Go back to a decade of small phones

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You may be thinking that Sony was making awesome mini phones. And it was, until a few years ago. These days Apple is the only one making a phone that is both small and actually powerful. Samsung flirted with the idea not too long ago, the Galaxy S10e was its smallest flagship in recent years. But put aside performance for a moment – what is the tiniest smartphone that you can buy? The answer is less and less deserving of the qualification “small” with each passing year.

Miniaturization was popular in the beginning, but when smartphones took over, the demand for a big screen outweighed all else. We now have gigantic tablets thanks to this. The 2010 Dell Streak comes to mind. Though it had a 5″ screen, it was billed as a “tablet”. Nowadays, phones with 6.8″ screens are fairly popular; they are only a few thousandths of an inch larger than the smallest tablets currently available.

Highlights

  • Makers have some wiggle room as they can grow the display size by shrinking bezels. That only goes so far – screen size of those smallest phones kept increasing and increasing, which inevitably made them bigger. We know what you’re thinking – the screen diagonal doesn’t tell us much without knowing the aspect ratio. And that is true, phones have been getting taller and taller. That is because they hit a limit on how wide they can be – around 70mm or so. This brought the end of the 16:9 industry standard as the only way to grow was up.

  • We think that the height and width of a phone are the most important measurements when it comes to handling comfort and pocketability. We picked several popular brands and selected the smallest phones from them from each year (looking width * height as a measurement of their smallness). Here is how the front surface area of these small phones changed over the years – the upward trend is unmistakable.

Of course, we were only looking at major brands We know that there are some tiny smartphones out there, like the recent attempt to resurrect the Palm brand. That phone measures 96.6 x 50.6 x 7.4mm and weighs 62.5g. Now that is properly tiny. Unfortunately it didn’t sell very well and the Palm brand is currently used to sell TWS buds (oh, how the mighty have fallen).

Did they at least get thinner? Yes, they did, although that bottomed out at around 8-9mm. Like with the bezels, there is only so much that you can shave off. Note that the chart below doesn’t show the thinnest phone from each maker, instead it shows the thickness of the smallest phone. Another consideration is weight. This depends on size, of course, but materials play a major role as well. It is clear that small phones have definitely been getting heavier over the years. Again, the chart shows the weight of our selection of smallest phones. But even if we had looked at just the lightest phones (ignoring other dimensions), most smartphones don’t go below 140-150g.

There are other tiny offerings out there, e.g. the Jelly phones from Unihertz. But if you look at mainstream brands, “small” isn’t really an option. This isn’t some conspiracy, it’s just a result of consumer interest – or rather the lack thereof. The iPhone 12 mini and 13 mini weren’t selling well either and at this point it is pretty certain that Apple is abandoning the form factor (perhaps until the next SE generation).

Even if you go against the market trends and get a tiny phone you will discover that the lack of interest in those has secondary effects – quite a few apps and websites don’t work well on tiny screens. Sometimes it’s just a case of the developer not bothering to test on such rare devices, other times it’s because some apps and sites have gotten so complex that they just can’t fit on a 4” screen. At that point you may as well get a smartwatch – those can handle calls and music (they can pair with Bluetooth headsets), they will let you read messages and even send short replies. There are featurephones too, of course.

But can you really live with the limited functionality provided by a smartwatch or feature phone? Perhaps, but everyone else needs a smartphone. And that smartphone needs to handle the various apps and sites we use daily, which in turn puts a lower limit on how small they can be.

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