In many circles of my friend and family circle, I am considered the “phone guy”. Whenever anyone is looking into upgrading their phone, a lot of times they consult with me to make sure that they are making the right decision. As such, some people will ask what phone I use as a barometer for what is a good phone. Currently, the phone I use is the LG V60 ThinQ, which is a very powerful and versatile device (see Juan Carlos Bagnell’s excellent review of the device here). I love this phone and it is many things, but one thing it is not is compact. In fact, the V60 might be the largest phone that is not a foldable device that is available in the United States.
Over the past week, as I was watching Apple and Google announce their new phones, I looked at my V60 and the sheer size of it struck me. The reason for this is because Google and Apple have brought to market two phones that are much smaller and more in line with the ergonomics of one-handed use as opposed to the bigger is better screen mentality that Samsung and LG have adopted in recent years. The Apple iPhone 12 Mini and Google Pixel 5 are bucking the bigger screen trend and instead opting for a smaller phone experience that excels at and prioritizes communication over multimedia consumption. The existence of these phones has made me wonder, is the small smartphone making a comeback?
How Did We Get Here?
I have always felt that there will always be a factor of differentiation in the smartphone space. Over the years there have been wars for the highest megapixel count or the best screen resolution. But one of the longest-running spec wars the race to the largest screen. In the days of the first iPhones and early Galaxy phones, phones were much smaller with 3.5-inch and 4-inch phone screens being the norm. When this was the case, the “innovation” year over year would be an increase in screen size. This trend seemed to plateau with the Motorola Nexus 6, which was nicknamed Shamoo for its sheer size.
In the midst of this game of inches that manufacturers were engaging in, the small phone started to fall by the wayside. For years, there was a small collection of people that championed the appeal of a smaller phone. A prioritization of communication applications and one-handed use have always been the pillars of the conversation around the appeal of a smaller smartphone experience. And for years the smaller size of the iPhone validated this, as Steve Jobs had famously said that a larger-screened phone made no sense since you the user “can’t get your hand around it”. So for years, this was the case with iPhones. They were small and one-handed devices in a time when the Android competition seemingly got larger and larger.
This all changed with the introduction of the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. Not only did the iPhone get larger, but now there was a supersized version. What has ensued is the holding back of powerful features on the smaller versions of iPhones versus their larger Plus versions. The better battery life, screen resolution, and camera features were always found on the Plus model while the smaller iPhone remained neglected. This permeated to Android manufacturers as well, where “Lite” and “Mini” versions of flagships were introduced with smaller form factors and huge deficiencies in performance. The only company that seemed to produce a full-featured small phone was Sony with its XZ Compact series of phones.
As the race to the largest screen shifted to the war against bezels, the popular trend became to make phones taller. This was a sort of happy medium, as it allowed for a large screen size that was still somewhat capable of one-handed usage. An example of a phone that did this very well was the LG G6. That device sported an 18:9 aspect ratio that gave the user a 5.7-inch display but was still compact enough to be used one-handed. But as the race to get to near 100% screen to body ratio intensified, as did the appetite for mobile video content. The result of this is very tall phones with massive displays nearing small tablet measurements. The small phone had appeared to go extinct.
The Pandemic Effect
2020 has been a very strange year that has introduced challenges to every sort of business imaginable. The smartphone industry is no exception to this. In the midst of global shutdowns and supply chain issues, Apple decided to try something. They released the iPhone SE 2nd generation, which for all intents and purposes was a rebranded iPhone 8 with an updated processor. In normal circumstances, this phone would have more than likely been panned as a lazy release from the Cupertino giant. But in the context of an economic crisis and shut down supply chains, the $400 iPhone made sense for many people that needed to upgrade their older iPhones that did not demand a price premium.
The SE turned into an instant recommendation for the “just enough” phone that could easily be recommended. This easy recommendation made a lot of people realize how refreshing it is to use a compact phone as opposed to the giant phones that have become saturated in the market. Something was refreshing about this device that excelled in communication apps and nailed the basics down. Suddenly, screen body ration and multiple rear cameras did not seem as important.
This success started a trend that Google decided to continue with the release of its budget Pixel 4a. This phone trimmed the bezels from the Pixel 3a with a 5.8-inch display. The result has been a very capable smaller form factor that is capable of handling all the day to day tasks with a camera that could stand toe to toe with phones double its price. The capable small phone suddenly had a revitalization. Perhaps it is big screen fatigue or perhaps it was the fact that everyone has been looking at laptop screens for work and school from home that the idea of a purposeful smaller smartphone started to make more sense.
The Return of the Small Flagship
Having these small phones in the $400 price range is one thing, but to introduce them at a higher price tier is a completely different discussion. A higher price generally demands a different level of features and expectations. As more money is given for a device, the less room for error for omissions. Yet Google and Apple both have decided to release flagship devices in the $700 price tier that are small but powerful.
Google’s Pixel 5 and Apple’s iPhone 12 Mini take a hard left turn from the rest of the phone industry. Companies like Samsung, OnePlus, and LG have been exclusively releasing flagship phones with large and bright displays that are ideal for gaming and video content consumption. This formula for creating high-end phones assumes that all people fit into that proverbial marketing box when the reality is quite different. What Google and Apple have done with these two phones is to present an alternative high-end phone experience that focuses on capable cameras, one-handed use, and a reliable software experience that is just a joy to use.
These phones are also not afterthoughts either. Google has not released an XL version of the Pixel this year, the smaller sized Pixel 5 is the only size option from the company this year. The iPhone 12 Mini is depicted as the starting point of the iPhone 12 lineup. While most people will end up with the larger iPhone 12, the Mini exists as the entry-level new iPhone for this year. And this emphasis on these small devices is very important. These are not just being released as yet another SKU to get money from customers in the way that Mini phones of old were. These phones will get the full marketing resources of both companies and will be supported for years.
There is something to be said about the influence of Apple’s design decisions. When the company adopted the display cutout for the face unlocking sensors, a decent amount of Android phones adopted it in their phones without implementing the same type of tech as Apple’s Face ID system. When the company introduced its AirPods true wireless earbuds, countless headphone companies imitated the stem design. Put simply, Apple is a trendsetter. If the company stays committed to this Mini phone and continues to release smaller devices perhaps we will see a comeback of smaller form factors. What this will do is to show Samsung, LG, and OnePlus that there is a market for customers that want a premium phone experience in a more compact form factor. This will create a system of choice that we have not seen in years. I for one welcome back the existence of powerful small phones, having options is never a bad thing.
Check out the iPhone 12 Mini here
Check out the Google Pixel 5 here