The big problems with small Android phones


iPhone SE Small phones

iPhone SE Small Phones

Ryan Haines/Android Authority

In case you missed it, Eric Migikovsky, the founder of Pebble, wants to bring back the little Android phone. He has gone as far as setting up a website and collecting signatures for a petition. It’s a great goal – as a smaller person, I like smaller phones that even I can use with one hand. However, Migikovsky’s wish list paints a picture of the small Android phone that never existed. It glosses over some pretty big issues standing in the way of the return of beloved small phones.

Well, I’m not going to sit here and tear apart his wish list. I would love to see the phone come to fruition. However, it’s important to sit back and think about why small phones are gone in the first place. If the market really craved them, don’t you think we’d still have a few to choose from?

See also: The Best Small Android Phones to Buy

Big goals, small footprints

Google Pixel 4a screen in hand 3

David Imel / Android Authority

Everything has a price – especially when it comes to smartphone design. Every feature you add to one device is inevitably at the expense of another. Samsung decided to go small (smaller, at least) with its Galaxy S22 and Galaxy S22 Plus, and the battery suffered as a result. The Galaxy S22’s 3,700mAh cell is the smallest since the Galaxy S10’s 3,400mAh, and Samsung is asking a lot more from its new flagship.

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The base Galaxy S10 was content to sit with 4G LTE and sip power from its cell, but the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 is a different kind of beast. We’ve repeatedly seen what it has to do with battery life and device temperature in the name of performance. Migicovsky wants to take the same powerful chipset – or some other flagship equivalent – and cram it into a much smaller package. That means an even smaller battery will struggle to keep up with the same demands.

A tiny battery with a power-hungry chipset is the perfect recipe for disappointment, quick charge or not.

Yes, we’ve seen Apple take tiny iPhone batteries pretty far, but even the iPhone SE and iPhone 13 Mini are underwhelming in the long run. They’re optimized to near-perfection, putting batteries under 2,500mAh to the length of far larger Android cells, but they can’t come close to matching the longevity of the regular iPhone 13 or 13 Pro Max. Combine a small battery with high performance requirements and I don’t know how this dream Android phone can fulfill Migikovsky’s wish list.

I had the pleasure – if you can call it that – of putting together our iPhone SE (2022) review. I drove Apple’s tiny phone, complete with its powerful chipset, daily for a lot of the time. As soon as we hit publish, my SIM was on something else, something else, with more substance. I liked the Touch ID sensor and A15 Bionic chipset, but typing felt like a chore on the 4.7-inch display. Streaming videos of any kind made me feel like one of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids’ parents.

All in all, I have no argument against the camera selection on the wish list. Matching the Pixel 5 with a wide and ultrawide camera has already proven to be a great approach, and a punch-hole front camera seems an obvious choice. (A single rear lens like that of the iPhone SE just won’t cut it in 2022.) Of course, processing will go a long way toward how effective the cameras are, but expectations feel reasonable for once.

See also: The best Android camera phones

What is the market doing? Yes, really want?

Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra and iPhone 13 Pro Max, not-so-small phones

Robert Triggs/Android Authority

You and I can sit here and ask for an incredibly small Android phone, but the market has spoken. People overwhelmingly want bigger phones, and the small crowd of phones is just a vocal minority. There is dozens from us. Okay, there are more than dozens, but it’s hard to argue with cold hard data. Samsung published the results of a study in which an expansive display was one of the top priorities for customers. Expansive isn’t exactly a word that gives lovers of small phones much hope.

Data does not only put small Android phones in a difficult light. Consumer Intelligence Research Partners Group found that sales of Apple’s iPhone 12 Mini and 13 Mini accounted for just 3% of purchases in the second quarter of 2022. That’s not exactly hopeful when Migikovsky’s wish list basically calls for an Android version of the iPhone 13 Mini. Those dismal sales numbers were enough for Apple to drop the tiny phone (probably) from its upcoming iPhone 14 lineup, so why should an Android maker queue up to jump into this segment?

Apple’s small phone sales should be enough to discourage any manufacturer from a small phone project.

It’s hard to say how many units make up 3% of iPhone sales, but it’s certainly more than Migikovsky’s goal of 50,000 signatures. Apple moved millions of iPhone 13 units during the 2021 holiday season, so it’s hard to see a fraction of that number moving the needle into the production phase. Remember – those 50,000 signatures are for prospects only, there’s no guarantee they’ll buy the phone.

Hard numbers aside, phone content is no longer optimized for tiny displays. High-quality Netflix content doesn’t have the same impact when streamed to an iPhone SE – believe me, I’ve tried. Mobile gaming requires big screens and big batteries if you really want to stay in the action for long. A small phone won’t tick either of those boxes.

Migikovsky also challenges his dream little phone to run stock Android with an unlockable bootloader. There’s nothing inherently wrong with stocking Android, but there’s a reason other OEMs aren’t using it anymore. Samsung has given many twists and turns to Android in its One UI skin, usually for the better. Google doesn’t even use its stock operating system, instead adding a light layer of Pixel UI.

The many flavors of Android: Our favorite Android skins

Settling for not-so-small phones

Google Pixel 5 with phone from the back 2

David Imel / Android Authority

Let’s all accept that we won’t see a truly small Android phone again – at least not in the 5.4-inch sense. That is not that bad. Instead, it’s time to accept that small phones aren’t that small anymore. The bezels are shrinking, meaning we can fit a larger display into a smaller body.

Want to guess the height difference between the 4.7-inch iPhone SE and the 6.1-inch Samsung Galaxy S22? It’s about 8mm. The width difference? About 3mm. There’s a slightly larger gap between the Galaxy S22 and Migikovsky’s prized iPhone 13 Mini – about 15mm in height and 6mm in width – but your pocket won’t notice too much of a difference. The results are the same even when you bring the tiny Pixel 4a into the picture. Samsung’s small flagship is 2mm taller, 1mm wider and 0.6mm thinner than Google’s budget offering, but has a 0.3-inch larger display.

Small phones are great, at least as long as we push the boundaries of the word small.

As mentioned above, I’ve been using the iPhone SE as my daily driver for several weeks. I’ve also spent time with the Galaxy S22 and the Pixel 5, both of which I would describe as “small” phones. My bag couldn’t tell the a big difference between them, but my experience has certainly changed. The Pixel 5 was probably the smoothest of the bunch, despite its mid-range processor and two cameras instead of the Galaxy S22’s three. It also ticks most of Migicovsky’s boxes while punching holes in some of his other must-haves.

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I’m not going to sit here and tell anyone to give up on their dreams. Like I said, I want to see this phone come to fruition. I want to see how a small Android phone holds up and where it predictably falters. It’s not impossible to overcome some of the biggest problems with small phones, but this project has an Everest-like mountain to climb. If it’s a resounding success, I’ll shave my head. You heard it here first.

Interested in Eric Migicovsky’s small Android phone?

489 votes

If you’re interested, it’s time to put your money where your mouth is. Go to Eric Migikovsky’s little Android phone page to sign his petition.

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