Small Android phones are dead. As sad as it sounds, it’s extremely unlikely that a flagship Android phone will be released in the foreseeable future. Let’s see why.
How did we come here?
Smartphones in the Android and iOS camps have gotten considerably bigger over the past decade. Originally, there were specialized phones for those looking for a bigger screen. In 2015, for example, the Galaxy S6 flagship had a 5.1-inch display. Meanwhile, the Galaxy Note 5 had a larger 5.7-inch display. Samsung also made a Galaxy S6+, which splits the difference a bit at 5.5 inches. This was reflected on Apple’s side, with the iPhone 6s of the same year offering a 4.7-inch screen on its main model, but a 5.5-inch screen on the iPhone 6s Plus.
Fast forward to 2022, and this type of setup is on its way out. In Samsung’s world, the Galaxy S22 series absorbed the Note series, with the smaller Galaxy S22 at 6.1-inches, but the Galaxy S22 Ultra at 6.8-inches. Apple’s iPhone 13 Pro is much the same, with 6.1-inch and 6.7-inch screens.
Why the massive growth in size? There are a few main reasons.
A big part of that is the war on bezels, which has expanded the screen real estate available. A higher screen-to-body ratio means more screen size in a smaller package, but that hasn’t stopped the phones from getting bigger physically. Looking at our previous examples, 2022’s Galaxy S22 Ultra is over 10mm longer than the Galaxy Note 5, and it’s slightly larger in all other dimensions as well.
5G is another key reason why phones are getting bigger, and specifically why smaller ones are harder to come by. The next generation of cellular connectivity is a big deal, and US carriers have made it an absolute requirement. 5G hardware, however, requires space, especially for mmWave antennas, which are part of flagship smartphones.
And finally, there’s the battery life. Endurance is one of the most important factors people consider when buying a smartphone, and it’s a simple fact that in most cases phones with larger screens have room for bigger batteries, and therefore better endurance. There are exceptions to the rule, like the Pixel 6 Pro, but for the most part, a big phone will provide the best battery life.
But in reality, this amounts to saying that the market has spoken.
The market just doesn’t care about small phones
The vast majority of people, at this point, just want bigger screens.
A study conducted by Samsung earlier this year, admittedly a biased source for this information, the company ranked an “expansive display” as the No. 2 priority for its customers. A study by LG in 2018 had similar results. Statistical found that battery life was the most important priority for smartphone buyers in 2019, which, as we mentioned, usually goes hand in hand with a bigger screen.
But the polls don’t tell the whole story. The much more definitive result comes from a concrete example, Apple’s iPhone Mini series.
The iPhone 12 Mini and iPhone 13 Mini met exactly the need that enthusiasts had been clamoring for. A fully spec’d, no-compromise, smaller iPhone with a sub-6-inch screen and a much easier-to-handle chassis.
It didn’t sell well.
A report in early 2021 claimed the iPhone 12 Mini had a sales record that would “likely disappoint Apple”. Apparently, the phone only accounted for 6% of Apple’s sales for a period of two months after launch. Another review from the same company last month reports that the iPhone 13 Mini and iPhone 12 Mini combined represent barely 3% of Apple’s sales.
Many reviewers have praised the iPhone Mini series for its compact size and uncompromising specs, but ultimately, it’s clear that consumers aren’t willing to buy these phones. Why? As these reviews admit, the battery life is abysmal and consumers obviously know it’s not worth the money.
And frankly, if Apple can’t release a “mini” phone to a point where battery life isn’t an issue, I don’t think it will happen on a small Android phone. Take the Pixel 4 as an example. This phone with its 5.5 inch screen was one of the smallest Android phones in recent memory. But he had to have a small battery to achieve this goal. As such, it quickly became infamous for its poor battery life. The Pixel 3 a year before it wasn’t much better off either. And that was before 5G and its power-hungry radios were part of most smartphones.
Pebble founder Eric Migicovsky breathed life into small Android phones this week in a bid to raise the voice of a form factor revival. His “manifesto” basically asking for an iPhone 13 Mini, but running Android. So far, this initiative has collected around 10,000 names. A valiant effort, yes, but frankly not enough to convince any sane smartphone maker to take a risk where even Apple failed.
Foldables are an obvious next step
There is, however, an exception to these rules. Foldable.
As our friend Michael Fisher was quick to report on twitter earlier this week foldables can address many of the challenges that a typical small phone would face. The Galaxy Z Flip 3, for example, is a much smaller phone in the pocket compared to other Samsung flagships, but since it still has a large screen when open, there’s more room for components. required. The Motorola Razr delivers on those ideas even better, with a usable screen outside the foldable.
I would also say that the Galaxy Z Fold 3 form factor has even more potential here. Although it’s a chunky phone, I find the Fold 3’s narrow outer screen size much easier to use than my Pixel 6 Pro, and it has the advantage of having a really massive screen when I want to watch a video or play a game on Stadia. However, the Oppo Find N more closely matches Migicovsky’s wishlist. Its outer screen is only 5.49 inches, making it par far the smallest screen you’ll find on a modern Android flagship. Still, the form factor still has plenty of room for everything it needs, including a reasonable battery size.
But of course, we are not there yet. The Flip form factor still struggles with battery life. The Fold is still super expensive. And both need to improve sustainability before true mass adoption.
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In the meantime, those who want small Android phones just have to settle down. Google isn’t going to make one anytime soon. Samsung surely isn’t willing to take that bullet either.
For now, the Pixel 5 is the best way to fill that gap. The phone’s 6-inch display with slim bezels keeps the form factor compact, and it doesn’t compromise connectivity or battery life. In fact, it has very good battery life, being an exception to the size rule. Additionally, it will retain software support until October 2023. The Pixel 5a is an equally affordable, albeit slightly larger, option that will last a few more months.
Google ditched the Pixel 5 at this point in favor of the Pixel 6 series and the future of Tensor, but you can still get the phone with relative ease. Woot, owned by Amazon, is selling new Pixel 5s for $449, a significant discount from the original cost of $699, at the time of this article’s publication. Amazon itself sells “renewed” Pixel 5s for even less.
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