In Defense Of The Small Cell Phone

July 18, 2022
Rachel Jordan

Editor's Note: This is part of a series exploring the trade-offs to consider when deciding which cell phone to buy. Additional posts in this series will include: in defense of the big phone; how to think about cell phone costs; and how phone size impacts battery life. Visit PerfectRec to find the best cell phone for you.

What size cell phone should I buy? Here's the case for thinking small

Many people claim to like big phones. Apple certainly seems to think people like them, because they keep making them — the current iPhone 13 Pro screen is 6.1 inches, while the Pro Max is a truly staggering 6.7 — despite the fact that in the years since the iPhone launched, people have remained roughly the same size.

Small phones are what phones were always meant to be. Apple even used to run ads specifically bragging about how you could access anything on the screen with your thumb. And while at 3.5 inches, the first screens were perhaps a little too small, the philosophy stands: phones are meant to be personal. They are fundamentally intimate devices, a personal portal to the world in the palm of your hand. Phones, iOS or Android, should be human scale. They should fit in your pocket. You should not have to be wearing cargo shorts.

It’s possible, after years of smartphone size creep, that you have forgotten the singular pleasure of holding a small phone. Holding the iPhone 13 mini is a delight. It fits in tight jeans pockets and is so light you barely know it’s there. A big phone is a miniature tablet; a small phone is an extension of your hand. You can tap out text messages with one hand while holding a cup of coffee with the other! You can scroll through Twitter and walk the dog at the same time! It is built for comfort and maximally portable. It is a device that knows exactly what it is.

A small phone is not meant to be a substitute for your primary computer, but rather a complement to that machine. If I want to type at length, or curl up on the sofa with a movie, or have hours-long Zoom meetings, I will use my laptop. But if I had a giant phone — a phone theoretically better equipped for exactly those tasks — I would still use my laptop, because my laptop will still be better for those things. I am not looking for a slightly less-worse laptop. I want the best-possible handheld technology, which, by definition, is technology that fits in my hand.

The downsides of a small phone

There are tradeoffs. The major one used to be the battery life, which was an issue with earlier small phones, but by all accounts, the 13 mini has mostly fixed that. It’s true, though: you can’t have everything. The screen is smaller, which is worse for streaming; if your top priority is maximizing your mobile cinematic experience, it’s probably not the device for you. You’ll make more typos on the smaller keyboard. Most agonizingly, it doesn’t have a telephoto lens. The telephoto lens is the best case for the 13 Pro, and it is almost enough: whether taking covert pictures of your dog sleeping in a cute position, or taking covert pictures of a dog in a bag riding public transit, or taking covert pictures of a dog in a sweater watching a marathon, a telephoto lens can mean the difference between a low-res blur and many likes on Instagram.

But even 3x optical zoom cannot outweigh the sensual, practical pleasure of a little phone. The small phone requires no adaptation; it is built to fit a human and not the other way around.

This is apparently an “unpopular” opinion. When, in 2016, Apple released the first iPhone SE — a renewed version of the nearly perfect iPhone 5S, but with the modern guts of the 6S — it was a watershed small-phone moment. Finally, a small phone with the same CPU and camera as the flagship model! And for way less money! It sold like gangbusters, which seemed to many small-phone acolytes like long-awaited evidence that everyone loves small phones. Unfortunately, Apple’s internal sales data apparently suggests that what people actually love is cheap phones, and thus, according to all rumors, the iPhone 13 mini will be the last correctly sized phone for the foreseeable future. We, the small-phone evangelists, can only clutch our tiny phones to our chests and do our best to make our voices heard: bigger is not always better.

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