Four iPhones on a table: the iPhone 4S, the iPhone 5S, the iPhone 6 and the iPhone 6 Plus.

How much can four devices, each supposed to be the best of its type tell you about a phone that has been revered as the Godphone by many?

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A whole lot. As we discovered when we had lined up the four devices on a table for what was supposed to be just a simple comparison shot of four very distinct phases of the iPhone:

  • The uber hand-friendly phase of the iPhone 4S.
  • The “we can make it slightly larger, but keep in hand friendly” phase of the iPhone 5S (and 5).
  • The “fine, we will make a large display” phase of the iPhone 6
  • The “you want big, we will give you really big” phase of the iPhone 6 Plus.
Put the four phones next to each other and the difference becomes very clear. The iPhone 4S, which was a slightly souped up version of the iPhone 4 (minus the antennagate blues, plus a better camera) was encased in glass on both sides; the iPhone 5S had a more metallic feel to it with the back being mainly metal flanked by two glass panels and it also picked up a totally different home button on the front, thanks to the fingerprint scanner; the iPhone 6 seems a departure from the slightly box-y look that reigned supreme at Cupertino from the iPhone 4-5S era, and a return to the more curvy looks of the early iPhones, although with almost impossibly thin dimensions; and the iPhone 6 Plus actually seems more closely related to an iPad mini than an iPhone, although it inherits the same curvey and insanely thin sliver-like look.

If the iPhone was indeed the Godphone, the Divine One suddenly got bigger hands and a new design team.

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For, right from the iPhone 5 onwards, the iPhone design ethic changed significantly. We do not have an iPhone 5 in these photographs, but for external appearances, the iPhone 5S was an exact clone. The colour black was dumped, with space grey being the closest one could get to it (oh and gold was added to the mix with the iPhone 5S). The glossy backs that had been a part of the iPhone since the 3G gave way to a more metallic feel, the 3.5 mm audio jack, which was once on the top of the device, was moved to the base, and although the charging port got smaller, the number of audio vents dipped from two to one.

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And the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, in a way, complete the metamorphosis that the iPhone has undergone. It is not just a matter of size, really. The fronts are slightly raised and the backs that were relatively clean and uncluttered affairs now have two lines running across them, with exactly the same colour in the panels flanking the back (there were darker shades in the flanking panels in the iPhone 5S). And now, you have buttons to contend on on both sides of the phone, whereas right up to the iPhone 5S, all the right side had housed was a SIM card tray. The top has now taken the place of the right when it comes to being plain – the 6 and 6 Plus are totally bare there. And then there are the buttons – the iconic round volume buttons have given way to the more conventional rice grain ones. The bezels have been shaved and the home button has got a metal rim (the fingerprint scanner effect, we think). The consensus in many quarters is that the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus do not quite stand out in a crowd to the same extent their predecessors did – some even said that the 6 Plus at times almost looks like a product made by a company Apple famously sued.

Some things, however, have not changed – the speaker grille remains a thin line above the display, with a round home button below it (the display). And the camera remains on the top left corner of the back and always has a flash to its right, although the flash itself has changed from a LED to a True Tone flash, although the camera units jut out noticeably in the case of the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. But make no mistake about it, the iPhone has changed a lot. And this is most evident in the packaging of the four devices. The 4S and 5S had colourful fronts, while the 6 and 6 Plus come in plain white with slight phone-shaped protuberances on top – honestly, we liked the iPhone 5S’ packaging the best, as it highlighted its forte: the interface.

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Most significantly, the iPhone might still be handsome but is perhaps not as handy as it once was. And if you doubt that, check the image which has a human palm placed next to the four phones (it belongs to my better half – I asked for it six years ago, incidentally).

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Three years is indeed a long time in technology.

Not least because it is also three years since a certain Steven Paul Jobs left the building.

Did his departure change the iPhone design philosophy?

We can only speculate. I will however limit myself to quoting what one of the senior executives at one of Apple’s most famous rival companies said when he saw the iPhone 6 Plus:

This is kind of bulky, and it seems crowded,” he said, seeing the device carefully. Then he looked at me and smiled and said something that a lot of people have said: “There is no way in which you can convince me that this is a Jobs’ design. That protruding camera? Impossible in his time!

Has the infinite loop of iPhone design been broken at Cupertino? We don’t know. As we discovered, three years is a long time in technology.

(Note: Some will wonder why we have not made any mention of the most colourful iPhone of them all, the iPhone 5C. Well, we honestly feel it was not showcased as an iPhone flagship the way the others have, so we kept it out of the reckoning.)

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Nimish Dubey has been writing for more than a decade now (well, Windows 3.1 was around and Apple was on the verge of being finished when he started). He has been published in a number of publications including The Times of India, Mint, The Economic Times, Mid-Day and Femina on subjects that vary from tech write -ups to book reviews to music album round ups. He managed to interview Michael Schumacher once and write two books for young adults along the way.