Over the years, smartphones have been slowly expanding in size, to such an extent that they are difficult to use with just one hand. Flagships are essentially giant: Apple and Samsung have saved their best cameras, biggest batteries, and most-capacity storage for 3-inch-wide hand-buster phones in their Max and Ultra models, respectively. But it’s still possible to find smaller, nicer phones that fit in your hand, give you all the features you want, and generally don’t break the bank.
How big is too big?
Smartphones have grown in size, but not our hands. When LG launched its G2 smartphone, the company said that most people can comfortably hold a phone up to 2.8 inches. That’s probably why the base size for Samsung’s flagship S phone model has hovered between 2.7 and 2.8 inches since the Galaxy S3. Apple has had a 2.65-inch-wide option since the iPhone 6 (For a while, Samsung also had a “mini” phone line, but it was rarely for sale in the US.)
Palm width tells you how wide the phone can be before it falls out of your hand; Thumb length tells you how wide the screen can be held in one hand. According to an older NASA study cited by Healthline, the average arm width is 3.1 inches for women and 3.5 inches for men. The Center for Construction Research and Training estimates slightly lower: 2.91 inches for women and 3.3 inches for men. A 2012 New York Magazine The story cites a US military study that claims the average thumb length is 2.74 inches for men and 2.49 inches for women. So, the phone width of 2.8-inches quoted by LG is only a hair beyond the full reach of the average male thumb.
I’ve used the 2.8-inch-wide measurement as the maximum width for the phone to be eligible for this roundup. Many may also find that those phones are a bit wide to be used with one hand, but smaller phone beggars may not be a picker at present.
Why are phones getting bigger?
The move towards mobile Internet and video consumption originally led to the development of phone screens. Phones have become people’s primary window to the Internet, and video streaming apps have become extremely popular, with larger screens becoming more appealing than smaller screens.
While the physical size of the hands prevented manufacturers from making the phones wider, they still got taller, pushing the screen’s height-to-width ratio from the usual 16:9 to 18:9 or 18.5:9. Sony has gone up to 21:9, making a very long, narrow phone that beautifully displays 21:9 video for what is basically a wide-screen TV. If you look at “small” in the sense of only being able to access your phone, then one of those phones might be a good choice.
People love bigger batteries too, and the easiest way to pack in a bigger battery is to make the phone bigger. Unlike other technologies, battery capacity has been extremely resistant to technological improvements – try to be too smart to squeeze more battery into a smaller space, and you end up with an exploding Samsung Galaxy Note 7.
Lastly, phone makers want to charge more. Former TCL (now Coolpad) executive Steve Sistuli once told me, “Americans buy by the square inch.” There is a deep theme in American consumer culture that bigger is better, and is worth more: bigger cars, bigger homes, bigger TVs and bigger phones. It has been difficult for phone makers to convince consumers that something small is still valuable.
There was a slight turnaround in 2020. Apple, Google, and Samsung all offered smaller and less expensive (and slightly de-featured) versions of their flagship phones. In times of pandemic when we all have quips, those trade-offs are more appealing than they were a few years ago. Some smaller, older iPhones are still worth considering; Here’s more on which iPhone to buy.
Some companies specialize in small appliances. Unihertz is the best of them all, churning out a string of affordable, decently performing, and downright small phones that push the limits of how small a phone can be and still be a great use. Qualified touch keyboard. The Palm Phone aims to do just that, but I wasn’t impressed with its performance and battery life; Unihertz Jelly 2 is far better.
If you’re looking for a smaller phone because you find the big screen distracting or tiring, smaller voice phones are worth considering. Nokia has two interesting models. The Nokia 6300 4G is a dual-SIM semi-smartphone running an OS called KaiOS which has some useful apps (though not as many as Android or iOS). The Nokia 225 4G is the smallest, least expensive basic phone that’s good enough to get the job done. These little bar phones now fit in your hand just like their ancestors did in 2006.
the future of small smartphones
Alas, it looks like smaller smartphones will continue to be a niche market. The iPhone 12 Mini was the best-selling device in Apple’s iPhone 12 lineup. Apple is keeping confidence with the iPhone 13 mini and the new iPhone SE, but rumors say there won’t be an iPhone 14 mini. Both Samsung and Sony have smaller premium devices in their lineups.
Still thinking big? Check out our roundup of the best phones and the best 5G smartphones.