Flashback: a decade of mini phones

Scarlette Lennon17 July 2022Last Update : 3 weeks ago
Flashback: a decade of mini phones

In the early days, miniaturization was in vogue, but when smartphones took over, the need for a large screen outweighed everything else. That’s how we ended up with tablet-sized giants. Do you remember Dell Streak from 2010? It was marketed as a “tablet” even though it had a 5 “screen. Today, phones with 6.8” screens are quite common, only a fraction of an inch away from the smallest tablets on the market.

You might be thinking that Sony made amazing mini phones. And that 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 so long ago, the Galaxy S10e was its smallest flagship in recent years.

But put performance aside for a moment – what’s the smallest smartphone you can buy? The answer is less and less deserved for the qualification “small” for each year that passes.

We believe that the height and width of a phone are the most important goals when it comes to handling comfort and pocket comfort. We chose several popular brands and selected the smallest phones from them from each year (see width * height as a measure of their small size).

Here’s how the front end of these little phones changed over the years – the upward trend is not to be mistaken.

Flashback: a decade of small phones

Manufacturers have little space as they can increase the screen size by shrinking frames. It only goes so far – the screen size of the smallest phones kept growing and increasing, which inevitably made them bigger.

Flashback: a decade of small phones

We know what you’re thinking – the diagonal of the screen does not tell us much without knowing the aspect ratio. And it’s true, phones have gotten louder and louder. This is because they hit a limit on how wide they can be – around 70 mm or so. This brought the end of the 16: 9 industry standard as the only way to grow was up.

Flashback: a decade of small phones

Did they at least get thinner? Yes, they did, even though it reached the bottom of about 8-9 mm. As with the frames, there is only so much you can shave off. Note that the chart below does not show the thinnest phone from each manufacturer, instead it shows the thickness of the smallest phone.

Flashback: a decade of small phones

Another consideration is weight. This of course depends on the size, but materials also play a big role. It is clear that small phones have certainly become heavier over the years. Again, the chart shows the weight of our range of smallest phones. But even if we had looked at just the lightest phones (ignoring other dimensions), most smartphones do not go below 140-150g.

Flashback: a decade of small phones

Of course, we only looked at big brands. We know there are some small smartphones out there, like the recent attempt to revive the Palm brand. That phone measures 96.6 x 50.6 x 7.4 mm and weighs 62.5 g. Now it is really small. Unfortunately, it did not sell very well, and the Palm brand is currently used to sell TWS knobs (oh, where the mighty ones have fallen).

There are other small offers out there, e.g. The Jelly phones from Unihertz. But if you look at regular brands, “small” is not really an option. This is not a conspiracy, it’s just a result of consumer interest – or rather the lack of the same. The iPhone 12 mini and 13 mini did not sell well either, and at this point it is quite certain that Apple will abandon the form factor (perhaps until the next SE generation).

The new (and now discontinued) Palm phone
Unihertz Jelly 2

The new (and now discontinued) Palm phone • Unihertz Jelly 2

Even if you go against the market trends and get a tiny phone, you will find that the lack of interest in them has secondary effects – a lot of apps and websites do not work well on small 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 pages have become so complex that they just can not fit on a 4 ”screen.

At that point, you might as well get a smartwatch – they can handle calls and music (they can be paired with Bluetooth headsets), they will let you read messages and even send short answers. Of course, there are also featurephones.

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

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