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Sunday, October 1, 2023

The Triumphant Return of the Good Small Phone

What’s the difference between the iPhone 12 Mini and the iPhone 12? About three square inches of display. That’s it. Everything else is the same. Which makes this the first time in years that you’ve been able to buy a smaller phone that wasn’t also a worse phone—not just from Apple, but pretty much anywhere.

After a brief period in which small phones pretty much vanished altogether, like a Caspian horse they’ve made a modest retreat from extinction. But your choices, if you’re in the market, range from the gimmicky Palm phone—originally marketed as a secondary phone for when you’re on the go—to the iPhone SE, which Apple relaunched earlier this year after hiatus that began in 2018. The iPhone SE is perfectly fine, especially for the $400 price, but other than a peppy A13 processor it’s a clear and present downgrade from the rest of Apple’s lineup.

Otherwise your options are a feature phone or an Android deep cut like the Sony Xperia XZ2 Compact. And that’s about it. How far has phone-size creep gone? Look no further than the iPhone 12 Mini’s introduction. “With its amazing size, it fits in the palm of your hand,” said Apple vice-president of marketing Kaiann Drance in Tuesday’s promotional video. Imagine that: A phone. That fits. In your hand.

Yes, bigger screen sizes make sense for all kinds of reasons. You can put a bigger battery in them, and they’re more fun to watch Disney+ on. But for too long smartphone manufacturers have equated bigger with better, stretching pants pockets and thumbs beyond the bounds of nature. It’s by no means a new phenomenon; the mediocritization of small phones has been happening for nearly a decade. It seems inexplicable, though, that people only want to buy smartphones the size of a 6-inch Spicy Italian from Subway.

“Small phones tend to be cheap, and there is absolutely a market for premium small phones,” says Avi Greengart, founder of tech analysis firm Techsponential. “Human ergonomics have not changed.”

And it’s not like the iPhone 12 Mini’s screen itself is tiny. At 5.4 inches diagonal, its display is just a hair smaller than what you’d find on the iPhone 8 Plus. (Yes, Plus.) It takes up significantly less space overall, though, thanks to minimal bezels and ditching the Touch ID sensor. It’s even a good bit smaller than the iPhone SE—which has a 4.7 inch display.

It happens to make strategic sense for Apple to include an iPhone 12 Mini in its lineup as well. The company will continue to sell the iPhone SE for $400, preserving a presence on the more affordable end of the spectrum. (If that’s where you’re hanging out, though, consider the Pixel 4a instead?) And it gives Apple room to raise the prices of its other models—the iPhone 11 started at iPhone 12 Mini’s $700 last year, while the iPhone 12 nudges up to $800—without changing the entry point for its premium devices.

“You’re getting the latest features in a smaller package—maybe more ergonomic for some people—for $100 less than the larger model,” says Tuong Nguyen, senior principal analyst at Gartner. “Given the economic uncertainty and lengthening replacement cycles, the price difference also makes it a more palatable upgrade.”

None of which is to say that you should run out and order an iPhone 12 Mini on Friday, or tomorrow, or this year. While it has all the same improvements as the iPhone 12—a better camera, 5G speeds if you happen to live in an area that offers them, a display with more pixels than your eyeballs can discern, a ceramic-hardened display, a by all accounts quite zippy A14 Bionic processor—it’s unclear whether those are worth tossing a perfectly good iPhone 11 or XR or whatever you’re using now. Given the iterative improvements from year to year and the environmental impact of churning through devices, the right time to upgrade your iPhone is when you need to, not when you want to.

Whenever that time comes, though, you’ll have a choice that hasn’t been available to you in years: a phone whose size doesn't dictate its capabilities.

“There’s a groundswell of people who’ve been waiting for a small phone that isn’t a compromise,” says Greengart. “This is it.”

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