If popular phablets feel too big, take a look at our top-rated phones that fit comfortably in your hand and your jeans pocket.
For years, smartphones have been slowly expanding in size, to the point where it’s hard to use them with just one hand. Flagships are inevitably huge: Apple and Samsung have saved their best cameras, biggest batteries, and most capacious storage for the 3-inch-wide hand-buster phones in Apple’s Max series and Samsung’s Note or Ultra models. But it’s still possible to find small, good phones that will fit in your hand, give you all the features you want, and generally not break the bank.
Smartphones have grown, but our hands haven’t. Back when LG launched its G2 smartphone, the company said that most people can comfortably hold a phone as wide as 2.8 inches. That might be why the base size for Samsung’s flagship S phone models 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 breadth tells you how wide a phone can be before it falls out of your hand; thumb length tells you how wide a screen can be to be usable in one hand. According to an old NASA study cited by HealthLine, the average hand breadth for women is 3.1 inches, while for men it’s 3.5 inches. The Center for Construction Research and Training estimates a bit lower, at 2.91 inches for women and 3.3 inches for men. A 2012 New York Magazine story cites a US Army study that claims the average thumb length is 2.74 inches for men and 2.49 inches for women. So that 2.8-inch phone width cited by LG is just a hair wider than the full reach of the average male thumb.
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I’ve used the 2.8-inch-wide measure as the maximum width for phones to be eligible for this roundup. Many people may even find those phones to be a bit wide for one-hand use, but small phone beggars can’t currently be choosers.
The push toward mobile internet and video consumption originally drove the growth of phone screens. With phones becoming people’s primary windows to the internet, and video apps becoming hugely popular, bigger screens became more compelling than smaller ones.
When the physical size of hands stopped manufacturers from making phones wider, they still went taller, pushing the screen height-to-width ratio from the common 16:9 to 18:9 or 18.5:9. Sony has gone as far as 21:9, making very tall, narrow phones that beautifully display 21:9 video originally intended for wide-screen TVs. If you care about “small” only in the sense of being able to reach across your phone, one of those phones might be a good option.
People like 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 improvement—try to get too smart at squeezing more battery into a smaller space, and you end up with an exploding Samsung Galaxy Note 7.
Finally, phone makers want to charge more. Former TCL (now Coolpad) exec Steve Cistulli once told me, “Americans buy by the square inch.” There’s a deep theme in American consumer culture that bigger is better, and is worth more: bigger cars, bigger houses, bigger TVs, and bigger phones. It’s been difficult for phone makers to convince consumers that something small is still valuable.
In 2020 there was a little bit of a reversal. Apple, Google, and Samsung all came out with smaller and less expensive (and slightly de-featured) versions of their flagship phones. In pandemic times when we’re all pinching pennies, those trade-offs are more appealing than they might have been a couple of years ago. Some smaller, older iPhones are also still worth considering; here’s more on which iPhone to buy.
There are a few companies that specialize in smaller devices. Unihertz is the best of them, churning out a string of affordable, decently performing, and absolutely tiny phones that push the limits of how small a phone can get and still have a usable touch keyboard. The Palm Phone aims to do the same, but I wasn’t impressed by its performance and battery life; the Unihertz Jelly 2 is far superior.
If you’re looking for a small phone because you find big screens distracting or exhausting, small voice phones are worth considering. Nokia has two intriguing models. The Nokia 6300 4G is a dual-SIM quasi-smartphone running an OS called KaiOS that has some useful apps (though not as many as Android or iOS). The Nokia 225 4G is the absolute smallest, least expensive basic phone that’s functional enough to be worth getting. These little bar phones fit just as well in your hand now as their ancestors did in 2006.
Alas, it looks like small smartphones will remain a niche market. The iPhone 12 mini was the worst-selling device in Apple’s iPhone 12 lineup. Apple is keeping the faith with the iPhone 13 mini, but the 12 mini’s lackluster sales are unlikely to ignite a turn among other manufacturers toward making other small, premium devices. Already, Google appears to be moving away from the smaller form factor of the Pixel 5 to a somewhat larger Pixel 6.
That’s going to leave fans of small smartphones with relatively few choices through 2022, with Apple’s models leading the pack on size and quality by far.
Still thinking big? Check out our roundups of the best phones and best 5G smartphones.
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PCMag’s lead mobile analyst, Sascha Segan, has reviewed more than 1,100 smartphones and other gadgets since 2004. He’s tested every generation of the iPhone and covered Android phones since the very first one. His reviews also include ebook readers, hotspots, mobile networks, and tablets.
Sascha runs PCMag’s Fastest Mobile Networks drive-test projects throughout the US and Canada and writes a weekly Race to 5G newsletter, focusing on developments in the mobile and 5G worlds.
He is also a multiple-award-winning travel writer. Sascha’s first computer was an Atari 800, and his first cell phone was a Qualcomm Thin Phone. He lives in Queens, NY.
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