Watch Out, It’s iPhone Rumor Season

A dose of common sense goes a long way when it comes to Apple rumors.

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It’s that time of the year again, when slow news days and general antsiness over the lack of new Apple gear conspire to produce a flurry of iPhone rumors.

As always, reports about Apple’s next iPhone tend to range from completely reasonable to mind-numbingly stupid. This week provides us with examples from both categories.

Though I’ll never claim to know what Apple is doing before something’s officially announced, a dose of common sense goes a long way when judging all rumors and speculation that will surely flood the tech blogosphere in the coming months. With that in mind, let’s take a look at what the rumor mill is saying:

NFC and Fingerprint Reader, Perhaps

The idea that Apple might add near-field communications and a fingerprint reader to the iPhone has been kicking around for quite some time. Apple did acquire a fingerprint scanning company last year, and NFC is no longer a bleeding-edge technology, so it seems logical that both technologies will find their way onto a future iPhone, if not the next one. Indeed, murmurs of NFC and fingerprint scanning popped up this week on a couple of Chinese websites.

But really, the details are what matter most, and we don’t know them yet. Keep in mind that Apple has taken potshots at NFC before. When announcing AirDrop, a way for iPhone users to share files in iOS 7, Apple’s Craig Federighi said (as captured by ABC News), there’s “No need to run around the room bumping your phone,” a clear jab at the overhyped NFC-based photo and video sharing in Samsung’s Galaxy S phones. If Apple does include NFC, it’ll probably be for something different, like tap-to-pay at retail stores. Whether that’ll happen this year is still anybody’s guess.

As for fingerprint scanning, we’ve seen the technology before as a way to securely unlock devices (including phones, as with the Motorola Atrix 4G). That alone isn’t really enough to justify adding a fingerprint scanner to the iPhone. For the technology to make sense, Apple would have to take it a step further. Imagine if you could use your fingerprint to skip over password entry when downloading apps, or to securely open apps that contain sensitive info, such as Dropbox or your banking app, without having to enter a PIN. Apple’s tight control over both hardware and software would make these kinds of uses possible by giving developers a way to add fingerprint sensing to their apps. Total speculation, but I could see this being the “wow” feature in the iPhone 5S (or whatever it may be called).

Unlikely Screen Size Increase

On the other end of the spectrum, we have a rumor that makes no sense. A report by Commercial Times, strangely picked up by Bloomberg with no skepticism, claims that Apple has decided to put a 4.3-inch display in the next iPhone, instead of a 4-inch one. This decision has reportedly delayed the launch until the end of the year.

Come on, people. Apple stretched the screen size on the iPhone 5 because there was tangible benefit–namely, an extra row of app icons and more room for notifications, text and widescreen videos. Stretching it to 4.3 inches would provide no such benefits unless the resolution also increased. Doing so would create more headaches for app developers without adding much of a size benefit in return. It’s a bad idea all around, and we’re supposed to believe Apple would delay its top product until late in the holiday season to make it happen? That’s crazy.

Again, a little common sense goes a long way. There’s a strong argument to be made for a much larger iPhone–with, say, a 5-inch screen–sold alongside the 4-inch version, but all signs point to that not happening this year either.

Better Specs, Obviously

The one thing you can generally count on from every new iPhone is faster performance and an improved camera. So far, we’ve seen multiple reports of 2 GB of RAM and a 12-megapixel camera with improved low-light performance. Reports conflict on whether Apple will use a quad-core processor or simply increase the clock speed on the existing dual-core chip, but there seems to be consensus on Apple moving to a quad-core graphics chip. If you have no idea what any of this means, it boils down to the next iPhone being snappier and taking better pictures. No surprises there.

The bigger mystery is whether Apple will use Sharp’s IGZO display technology in the next iPhone, as Chinese site EXPreview claimed this week. Although analysts have been predicting a switch to IGZO at some point, there’s not a lot of solid evidence that Apple will adopt the technology this year. One of the major benefits of IGZO is improved battery efficiency, so if Tim Cook gets on stage and boasts about dramatic battery life improvements, we’ll know the rumors were right.

Of course, the last big question is when the next iPhone will actually come out. Rumors tend to be notoriously bad on this front. There are a handful of publications you can trust to get it right–All Things D, iMore, the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and the New York Times, mainly–but if you see some random website claiming to have the exact iPhone release date pegged down, treat it with skepticism. When asked by friends and family, I typically say “September or October,” because that’s really all you can count on for now.