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The big problems with small Android phones
In case you missed it, Eric Migicovsky, the founder of Pebble, wants to bring back the small Android phone. He’s gone so far as to put together a website and begin collecting signatures on a petition. It’s a great goal — as a smaller person, I like smaller phones that even I can use with one hand. However, Migicovsky’s wishlist paints a picture of the small Android phone that never was. It glosses over some pretty big issues that stand in the way of bringing back beloved small phones.
Now, I’m not going to sit here and tear his wishlist apart. I’d love to see the phone come to fruition. That said, it’s important to sit back and think about why small phones went away in the first place. After all, if the market was genuinely clamoring for them, don’t you think we’d still have a few to choose from?
See also: The best small Android phones to buy
Big goals, little footprints
Everything comes at a cost — especially in regards to smartphone design. Each feature you add to a device is bound to come at the expense of another. Samsung decided to go small (at least smaller) with its Galaxy S22 and Galaxy S22 Plus, and the battery suffered. The Galaxy S22’s 3,700mAh cell is the smallest since the Galaxy S10’s 3,400mAh, and Samsung is asking for a lot more out of its new flagship.
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The base Galaxy S10 was content to sit with 4G LTE and sip power from its cell, but the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 is a different type of beast. We’ve repeatedly seen what it does to battery life and device temperature in the name of power. Migicovsky wants to take that same powerful chipset — or some other flagship equivalent — and cram it into a much smaller body. That means an even smaller battery struggling to keep up with the same demands.
A tiny battery with a power-thirsty chipset is the perfect recipe for disappointment, fast charging or not.
Yes, we’ve seen Apple push tiny iPhone batteries pretty far, but even the iPhone SE and iPhone 13 Mini underwhelm in the long run. They’re optimized to near-perfection and push sub-2,500mAh batteries to the lengths of far larger Android cells, but they can’t come anywhere near the longevity of the regular iPhone 13 or 13 Pro Max. Combine a small battery with hefty power demands and I don’t know how this dream Android phone can deliver on Migicovsky’s wishlist.
I had the pleasure — if you could call it that — of putting together our iPhone SE (2022) review. I daily drove Apple’s tiny phone, complete with its powerful chipset for plenty of time. As soon as we hit ‘Publish,’ my SIM was off to something else, anything else, with more substance to it. I liked the Touch ID sensor and the A15 Bionic chipset, but typing felt like a chore on the 4.7-inch display. Streaming video of any kind made me feel like one of the parents from Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.
All that said, I’ve got no argument against the camera choices on the wishlist. Matching the Pixel 5 with a wide and ultrawide camera has already proven to be a great approach, and a punch-hole front camera feels like an obvious choice. (A single rear lens like the iPhone SE’s just doesn’t cut it in 2022.) Of course, the processing will go a long way in determining how effective the cameras are, but the expectations feel reasonable for once.
See also: The best Android camera phones
What does the market really want?
You and I can sit here and ask for an incredible small Android phone, but the market has spoken. People overwhelmingly want larger phones, and the small phone crowd is just a vocal minority. There are dozens of us. Alright, there are more than dozens, but it’s tough to argue with cold, hard data. Samsung put out the results of a study that listed an expansive display among customers’ top priorities. Expansive isn’t exactly a word that gives small phone lovers much hope.
Data doesn’t just paint small Android phones in a difficult light, either. The Consumer Intelligence Research Partners group found that Apple’s iPhone 12 Mini and 13 Mini sales made up just 3% of purchases in the second quarter of 2022. That doesn’t exactly fill you with hope when Migicovsky’s wishlist is basically asking for an Android version of the iPhone 13 Mini. Those dismal sales numbers were enough for Apple to (probably) ax the tiny phone from its upcoming iPhone 14 lineup, so why would an Android manufacturer line up to jump into that segment?
Apple's small phone sales should be enough to shy any manufacturer away from a small phone project.
It’s tough to tell how many units 3% of iPhone sales is, but it’s bound to be more than Migicovsky’s 50,000 signature goal. Apple moved millions of iPhone 13 units during the 2021 holiday season, so it’s tough to see a fraction of that number moving the needle into the production phase. Remember — those 50,000 signatures are just for people interested, there’s no guarantee they’ll buy the phone.
Moving beyond the tough numbers, phone content isn’t optimized for tiny displays anymore. High-quality Netflix content doesn’t have the same impact when streamed to an iPhone SE — trust me, I tried it. Mobile games demand large displays and large batteries if you really want to stay in the action for long. A small phone won’t check either of those boxes.
Migicovsky also calls on his dream small phone to run stock Android out of the box with an unlockable bootloader. There’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting stock Android, but there’s a reason other OEMs don’t use it anymore. Samsung has put plenty of twists on Android in its One UI skin, usually for the better. Google doesn’t even use its stock operating system, instead adding a light layer of Pixel UI on top.
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Settling for not-so-small phones
Let’s all accept that we won’t see a truly small Android phone again — at least not in the 5.4-inch sense. That’s not such a bad thing. Instead, it’s time to accept that small phones aren’t as small anymore. Bezels are shrinking, which means we can fit a bigger display into a smaller body.
Do you want to guess the height difference between the 4.7-inch iPhone SE and the 6.1-inch Samsung Galaxy S22? It’s about 8mm. The difference in width? About 3mm. There’s a bit more of a gap between the Galaxy S22 and Migicovsky’s precious iPhone 13 Mini — about 15mm in height and 6mm in width — but your pocket won’t notice too much of a difference. The results are the same even if you bring the pint-sized Pixel 4a into the picture. Samsung’s small flagship is 2mm taller, 1mm wider, and 0.6mm thinner than Google’s budget offering, yet it packs a display that’s 0.3 inches larger.
Small phones are great, at least as long as we redefine the limits of the word small.
As mentioned above, I used the iPhone SE as my daily driver over a number of weeks. I also spent time with the Galaxy S22 and the Pixel 5, both of which I’d consider to be ‘small’ phones. My pocket couldn’t tell that much of a difference between any of them, but my experience certainly changed. The Pixel 5 was probably the most enjoyable of the bunch, despite its mid-range processor and two cameras instead of the Galaxy S22’s three. It also checks off most of Migicovsky’s boxes while poking holes in some of his other must-haves.
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I won’t sit here and tell anyone to give up on their dreams. Like I said, I want to see this phone come to fruition. I want to see how a small Android phone holds up and where it predictably falters. It’s not impossible to overcome some of the biggest problems with small phones, but this project has an Everest-like mountain to climb. If it turns out to be a smashing success, I’ll shave my head. You heard it here first.
Are you interested in Eric Migicovsky's small Android phone?
If you’re interested, it’s time to put your money where your mouth is. Head over to Eric Migicovsky’s small Android phone site to sign his petition.