Stop the eulogy — smaller phones aren’t dead yet

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Over the past months, I haven’t been shy about expressing my appreciation for the Pixel 5’s physical dimensions. After years of carrying larger and larger phones, which culminated with the Pixel 4 XL, it felt great to go back to a smaller device that just fits in my hands and my tiny female pants’ pockets, and where I don’t have to stretch my thumb like Mrs. Incredible to reach the opposite top corner. However, for a brief moment, it looked like we were starting to dig the grave to bury the idea of smaller phones, but there’s a new wind blowing and it breathed new life into the category. We’re now seeing both the death of small phones and their rebirth at the same time.

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What makes a small phone?

It’s hard to define what a smaller smartphone should be. Many companies have tackled the idea in different manners, from the Sony Xperia Compact line-up to Google’s regular Pixel and XL separation, the iPhone Minis, and more. Some decided that the more compact form factor should come with a spec and price drop as well, others preferred to avoid any compromises in the experience save for the display and battery. I prefer the latter approach, but I’m sure others will say they’d rather buy a small and cheap phone because that’s all they need. So if we can’t define it by its features, could we do that by its size? Probably not either.

An ever-evolving definition of “small”

(I’ll preface this whole section by a general “no puns intended” disclaimer.) Size is subjective, and what seems tiny to me might be huge to you. The Pixel 5 is probably as small as I can personally go without compromising usability, i.e. without having to referee a thumb war each time I type a message. For other users, the Pixel 5 jumps the line into the larger phone territory and they’d much rather stick with something like the iPhone Mini series.

Pixel 5 (left) vs 4 XL (right).

What makes this more complicated is that our comfort levels change with time. It took me a while to be at ease holding and using the LG G2 in 2013, and that device is slightly smaller than the Pixel 5, with a smaller display. If I held it today, I’m sure it’d feel too tiny and complicated for me to use. Over the years, my thumb gymnastics skills had to evolve to a point where they’re more comfortable with screens larger than that.

And speaking of display size, this easy number that used to be our go-to size reference point in the 2000s until the mid-2010s is currently moot. With nearly non-inexistent bezels and different screen aspect ratios, it’s awkward to proclaim things like “a 6-inch screen is too big!” Nowadays, that display fits in phones with a smaller footprint than those with 5.2″ screens a few years ago. So what counts as small and what counts as large?

For now, my personal definition of a small phone is anything I can use single-handed and that’ll fit in my jeans pocket without toppling over or slipping out. It’s an incredibly subjective measure, but there’s no better alternative.

A twilight and a rebirth

A few months ago, rumors started circulating that Apple was discontinuing the production of the iPhone 12 Mini due to poor sales, which lead everyone to assume that this was the end of smaller phones. If most users were fascinated by bigger displays, if Google was ditching the more compact size for larger Pixel flagships, and if the mighty Apple couldn’t convince enough people to buy its Mini variant, then the category was surely dead.

Look at that tiny iPhone 13 Mini next to the regular 13.

I never believed that was a foregone conclusion. One failed product doesn’t sink an entire category — Note 7 anyone? Snapdragon 810? The real question to ask is whether it was the product itself or the category, and Apple seems to have decided on the former. The newly-announced iPhone 13 Mini is proof of that. It basically has the same body dimensions and same display size as the 12 Mini, with two important changes. The terrible battery life has been improved; at least Apple claims it can last up to 1.5 hours more than the 12 Mini. And the base model is still the same price but has double the storage, which is akin to saying it got a $100 price drop in Apple’s universe. I’m not an economist, but if the trillion dollar company thought that was enough to justify giving the Mini a second chance, then it must be for a good reason. The market for a smaller phone must be there, it’s just that the 12 Mini didn’t address it properly.

If you ask me, I think a tiny 5.4″ display in a tiny form factor is too small and Apple is holding on to the last straws of that specific sub-category. Rumors concur with me and suggest that the smallest of next year’s iPhones will have a 6.1″ display, which means it’ll effectively be the same size as the current iPhone 13. So no more Mini. But the iPhone 13 has nearly the same footprint as the Pixel 5, so even if it’s not called “Mini” on the box, it’s still a smaller phone. And therein lies part of the story. Extremely compact or mini phones might be dead or at least on the way out, replaced by devices that don’t carry that potentially detrimental moniker, but that still somewhat fit in small hands and jeans pockets. They’ll be smaller phones, they just won’t be called as such.

Then there’s the new contender entering the ring. Folding phones are rigging the game with a wholly different way of looking at the problem. No longer confined to one physical shape, devices like the Moto Razr and Galaxy Z Flip line-up prove that you can pack a very tall display in a teeny tiny phone the size of a credit card, but slightly taller. Like the clamshell phones of the 1990s and 2000s, they can easily slip in your front or back pants pockets and you can perform some minor actions on them when they’re folded, but you’ll have to open them up to do more. That results in a really tall phone that isn’t the most ergonomic to hold or use. Do these count as smaller phones? In one way, yes. In another, no. It’s tough to argue though that they have a special appeal to everyone looking for a more pocketable device. And they look too cute.

The panda Galaxy Z Flip3 is adorable.

Let’s stop eulogizing small phones because no matter how we define them, they are far from dead. The iPhone 13 Mini could be one of the last titular devices of the category, but others will live on in the most inconspicuous manner. Thanks to smaller bezels, anything that’s in the 6″ display range nowadays is close enough to being a compact phone without being explicitly called one. And with foldable clamshells, the category may even be on the verge of its most interesting era yet. As a Pixel fan, the only question I have left is whether Google is considering addressing this market or if it’ll be content to play in the literally big leagues from now on.

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