Latest!

Someone bring back small phones… please!

Xiaomi has just launched a smartphone called the Redmi 7A (first impressions) in the market. This is not about that particular phone, it is about what it made me realise.  When I started using smartphones (quite a whole ago), a big display phone (5-inches, well, even 4-inches and above) was considered to be an exception, an anomaly. But holding the Redmi 7A, here in 2019, I realise how that has changed.

Sadly, completely.

The Redmi 7A comes with a compact 5.45-inch display

When I first held the 5.4-inch Redmi 7A in hand, the first thought that struck me was just how comfortable the phone was to hold. Even taking in consideration how the phone is not REALLY small, not by phone size standard of about half a decade ago.

Today, the smartphone market is full of devices with tall, edge-to-edge, bezel-less displays. Brands have been adding inches on inches, making our smartphones bigger and bigger. But contrary to popular belief —  bigger is not always better. Note that I stay “not always” – a lot of us love large display devices, but then a number of us may not.

When we all initially switched from wired phones to cellphones, the idea was to have a device that was pocketable and easy to carry around (hey it was named “cell” phone for a reason).  And ironically, the first cellphones were not used as much because they were crazy expensive. And crazy big as well! In fact, in the early days of cellphone design, making the phone smaller was considered to be a key achievement – there were ad campaigns that revolved around how small a particular brand’s phone was. Ericsson had a memorable ad in which an elderly gentlemen thinks a beautiful young lady is talking to him, only to discover that she was on her phone, which was so small that it was totally hidden in her palm, which she was holding near her ear! 

iPhone 3GS with a 3.5-inch display

And then somewhere around the time of the “smartphone revolution,” it all changed. The logic initially was simple – you got a lot more space for viewing videos, playing games and apps, all of which suddenly became the rage on phones which had large touchscreen displays. Mind you, for quite a while, the 3.5 inch display of the iPhone was considered large.  But as years passed, it seems as if manufacturers have been ignoring the very reason behind the invention of the cellphone and creating devices that are basically difficult to handle and are very much…unpocketable, unless you are wearing a massive overcoat.  With phones with 5.8 inch displays considered “normal” now (hey, go back to the beginning to see how a phone with a 5.4 inch display suddenly appeared compact),  you either have to have really deep pockets (literally) or have a bag to carry them.

Do not get me wrong, I love a good display – watching videos, playing games or heck, even browsing the web is an absolute joy on them. But whoever said that a good display HAD to be massive? Well, whoever did, the smartphone companies sure heard them. It is very clear that the smartphone business is becoming more and more about the display with each passing day. The no-bezel policy, the notches (from basic, to small ones, then to drop notches and punch holes), the pop-up camera arrangement; all favour the display. But why are they all being applied to increasingly larger displays, which result in unwieldy devices. Why could not a 4.7-inch display have been made bezel less with a pop-up camera? What I cannot fathom is why can’t my phone have all these display design features and still remain usable by a single hand? I should be able to use and enjoy the phone without having to think about dropping it or where am I going to house it when I go out.

The problem today is that most smartphone manufacturers have assumed that the consumer wants a phone with a large display. Some will say that because these large display devices are selling, this must be true. But wait a minute – just how many “small” smartphones are actually out there? The truth is: hardly any. And because there are hardly any small smartphones in the race to participate, even those consumers who want a  (comparatively) small sized smartphone, have to settle for a bigger one, hence adding to the numbers of the big phones. The consumers’ options out there right now are between big and bigger smartphones, not big and small ones.

The iPhone SE sold out in a matter of days after Apple announced a discounted price

And it is not as if relatively smaller smartphones did not sell. For example, when Apple offered to sell iPhone SE for a discounted price in the US in January this year, the phone sold out in a matter of days. All of it. Unlocked, unboxed and boxed variants. People picked them up. A three year old device, in 2019, had takers.  Some might say that’s happened because of the price it was being offered at but we think it was also about having an option in that size category. That was also the reason why the smaller iPhone always ended up selling very high numbers – people did not seem to mind a smaller sized device. Devices like the iPhone 7 and iPhone 8 with relatively smaller displays did good business for the company, even though their Plus avatars came with more cameras and better batteries.

However, they do not seem to have inspired too many imitators. Right now, if you look at it, there are only a handful of small sized smartphones available in the market and most of them are at the budget level. There are hardly any high-end phones that can be called compact –  one of the few phones that is relatively small and still high-end is the Samsung Galaxy S10e, which 14.2 x 69.9 x 7.9 mm and weighs about 150 grams (although even that is not really being pushed by the brand, which is focusing on the main S10 and S10+, which are both larger). In fact, many brands even seem to tend to under-spec their smaller devices, giving the larger ones a “plus,” “XL” or “Pro” moniker, making them appear superior.

Samsung’s flagship Galaxy S10 lineup

Apple recently released the iPod Touch and it is everything that a small phone owners dreams are made of. Imagine having that size, and perhaps an edge-to-edge, bezel-less display on that frame, with perhaps a pop-up camera? It hardly weighs anything, can slip into any pocket easily and yet its four inch display is large enough for most messaging, browsing and even gaming needs, all of them using just one hand. Even videos look good on it. And take it from me, while a larger display does make editing images and videos more convenient, a smaller phone is so much easier to use in camera mode!

Photo by Oleg Magni from Pexels

So, after all the bezel cutting, pop up cameras and in display fingerprint scanners, why do we still have phones that seem designed to stretch pockets and hands in equal measure? Why are there no phones that are actually small in size but have 90 per cent screen to body ratio? Why can’t we have phones that more pocketable, more single-hand use friendly that come with a great (perhaps) 5 inch display? There is certainly an audience for them, judging by the sales of many “smaller” phones, so why are there so few of them? Are they that difficult or unviable to make?  

Only the companies know the answer to that one.

I am not saying cut down display size and start creating small, 4-inch display smartphones. I am not even saying that the majority of the consumers want small display phones or that big phones should be put to rest for good. I am just asking for the option of having a smaller phone, because hey, I find them a whole lot easier to use and carry around.

And I do not think I am the only one with them feels.

Comments
Tags:
Nimish Dubey

Nimish Dubey has been writing on technology since 1999. He has contributed to a number of publications and websites including The Times of India, Hindustan Times, Mint, Economic Times, Outlook, and India Today. He is currently the Editorial Mentor at TechPP.com and a regular contributor to Indian Express. When not writing, he loves to read and listen to classic rock.