As smartphones have grown larger and larger, there has been an outcry from a section of people who have demanded a return of smaller, more pocketable handsets. These reasons range from the nostalgic to the practical. With the iPhone 12 Mini in 2020, Apple complied. The company released a powerful phone that takes everything the iPhone 12 offers and shrinks it down to the size of the iPhone 5S, which is positively tiny by today’s standards. It performed well in reviews, with our review noting that this was “a fully capable modern iPhone in a size that doesn’t challenge your hand.” It was also the cheapest of the iPhone 12-series. It was, sadly, the worst-performing seller, too.
With the clamor for small phones and the critique that Android phones were getting to0 big, one might be forgiven for thinking that Android makers were deliberately overlooking a large potential market. Apple’s iPhone 12 Mini proved this wrong. In an experiment that took to heart the typical critiques aimed at smaller phones (weaker, poorly designed, cheap), the iPhone 12 Mini underperformed so badly that Apple is said to be discontinuing it, with no plans for a sequel. This doesn’t bode well for future small phones. Apple typically has the market power to push for things that would be thought of as unthinkable, from unreplaceable batteries to phones with no headphone jacks or chargers. If anyone could resurrect small phones, it would be Apple.
The iPhone 12 Mini isn’t Apple’s only small phone. Apple does offer a phone with a smaller screen in the iPhone SE. That phone is said to be getting a sequel, so perhaps there’s interest in small phones after all? Not quite. While the iPhone SE has a smaller screen, it’s also a much cheaper phone. In essence, it’s smaller because Apple is reusing the chassis of older iPhones for this line, first the iPhone 5S, then the iPhone 8. Reports indicate that Apple is growing this phone in the future to a 6.1-inch model, one built off the iPhone XR or iPhone 11. Clearly, the size of this phone is a coincidence, not a feature.
That value may be more important than size is not an uncommon idea. “Without numbers from Apple, it’s hard to know if the iPhone 12 Mini is a ‘failure,’ but it clearly isn’t selling as well as other models in the line. The main reason is simple: The regular iPhone 12 is seen as a better value — $100 more for a bigger display and better battery life. It’s that latter attribute that has convinced people who might have preferred a smaller device to buy the iPhone 12 instead,” Techsponential analyst Avi Greengart told me in an email exchange.
If Apple, with all its scale and expertise, can’t sell small phones … what company can?
Many constraints of a small phone are insurmountable. You need physical space to store the camera hardware, as well as a big enough battery. Apple could also work to get as much screen in as small a chassis as possible, but it’ll still be too physically small to do real work. This is also why in many value smartphones, big screens are positioned as a feature.
“Generally speaking, smartphones are so important and useful that consumers gravitate towards the largest screen that will fit even somewhat uncomfortably in their hands. However, when considering the smaller iPhone 12 Mini and iPhone SE, it is worth remembering that the iPhone is so popular that a niche for Apple would be a smash-hit for most other vendors,” Greengart added.
There have been small Android phones in the past as well. Sony offered a compact line of phones, which has steadily grown in size. Google’s Pixel 3a and Pixel 4a were delightfully small. Pixels now start at 5.8-inches for the cheapest models. Rumors around the next line of Google Pixels indicate that the size will only go upward, with the “small” Pixel matching the Pixel 4 XL in terms of size. With Apple, the company most known for changing consumer behavior, failing at making small phones relevant, it’s unlikely that Android phone makers will give it a serious attempt.
To be clear, the iPhone 12 Mini’s struggles may not alone prove that small phones are dead. Perhaps the phone was too expensive. Perhaps the battery life was too weak. And maybe people did want that extra camera. Or, most likely, Apple set it up to fail by making the mainline iPhone 12 so darn good. One thing is for sure: None of those factors did much to dent the sales of iPhones in the past. Many people might wish for a powerful, small, compact smartphone. But when it comes time to put their cash on the table, not many are as keen to follow up.