Tue. May 21st, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • Small phones don’t sell, so manufacturers prioritize larger models.
  • Our primary phone usage has evolved beyond calls toward tasks demanding larger screens.
  • Larger phones run cooler, have better hardware, and are actually cheaper to manufacture.

You may have seen the stories or even noticed for yourself—small phones are dead. Standard phones are much bigger than they were ten years ago, and you’re more likely to see new larger “pro” variants than tiny ones.

We can be annoyed at smartphone makers, but really, it’s not their fault. It’s ours, and it’s time to look in the mirror and admit what we’ve done to our phones.

​Small Phones Don’t Sell

Whenever a company launches a small version of a phone alongside a larger model, it simply does not move as many units. This is even the case for Apple, a company with all the clout and brand recognition you could want.

The iPhone 13 Mini, despite being loved by the press, sold only a fraction of the regular iPhone 13 and the iPhone 13 Pro. Apple expected the phone not to sell as well as its regular model, yet sales figures still under-performed even those lowered expectations. After giving it a shot for two years in a row, Apple canceled the Mini line.

This phenomenon is true even when you compare across different brands. iPhones used to be smaller than Samsung Galaxy phones and other Android devices. Getting a bigger screen was a reason to prefer an Android phone over an iPhone, and back then, Apple didn’t have as strong a hold on the market as it does now. Apple responded with larger displays on the iPhone 5 and 6, with the trend continuing until you can now get an iPhone screen as big as most of the competition’s—as long as you don’t want one that folds.

​The Way We Use Our Phones Has Changed

A Motorola Edge+ inside a Razer Kishi v2 game controller.
Bertel King / How-To Geek

Why do we want these bigger screens? Let’s face it, our phones aren’t just phones anymore. They aren’t even predominantly phones. Placing calls is one of the rarest things many of us do with our phones.

Smartphones are pocket computers. We browse the web on them, and large screens make it easier to see more text. We use them to watch videos, and as a general rule, we try to watch things on the biggest screen we can set our eyes on. They are our primary photography devices, and large screens are better for viewing photos and making edits. Larger screens are also better for playing games.

For many of us, our smartphone is our only computer. For some, like myself, it’s a conscious choice. My book-style foldable with Samsung Dex does all I need. But for many, this same conclusion is reached out of financial necessity. If you can only afford one device, you make sure that device has as big a screen as you can get.

​Small Phones Have Less Room for Components

The camera on the OnePlus 12R
Sergio Rodriguez / How-To Geek

In order to do all the things we want our smartphones to do, manufacturers have to pack far more electronics inside each one. Technology has gotten much smaller than it used to be, but there are still physical constraints that must be dealt with.

It’s not merely a matter of making processors and memory smaller, while the numbers on the spec sheets get larger. Smartphones now contain more parts. Features like Tap to Pay require an NFC chip. Phones come with GPS and accelerometers. Wireless charging requires magnetic coils. Some phones, such as the Nothing Phone, even include quirky LED lights on the back. There’s also the (more necessary) bulb that serves as your phone’s flashlight.

Smartphone cameras may rely heavily on processing, but a larger lens still allows for more light and a better photo. Size constraints are the reason that the thinner Galaxy Z Fold has less capable cameras compared to the Galaxy S Ultra, which costs several hundred dollars less. Considering how many people weigh their buying decision based on the quality of the camera. That’s reason enough to get a bigger phone.

​Larger Phones Can Run Cooler

Titanium frame and flat display on the Samsung Galaxy S24 Ultra
Justin Duino / How-To Geek

Smartphones rely on passive cooling, and powerful CPUs need space to dissipate heat. They need room for heat sinks and air flow. This is part of the reason that when a small version of a phone does launch, it tends to be less powerful than its larger sibling. If you have to throttle a powerful CPU to make it function at all, you might as well ship a cheaper CPU and save money.

Some gaming phones have even tried to cram in fans, though realistically, there’s a reason smartphones don’t come with fans. Niche choices aside, larger phones do allow companies more space to experiment with ways to make devices more functional and more powerful while still being portable.

Old Nokia phones could be small in part because they didn’t do much of anything. Modern phones are bigger, and they can still get very hot in your hand when performing some of the tasks we expect from them. They don’t have the luxury of lying around all day waiting for the next phone call. They’re trying to stream YouTube in a pop-up window while we play Minecraft, all as Slack pings away in the background.

​The Supply Chain Favors Big Phones

Samsung Galaxy and Google Pixel phones.
Justin Duino / How-To Geek

It doesn’t matter whether your phone’s brand is based in China, Europe, Korea, or the US. Just about all phones are products that consist of parts shipped from all over the world. That device in your hand is an international team effort.

This global supply chain has grown rather accustomed to making larger phones. Wherever you go in the world, phones have gotten bigger. There isn’t a country where everyone is carrying around iPhone 12 Mini’s and Asus Zenfone 9’s (as impressive of a small phone as it was). Companies are accustomed to making components that fit in increasingly larger slabs.

If you want to make a phone substantially smaller than what is mainstream, you need to place custom orders for parts. That means you’re going to have to pay more than you would if you were using readily available components. This is a tough ask when you consider that smaller phones don’t sell as well, and you are less likely to get a return on that investment. Adding insult to injury, if you do decide to make a boutique phone, it will also most likely consist of weaker processors and cameras. It will be much less capable of serving as an all-in-one device as a result.

There’s an upside to this story, and that’s foldables. The outer display on the Moto Razr+ is perhaps the smallest phone you can buy in America. The narrow cover screen on the Galaxy Z Fold is great for people who don’t want to have to stretch their thumbs to reach the other side of the screen.

As foldable displays improve, they offer manufacturers more room to experiment with devices that are smaller when we need them to be while also large enough to do all the tasks we demand. So if you want a small phone, all hope isn’t lost. It just may not take the form you expect.

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By John P.

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