right size” principle was disproven. We were wrong.

Tomorrow, Apple is extremely likely to launch this year’s new iPhone in 4.7-and 5.5-inch screen sizes, blowing away even more of our previous assumptions and theories, and we can’t wait to get these bigger phones. (Well, most of us.)

How did we go so wrong before? I’d argue that we were partially just flat-out wrong, but mostly mistakenly judging the status quo with a lack of foresight. Big-screened phones were mediocre in 2011, but we failed to see that they wouldn’t always be.

In 2011, big screens came at bigger costs to size, weight, and battery life than today’s bigger-screened phones. We failed to anticipate advances in enclosure design, manufacturing, and screen technology.

That made me curious. Was the Samsung Galaxy Note, which launched in 2011 and kicked off the large screen craze that Apple is happily banking to the tune of 10 million iPhone 6s sold, really so mediocre?

Screen Technology

The Galaxy Note featured a 5.3-inch display with 1280 x 800 pixels. That’s a comparable resolution in 2011, it should be noted, to the iPhone 6 in 2014 at 1334 x 750.

No one is arguing that the Galaxy Note’s screen is better than the iPhone 6, but it was hardly terrible.

Here’s what an Engadget review had to say about the Note’s display:

1280 x 800 pixels in a smartphone display is quite a feat, and it’s just as impressive to behold as it sounds. The Note’s 5.3-inch Super AMOLED screen is incredibly bright, vibrant and detailed, thanks to its 285ppi resolution. It doesn’t have the highest pixel density in the world (the smaller Galaxy Nexus trumps it slightly, as does Apple’s Retina panel in the iPhone 4 and 4S), but it’s enough to make graphics amazingly smooth — you’ll have a hard time seeing individual pixels with the naked eye. Viewing photos and graphics, web pages and even newspaper articles in PressReader is quite the treat when you have this much visual real estate to work with.

That sounds like pretty good screen technology.


The original Note weighed 178 grams. Does that seem heavy? Well, the iPhone 6 Plus three years later is basically the same weight at 172 grams.

I don’t think the Note’s weight is what you’d call mediocre. Unless you think the same of the iPhone 6 Plus.

Battery Life

The Note has a 2500 mAh battery size, which is far larger than the iPhone 6’s at 1810 mAh.

True, battery size does not equate to battery life. I saw AnandTech’s impressive benchmark for the 6, but I also saw their assessment of the 5S and as an owner of that phone I can attest it did not have great battery life.

So how mediocre was that Galaxy Note battery? According to AnandTech:

AT Smartphone Bench 2013: Web Browsing Battery Life (3G/4G LTE)

Yeah, that doesn’t look great. But look at what phone is just above the Note on this benchmark — the iPhone 4, and I don’t recall anyone describing that phone’s battery life as mediocre.

And this was a carefully controlled test. As I mentioned above, I have some distrust with how AnandTech’s lab tests translate into real life usage.

So what’s the Note like in real life?

The Verge:

The 2,500mAh battery inside the Galaxy Note is enormous for a smartphone, and the tabletphone’s overall endurance compares favorably as a result. In my time using it in place of my regular handset, I could regularly go from the start of one day to the end of the next without recharging the Note.


Battery life is phenomenal. While you’d expect solid performance from a 2500mAh battery, it’s having to power a massive screen (both in terms of size and pixel count) and ultra-fast CPU — energy vampires for sure. Our battery rundown test (playing a video in a loop starting from a full charge) achieved an impressive 9 hours and 36 minutes, putting the Galaxy Note right into iPad territory.

Certainly doesn’t seem mediocre.


Say what you want about how efficiently the Note used its 2500 mAh battery, it should be easy to imagine how an iPhone with that battery capacity can do, if only it wasn’t religiously stuck on the ridiculous notion that 3.5-inches is perfect.

There’s no excuse why tech pundits / Apple fans could not have predicted the phablet trend with the Note. The makings of greatness were all there in 2011: good display, decent weight and acceptable battery life. Apple could have easily made a great phablet in 2011, 2012 or 2013.

It’s 2014 and there’s nothing much different the iPhone 6 did to change the game — it merely followed the blueprint from 2011.

iPhone 6 Plus

The unfavorable explanation is that advocates were simply blind to anything outside Apple. Their eyes decried a 5.3-inch freak made by a Korean company as “the most useless phone.” It took Apple’s sheen to clear their sight.

Maybe that explanation is a little extreme.

I like this one better — dated 2012, from Brian Krug in a review of the Galaxy Note 2 for AnandTech:

So I have a confession to make. What seems like an eternity ago, I received a Galaxy Note review unit for AT&T, but never quite finished my review. While the reasons for that were no fault of the device and rather the result of some other personal failings, I spent a lot of time with the original Note really trying to size up the experience of using the world’s first smartphone that crossed over into tablet territory — a so-called “phablet.” If anything, the original Galaxy Note drove home for me just how dangerous it can be to make conclusions about a handset or mobile device before you’ve held it in your hands.

There’s this constant tug of war in the tech space between making a quick conclusion based on what evidence and data is laid out before you, and waiting a week, a few weeks, or even a month and then writing in hindsight looking back how the whole experience turned out. In the smartphone space, the pace is even more rapid with week long review cycles or shorter, and thus we see many trying to draw conclusions based on form factor, display size, and lots of speculation. For me, the original Galaxy Note roughly defined an upper bound for mobile devices that are still ultimately pocketable, and I was surprised just how easy it was to grow accustomed to. The original S Pen showed up right around the height of the draw something app craze, and the result was a ton of attention to a device that many initially criticized for its size and inclusion of stylus.

I earlier said that the Note 2 is almost like a novelty check of a phone, and just like I’ve always wondered whether people really can cash those novelty checks, I wondered how usable the Note 2 would be as a daily driver. Turns out the answer is that it’s very usable. The TSA didn’t even make me put the Note 2 in a separate bin through the X-Ray when passing through security.

I’ve enjoyed using the Note 2 considerably. Who knows, I very well might move my personal T-Mobile SIM from one of the smallest smartphones on the market right now, to the largest.

13 thoughts on “Breaking Apple cognitive dissonance

  1. The article you link to didn’t say the screen size, battery life etc on the Note was mediocre. Even if we pretend for a second he called out the Note more than he did, he very clearly said the trade-off between the larger phones and smaller phones in 2011 wasn’t such a good proposition as it is now. Your graph about battery life makes exactly that point. In 2011 the smaller iPhone handily beats the larger Note in battery tests. In 2014, it’s the opposite. The larger phones (specifically let’s say the 6+ vs the 6) beat the smaller models.


    1. Let’s not pretend the Note isn’t the phablet in 2011 that everyone’s talking about.

      “Big-screened phones were mediocre in 2011, but we failed to see that they wouldn’t always be. In 2011, big screens came at bigger costs to size, weight, and battery life than today’s bigger-screened phones.”

      Arment’s point was that big screened phones were mediocre…because of size, weight and battery life. I’m not a big fan of arguing semantics, but clearly the Note was not a mediocre phone. Certainly not because of size, weight and battery life.

      Yeah, sure, the proposition got better over time. The sky is also blue.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s not semantics, it’s the very next paragraph as if to explain what he meant. You even quote it.

    In 2011, big screens came at bigger costs to size, weight, and battery life than today’s bigger-screened phones. We failed to anticipate advances in enclosure design, manufacturing, and screen technology.

    He doesn’t elaborate as much as he could, but it’s a relatively small part of his article. I think you’re reading far too much into it while ignoring things he very clearly says.


      1. Dude, how is that his point? Where does he say that?

        You say you don’t want to argue semantics, but your whole point seems to hinge on what you take to be his meaning of “mediocre”, broadly that it means “sucks”. He pretty clearly says it means that the trade-off at the time was not as good as it is today. He doesn’t literally define the word, but he elaborates right after using it. Inferring any other meaning seems like useless semantics to me.

        You’re right, it’s not complicated, but for some reason you wrote a long blog post about it.


        1. Are you being serious?

          “Big-screened phones were mediocre in 2011, but we failed to see that they wouldn’t always be.”

          On the one hand, thank you for taking the time to read and comment on my article. A writer wants to be read.

          On the other hand…duuuuude. C’mon.


          1. Are you serious? Because yes that sentence exists, but do you really think that works if you just totally ignore the next sentences? Ridiculous. C’mon.


      1. Heh, sorry man, I promise only levity was intended. Though I still think your post is extremely unfair to the original author, seriously guilty of quote mining and ignoring his clarifications.


  3. Why im writing this in 2016 is i just rid of my 2011 galaxy note which i had used since they released the model. It was running jellybean 4.1.2 with nova launcher, it was a brilliant phone to use. Iphone friends in 2011 laughed and said it was to big even when i pulled my pen out of the note at card games to pen down wins as the game went on. I could send a msg or email with google maps with a destination in seconds to a friend in those days i could download movies music outside of the store usb drive function, the iphone owners saw all its capabilities but thought apple made the perfect 3.5 inch phone that seriously to me was more like a childs phone. Yet now one or two of my friends have the iphone 6plus which they think apple invented and they now put these bricks to there head in 2016 and think they are forward thinking people and keeping up with the jones’s, and are trendy. You tell me who was more forward thinking.


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