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Why is bigger always better? Most Android OEMs still don't get it

Why can’t you have cutting edge specs in a smaller Android smartphone? Size isn’t everything and not everyone wants the biggest screen possible. It’s time more OEMs took a leaf out of Sony’s book and did mini versions right.
July 2, 2014
Sony Xperia Z Ultra vs Sony Xperia Z1 vs Sony Xperia Z1 compact z1 mini AA -3

The race to deliver new innovations and push specs to the cutting edge of what’s available is a big part of what’s so exciting about the Android smartphone market, but a nasty prejudice keeps raising its ugly head. OEMs are discriminating based on size.

With precious few exceptions, small phones don’t get the latest processors, they don’t get the best cameras, and they often lack headline features. And that’s a problem.

The problem

We all know that smartphone are getting bigger and bigger on average. Check out Alex Barredo’s analysis for a good in-depth look at the changing size of smartphones from 2007 to the present. The average screen size has gone from 3 inches to 5 inches. The goalposts have definitely moved. The original Galaxy Note only had a 5.3 inch screen and it was considered huge at the time. Manufacturers are working hard at shrinking bezels to accommodate bigger screens, but the overall size of devices has still gone up a lot.

Big smartphones are definitely popular, but not everyone wants a device that they need two hands to operate. What if you have small hands? What if you want to be able to slip your phone comfortably into skinny jeans? What if you want to be able to text one-handed? Just because you want a smaller phone doesn’t mean you should have to put up with mid-range specs or yesterday’s innovations.

Nerfing the specs

As the average size has climbed, OEMs have obviously realized that there is a market for a scaled down version of each flagship. They’re right to offer smaller versions, but why do they have to hobble the specs?

htc one mini 2 press gunmetal gray (10)

The HTC One Mini 2 is actually quite big, with a 4.5-inch, 720p display, but it loses the Duo Camera and it has to make do with a 1.2 GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 processor, backed by the Adreno 305 GPU, and just 1 GB of RAM.

Samsung has also gone for a 4.5-inch, 720p display in its shrunken Galaxy S5 Mini, but inside we find a 1.4GHz quad-core processor and 1.5GB of RAM. The camera is rated at 8MP, but at least it retains the fingerprint and heart rate sensors.

The closest thing we’ve seen to an LG G3 mini is the G3 Beat variant which has a 5-inch, 720p display, a 1.2GHz Snapdragon 400, 2GB of RAM, and an 8MP camera.

If dropping in size means dropping down to mid-range performance then count me out. Why shouldn’t you be able to buy a flagship mini that offers the same level of performance as its bigger sibling? Do people who want a smaller phone play fewer games or take fewer photos? Of course they don’t, so it makes no sense to downgrade like this.

Sony gets it right

sony xperia z1 compact-15

Sony is one of the few manufacturers to push really good specs into its diminutive device. The Xperia Z1 Compact drops down to a 4.3-inch, 720p display, but otherwise the specs are virtually indistinguishable from the Xperia Z1. It has the same Snapdragon 800, a quad-core GPU clocked at 2.2GHz, the Adreno 330 GPU, and 2GB of RAM. It also has the same 20.7MP main camera. In fact it stands up beautifully against the finest smartphones on the market. It even beats the Z2, Nexus 5, LG G2, and many others when it comes to the benchmarks.

It’s not a case of limited space or technological barriers. Every OEM could do the same. The smaller screen and battery should make it slightly cheaper than the big flagship version, but it doesn’t have to be wildly different.

Sort out your pricing

samsung galaxy s5 mini press 2

Another problem is the pricing. You can generally pick up last year’s flagship for less than this year’s mini and it will very probably outperform it in every category. If you check out mid-rangers on the market with similar performance levels they have bigger screens and yet the price is about the same.

We’re not sure about the price on the Galaxy S5 Mini yet, but it’s looking likely to be around $650 off-contract. The HTCOne Mini 2 is around the same price. You can pick up the Z1 Compact for closer to $500 now and it offers vastly superior performance and a better camera. If you don’t mind going a little larger, then the HTCOne M7, LG G2, and the Galaxy S4 are all cheaper than the new minis.

The OEMs are effectively punishing people who want a smaller smartphone. They’re asking them to pay a premium for lesser hardware.

Let’s throw another smartphone into the mix. The Moto G is under $200 and it has a 4.5-inch, 720p display with a 1.2 GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 processor, backed by the Adreno 305 GPU, and 1 GB of RAM. If that sounds familiar it’s because that’s exactly the same setup as the HTCOne Mini 2. The Moto G’s 5MP camera can’t compete with the 13MP effort in the One Mini 2, and it damn sure doesn’t have Boomsound speakers or a premium body, but look at the price difference.

Motorola Moto G aa 8

Get it together

Could it be that Samsung, HTC, and a few others are ripping off small phone buyers? Are they releasing nerfed shells that bear little relation to the big flagships, beyond the shared name, and then using the tepid reaction to justify the fact they don’t put much effort into the minis? This creates a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom for small Android smartphones. Is there no demand for smaller smartphones or do people just not want to accept comparably poor specs?

If you’re in the market for a smaller Android smartphone then you can save yourself a fortune with the Moto G, or you can enjoy life in the fast lane with the Xperia Z1 Compact. It’s impossible to recommend any of the other minis.