Sorry small handed folks — it doesn’t look like mini phones are coming back

In 2012, I bought a Samsung Galaxy Note 2 smartphone. My friends found it hilarious that I’d essentially bought a tablet to use as a phone, and couldn’t fathom how even a “fat-handed t**t” (their words, but fair ones) like me could hold such a monster handset. Their phones, if memory serves, were the dinky 3.5in iPhone 4S and the 4.8in Samsung Galaxy S3. 

The ‘monstrous’ Samsung Galaxy Note 2 in my pocket, meanwhile, was a ‘ludicrous’ 5.5in.

It won’t have escaped your notice that a 5.5in phone doesn’t sound very big in 2021. Indeed, that’s only 0.1in bigger than the iPhone 13 mini. 

The 5.95in Samsung Galaxy Note 3. Because I no longer have my Note 2 to photograph.

That’s partly because aspect ratios have changed from 16:9 to 18:9 upwards — they’re taller and thinner than they used to be, in other words. But the overall trend is pretty clear. Finding a phone that’s under 5.5in across the diagonal is rare. Finding one that isn’t marketed as “mini” or “compact” is even rarer. 

The ‘why’ of this is all speculation. No doubt the sales of Samsung’s early phablets — a cringey term for ‘phone and tablet’ which thankfully has died out — was part of the story. As, likely, was the extra space for battery that a larger phone would allow. Factor in more people streaming Netflix and YouTube to the small screen over the last decade, and it’s understandable that manufacturers would prioritise screen size over pocketability. 

(It probably didn’t help that early “mini” phones gratuitously cut corners while trying to benefit from the brand name of the full-size version. No, Samsung, I haven’t forgotten the Galaxy S5 Mini, and neither have people who bought one, I’d wager.)

But it is also the case that manufacturers don’t make small phones any more because they simply don’t sell. 

Last year, Apple introduced the iPhone 12 mini to five-star reviews across the board. The phone was a triumph, with some outlets calling it the best iPhone of the lot thanks to its dinky size and generous specs.

The public disagreed, and it sold so badly that Apple was forced to cut production after eight months of lacklustre sales. Indeed, it’s rumoured that the only reason we have an iPhone 13 mini is because Apple was so far along with its plans by the time that the poor sales figures weren’t factored in. Suffice it to say that they will be from next year, and it’s expected that the smallest available iPhone 14 will be 6.1in instead.

The iPhone 12 mini is pocketable… but apparently nobody wants one.

There’s plenty of extenuating circumstances for the iPhone 12 mini. For one, it was released at a time when much of the world was in lockdown, when portability was less important than being able to clearly make out Joe Exotic’s face in Tiger King. Plus, it was hardly a vintage generation for iPhone battery life, and the 12 mini suffered most of all.

There’s also the fact that the iPhone 12 mini wasn’t the cheapest handset available with an Apple on it: if saving money was the top priority, then the much cheaper iPhone SE was the clear winner. 

But none of these change the fact that the iPhone 12 mini sold poorly, and that should worry anybody pursuing the small phone dream. If Apple can’t make dinky desirable, then who can? The companies occasionally flying the flag for small phones include Asus and Sony which, with all due respect to them, are hardly titans in the mobile space, with roughly 3.5 million phone sales between them in 2020. That’s a combined market share of around 2.5%.

Handling a plus-size phone can be tricky, as this hairy model demonstrates.

There may be one hope, and that’s the company that started the trend for big screens in the first place: Samsung. After years of screen size inflation, the rumour mill suggests that the Samsung Galaxy S22 will actually put that trend into reverse, with the standard model falling to 6.06in (down from 6.2in) and the Plus version to 6.55in (down from 6.7in). 

Hardly tiny, but that would still make the Galaxy S22 the smallest Samsung flagship since 2019’s Galaxy S10e. And funnily enough, that’s the phone I have in my pocket today. Despite being an early evangelist for big-screen phones with my much-mocked adoption of the Galaxy Note 2, I find the S10e’s 5.8in screen perfectly well suited to my giant paws, and I’m in no rush to upgrade.

And no, it hasn’t escaped my notice that the owner of the dinky iPhone 4S who laughed at my Galaxy Note now uses the monstrously large 6.8in Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra. Funny how things turn out…

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