Flashback: a decade of mini phones

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Flashback: a decade of mini phones

In the early days, miniaturization was all the rage, but as smartphones took over, the need for a big screen overwhelmed everything else. That’s how we got to tablet-sized behemoths. Remember the Dell Streak from 2010? It was marketed as a “tablet” despite having a 5-inch screen. Today, phones with 6.8-inch displays are very common and are a fraction of an inch away from the smallest tablets on the market.

You might think that Sony makes awesome mini phones. And that was it until a few years ago. These days, Apple is the only manufacturer that makes a phone that’s both small and actually powerful. Samsung toyed with the idea not too long ago, the Galaxy S10e being its smallest flagship in recent years.

Flashback: a decade of tiny phones

But putting performance aside for a moment – what’s the smallest smartphone you can buy? The answer deserves less and less the predicate “small” from year to year.

We think that the height and width of a phone are the most important dimensions when it comes to handling comfort and pocketability. We have selected several popular brands and selected the smallest phones from them each year (width * height as a measure of their smallness).

This is how the front face of these small phones has changed over the years – the upward trend is unmistakable.

Flashback: a decade of tiny phones

Manufacturers have some leeway as they can increase display size by shrinking the bezels. That only goes so far – the screen sizes of these smallest phones just kept increasing, which inevitably made them bigger.

Flashback: a decade of tiny phones

We know what you’re thinking – screen size doesn’t tell us much without knowing aspect ratio. And that’s right, phones just kept getting bigger. That’s because they hit a limit on how wide they can be – around 70mm. This spelled the end of the 16:9 industry standard as the only way to grow was upwards.

Flashback: a decade of tiny phones

Have they at least gotten thinner? Yes they did, although the bottom was around 8-9mm. As with the bezels, there’s only enough to shave off. Note that the table below does not show each manufacturer’s thinnest phone, but rather the thickness of the smallest phone.

Flashback: a decade of tiny phones

Another aspect is the weight. Of course, this depends on the size, but the materials also play a major role. It’s clear that small phones have definitely gotten heavier over the years. Again, the chart shows the weight of our pick of the smallest phones. But even if we only looked at the lightest phones (not counting other dimensions), most smartphones don’t go below 140-150g.

Flashback: a decade of tiny phones

Of course, we only looked at big brands. We know there are some tiny smartphones out there, like the recent attempt to revitalize the Palm brand. The phone measures 96.6 x 50.6 x 7.4mm and weighs 62.5g. Well, that’s really tiny. Unfortunately it didn’t sell very well and the Palm brand is currently used to sell TWS buds (oh how the mighty fell).

There are other small offerings out there, such as Unihertz’s Jelly Phones. But when you look at mainstream brands, “small” isn’t really an option. That’s not a conspiracy, it’s just the result of consumer interest — or rather, lack thereof. The iPhone 12 mini and 13 mini didn’t sell well either, and at this point it’s pretty certain Apple will ditch the form factor (perhaps until the next SE generation).


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

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

Even if you buck market trends and buy a tiny phone, you’ll find that the lack of interest in it has secondary implications – some apps and websites don’t work well on tiny screens. Sometimes it’s simply because the developer doesn’t bother testing on such rare devices, sometimes it’s because some apps and websites have become so complex that they just can’t fit on a 4-inch screen.

At this point, you might as well get yourself a smartwatch – it can handle calls and music (they can be paired with Bluetooth headsets), it lets you read messages and even send short replies. Of course, there are also feature phones.

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 needs to be able to handle the various apps and websites we use on a daily basis, which in turn puts a floor on how small they can be.

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