iPhone 6: What we know, what we don't know, what we'd like to see

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This article was originally published on July 25; we've updated it to reflect recent speculation over when Apple's purported iPhone press event will be held.

We’re just about a month away from Apple's traditional September release timeframe for the iPhone, and the rumor mill is in full speculation mode over the company’s new handset.

Regardless of what you might have read elsewhere, the only people who really know Apple’s plans for the next iPhone are at Apple itself. But here’s what we can intelligently surmise from what we know about Apple—along with what we hope to see in the fall.

When, oh when, can I get an iPhone 6?

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Serenity Caldwell: The press corps have spoken, citing September 9 as the date for Apple’s next special event—likely to introduce the newest iPhone. Recode broke the story, with Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal backing up the publication’s sources; all three generally have solid track records when it comes to Apple event schedules, so it’s looking more and more likely that the 9th is indeed the day to watch. (Of course, that’s still no guarantee—and there’s been no public confirmation from the Cupertino company.)

Of course, that doesn’t mean you can pick up a new iPhone right on the 9th. If the past is any indicator, it’s highly likely we’ll see actual ship dates in mid- to late-September. Last year’s model (the iPhone 5s) was announced on September 10 and released on September 20; the iPhone 5 was announced on September 12, 2012 and arrived 9 days later. 2011’s iPhone 4s is the outlier: Apple waited until early October before it unleashed that model on the world. But that was also the first year that the iPhone moved to a Fall release date, which may account for the timing. If I were a betting woman, however, I’d say we’re likely looking at an actual release date in the latter half of September. What say you, gents?

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Dan Moren: I concur with my esteemed colleague. September not only gets the phone out in plenty of time for the holiday shopping season, but it even lets Apple get some sales (and a potentially big opening weekend) into its fourth-quarter financials. As with past years, expect to see Apple announce about a week to ten days ahead of the device’s shipping date, probably with pre-orders happening shortly after the announcement. Also, I’d bet that the company will continue expanding the countries in which the phone initially ships and try to roll them out as fast as possible—hence its rumored order for 70 to 80 million devices.

The size’s the thing

Caldwell: This rumor seems to be the industry’s primary obsession: the iPhone will “finally” size up and replace the 4-inch screens on the iPhone 5/5s models with 4.7 and 5.5-inch displays. That said, I’m a little underwhelmed by the idea of attempting to cram an even larger, wider smartphone into my pockets. I’m happy with the size of my iPhone 5s, and not sure if the benefits of a 4.7-inch screen will outweigh the negatives. That said, I didn’t think I needed a 4-inch screen, either; I trust that Apple’s not moving us to larger and larger devices just to conform with the wants and whims of the general public. (Or to channel the popularity of Zack Morris.)

I do hope that, if we are looking at two screen sizes, that they’ll be close to feature-equivalent. I’d hate if, say, you could only get the latest greatest features in a 5.7-inch model—that’s 1.3 inches away from being an iPad mini, and it certainly won’t fit in any clothing I own.

Moren: On the one hand, I don’t feel that my iPhone 5’s screen is particularly lacking. But I can also imagine changing that tune after actually using such a device. The key is making a larger screen that doesn’t feel too large. I remember holding my friend’s Motorola Droid X many years ago and comparing it to one of Star Trek’s tricorders. True, the smartphone market is more mature than it was then. But I still don’t think most people want to hold an iPad mini up to their heads. Will there be a bigger-screened iPhone? My gut says “Yes” pretty firmly, but my head is holding out for some level of moderation.

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Chris Breen: Remember "netbooks"? Remember how Apple was doomed if it didn’t follow the thought-leaders of the day and release one of these cheap, small, underpowered laptops? Remember how that didn’t happen? Instead, Apple released the product that made sense: the iPad. And in doing so, it helped sink the netbook into obscurity.

The lesson learned is that Apple will only release a product because it thinks such a product is needed, not simply because everyone else is doing it. A bigger-screened iPhone could certainly be on the horizon, but with what purposes in mind? If it makes for a better reading or video experience, great. Likewise, a broader keyboard and a device more welcoming to text input would make for a useful smartphone. But to satisfy the challenge of a competitor’s “mine’s bigger than yours” boast? No way.

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Dan Frakes: I’ve generally been of the opinion that the current iPhone (5/5s/5c) screen size is nearly perfect—large enough to make most things doable, but small enough that I can still reach any part of the screen with my thumb while holding the phone in one hand. However, a friend uses a Samsung Galaxy phone with a huge screen, and though he was initially skeptical of it (he got it for free from his company), overall he’s grown to really like it. It turns out that, as huge as it is compared to my iPhone 5s, it still fits in his pants pocket (at least while he’s standing up). But the major appeal, to him, is that the phone is big enough that he doesn’t feel the need to buy a tablet.

That conversation got me thinking that maybe a larger screen isn’t such a bad idea. When I think of the things I do most often on my iPad mini—reading (RSS, Instapaper, Kindle), browsing the Web, using social-media apps, triaging email, playing games, watching video, and writing—many of them would be nearly as good on, say, a 5.5-inch screen. Or at least good enough that, were I not a gadget geek who doesn’t mind carrying multiple devices, I could be happy with that single device rather than an iPhone and an iPad.

Like Serenity, though, I hope that, assuming Apple does offer the next iPhone in two larger sizes, the company lets you get all the best specs and features in either size. It would stink if you got the best only by buying the biggest.

Sapphire is a smartphone’s best friend

Caldwell: Much has been made of Apple’s recent glassware experiments (and I’m not talking about the dinnerware at Caffè Macs). The company currently uses Corning’s Gorilla Glass for its iOS device displays, but there have been quite a few rumors floating around that this may change for a new, stronger option: sapphire.

Touch ID

Sapphire in the Touch ID sensor.

Apple already uses sapphire crystal for the top layer of its Touch ID sensor and the outer lens of its iPhone 5s camera; the material is second only to diamond in toughness and scratch-resistance, though its price and difficulty to cut have kept it from being used for displays. But that may change: Last November, Apple opened its own sapphire plant, and the company’s filed several patents that relate to the creation and cutting of sapphire screens. I’m not prepared to say that the iPhone 6 will absolutely 100 percent have a sapphire screen, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw more sapphire crystal on the device in the fall.

Moren: If sapphire is anything as tough as it’s been reputed, then it’s easy to see why Apple would want to replace its Gorilla Glass with the harder material. Broken glass has to be one of the most common types of damage to iPhones (especially the 4/4s models, which have both glass fronts and backs). Not that Apple doesn’t mind charging for repairing that glass, but I’m sure they’d like to please their customers by not having to undertake such replacements quite as often.

The real question is whether Apple can get the cost curve down far enough to make sapphire a good value. Given the company’s investment in GT Advanced Technologies, it seems pretty clear that the company sees a real future in that material. Whether that will translate immediately into the frontpiece of the iPhone 6 is harder to tell, but I’m betting on yes.

Speed demons

Breen: Should you wish to get into the prognostication business you’ll find that you can’t lose when predicting that Apple will release faster, more energy efficient, and thinner devices. Given that, the iPhone 6 will likely sport a faster processor, better camera, and (unless a larger screen demands a significant increase in power) better or just-as-good battery life.

Caldwell: Given Apple’s obsession with making speedier and speedier A-series chips, I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw an A8 make its debut in the new iPhone this fall. Bigger device form factors would also give our friends in Cupertino some room for bigger, higher-capacity batteries—though it’s hard to say whether that would just compensate for the power draws of a larger Retina screen or actually add to battery life. As someone who lives with a Mophie Juice Pack on her iPhone right now, however, I’m crossing my fingers for legitimate battery improvements.

Moren: With every tick-tock of the iPhone clock, Apple seems to roll out an ever more powerful processor. The purchase of PA Semi all those years ago has seemed to pay hefty dividends for Apple, allowing them to bring their trademark marriage of hardware and software down to an ever more fundamental level than ever before. There’s no reason to think that the company won’t roll out a new chip this year (they’re not about to stop where they were). Following the company’s patterns, it's not a stretch to conclude that such a chip will probably be dubbed the A8. Though if the company does decide to roll out a 6s and 6c, expect the low-end model to perhaps have a more modest A7X.

The storage crunch

Frakes: With recent iPad models, Apple has offered versions with 128GB of storage for those who need—and can afford—it. I tend to be a digital packrat, storing lots of video, music, photos, and apps on my iOS devices, so I bought a 128GB iPad mini last year. I haven’t regretted it for an instant, despite the price premium. Alas, the largest iPhone 5s I could buy can hold only 64GB of data. While some readers might scoff at the idea that this is limiting, I’ve frequently had to spend time removing apps and media from my phone so I wouldn’t run out of space.

In other words, while not everyone needs 128GB of storage, for those of us who do, a 128GB iPhone would be just as welcome as one with a bigger screen, faster processor, or better camera. (I should also note that it’s a shame that the low-end models, of both the iPhone and iPad, still come with only 16GB of storage. A few videos, or a few hefty apps, and you’ve already cut your available storage in half. I can't tell you how many times I've heard a friend or family member say, "I thought 16GB would be enough, but I wish I'd bought 32GB.)

Caldwell: I’m with you, Dan. Flash storage gets cheaper and cheaper every year, but Apple’s kept its base $199 model at 16GB for the last three years. Even with iOS 8’s upcoming iCloud Drive feature, we still need to store a ton of apps and other data on our iPhones. It’s 2014: Let’s axe the 16GB model and start at 32GB, Apple.

Moren: The problem with flash storage is that it’s not substantially cheaper than it used to be—at least in terms of what Apple’s paying for it, anyway. I’d tend to agree that 32GB is a great starting point, but plenty of people are still paying for the 16GB models, and Apple’s almost certainly making better money on that than they are on the 32GB and 64GB models. While a 128GB model would be plenty welcome for some, like Mr. Frakes, I don’t know if we’re there quite yet. But I also wouldn’t be entirely shocked to see the company expand its line of offerings to a fourth storage size, as it’s already done on the iPad and iPod touch.

Time for some more memory

Frakes: Speaking of memory, the current iPhone sports a measly 1GB of RAM. Now, that’s nothing to sneeze at—or at least it wasn’t a few years ago. These days, however, more and more apps, especially games and media apps, are memory hungry, and pairing 1GB of memory with a beefy processor such as the A7 feels like tying one of the iPhone’s metaphorical hands behind its back. A good number of the iPhone’s competitors currently ship with 2GB of RAM, and processor geeks point out that iOS can’t fully take advantage of the iPhone's 64-bit processor without 4GB. Here’s hoping that the next iPhone levels up when it comes to RAM.

The co-processing train

Caldwell: The iPhone 5s’s M7 co-processor was a welcome surprise when it debuted last year to help track user motion and walking data without killing battery life. Since then, we’ve also seen similar features from Android smartphone manufacturers that help with audio processing and step-counting. While I doubt Apple’s next iPhone is going to become co-processor central, it certainly makes sense to me to develop some sort of low-power processing engine for things like Siri—especially given iOS 8’s “Hey Siri” feature.

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