Is bigger actually better? How small, palm-sized smartphones fell out of favour

With Apple's iPhone 12 mini reported to be selling poorly, we take a look at how the size wars started – and where they look to be headed

Is bigger better? The iPhone 12, iPhone 12 Pro Max and iPhone 12 Mini. Unsplash
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The first mobile phones to be put on sale in the 1980s were the size and weight of a house brick. They were comically huge, verging on unusable. But if technology is about anything, it’s about miniaturisation.

Over the next 15 years they started to shrink, and by the turn of the century you could buy a clamshell phone smaller than the palm of your hand. Then, despite our hands remaining very much the same size, phones began to grow again.

Today, the largest on the market – the Samsung Galaxy S20+ with its 6.7-inch screen, or the similarly sized iPhone 12 Pro Max – are hits, but smaller phones have become passe.

The Samsung Galaxy S20+ (pictured, the BTS Edition) has a huge 6.7-inch screen. Courtesy Samsung

Apple's iPhone 12 mini, launched in October, is reported to be badly underperforming; one analyst suggested last week that production may stop in the first half of this year because of lack of interest. This is a global thing: smartphones with screens smaller than six inches account for just 10 per cent of sales, according to JP Morgan analyst William Yang.

But where does that leave those of us who believe that size isn’t everything? Those of us who don’t want pockets and bags weighed down unnecessarily? Who like using a phone with one hand rather than two?

If you were feeling uncharitable, you could lay the blame at Samsung’s door. Its Galaxy Note, launched in 2011, was derided by reviewers for its enormous 5.3-inch screen; small by today’s standards, but verging on absurd at the time.

Its surprise popularity, particularly in Asian markets, kickstarted a size war. The average size of the most popular smartphones grew year by year, despite puzzlement in parts of the industry. The HTC One Max (5.9 inches) released in 2013 was described by technology website CNET as "proof that phones could be too big". A vice president of Nokia at the time, Niklas Savander, described the trend as "monster truck syndrome", and Apple's Steve Jobs dismissed it, too.

“You can’t get your hand around it,” he said of iPhone rivals such as Samsung's Galaxy S. “No one’s going to buy that.”

But he was wrong. Phones got bigger because consumers demanded it. While the technology press tied itself up in knots over whether a device should qualify as a “large phone” or a “small tablet”, people buying them didn’t care either way. As bezels disappeared and screens stretched across the full width of the device, we ate up those extra pixels ravenously.

Why? Because phones were doing more stuff. Streaming video, gaming and navigation demanded more screen real estate. More recently, office apps and video calls have made them indispensable remote-working devices, too. Then there’s camera quality and battery life, the two leading considerations when people buy a smartphone. (One 2019 survey put battery life as the overriding factor for around 75 per cent of respondents, cameras 50 per cent.) Today’s multiple lenses and sensors take up space, and as we demand more from our phones, the batteries have to be bigger too.

Samsung Electronics Co. Galaxy Note 20 smartphones displayed at the company's Digital Plaza store in Seoul, South Korea, on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021. Samsung is schedule to announce fourth-quarter earning figures on Jan. 28. Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg

In addition, there’s an economic imperative. Selling bigger phones at a higher price point means bigger revenues. Small phones just don’t rake in as much money.

Both Apple and Sony stopped making their smaller lines – the iPhone SE and the Xperia Compact, respectively – in 2018, and it looked like the end of the line for small smartphones altogether, until the announcement of the iPhone 12 mini. But its days, once again, look numbered.

What seems to have taken a back seat during the size war is the question of ergonomics. Is a phone that’s bigger but less easy to handle an acceptable trade-off? Back in 2012, Apple’s marketing chief, Phil Schiller, made his views clear: small is beautiful.

“It’s really easy to make a new product that’s bigger,” he said. “The challenge is to make it better and smaller. A phone should feel great in your hand and, more importantly, it should be easy to use with this magical device we all carry, called the thumb.”

But as phones got bigger, one-handed operation with the thumb became more difficult. Today, iPhones have a special “one-handed mode”, and Android devices look set to have the same functionality built in with the next operating system, Android 12.

From bottom, the iPhone 6s Plus, 6s and SE lie stacked on one another. Apple stopped making the SE in 2018. AP Photo

How does that work? The user interface gets scaled down, so you can reach it. Yes – a smaller screen, stuck in the corner of your bigger screen.

It’s hardly an elegant solution, but when phones are trying to be all things to all people with all manner of hand sizes, these kind of measures are probably necessary. In 2016, Vodafone consulted ergonomics expert Alan Hedge to ask what the optimum size of smartphone should be, and his response was telling.

“There is no single answer to this, any more than saying what is the optimum shoe size,” he said. As is often the case with technology, it’s a process of trial and error, where insistent marketing strategies are used to persuade us that something will improve our lives, and waiting to see if we buy it, both literally and figuratively. In the case of large phones, we bought it. Small phones are disappearing, because most of us don’t want them.

Longer term, we could consider the vision of futurist Roope Mokka, who wrote in 2015 about what he called “the strongest trend in technology”, which is that a product line does ultimately get smaller, “before becoming so small and cheap that it ceases to exist".

Maybe large phones is a mere blip in that trend? “When technology gets developed enough, it ceases to be understood as technology,” he wrote. “It becomes part of the general man-made ambience of our life.”

For those of us who mourn the ever-growing size of smartphones, take heart. One day they may disappear altogether.

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