When Samsung unveiled the very first Galaxy Note in 2011, it was met with considerable skepticism.
The Note pioneered the category of devices that came to be known as “phablets,” an apt descriptor for an in-between handset seemingly too large to be considered a smartphone but too small to be a tablet. Funny how the perception of “big” has changed.
The original Note had a then-mammoth 5.3-inch screen, a size almost puny by today’s standards when even smartphones with sub-6-inch displays are relatively few and far between. Phone screens, like TV screens, are measured on the diagonal.
Many phones' overall dimensions grew as screen sizes increased through the years, but perhaps not as much as you might have thought. Designers shrank the borders, called bezels, around phone displays and sometimes removed physical buttons or embedded them underneath the screen.
For older adults whose eyesight isn’t what it used to be, the appeal of bigger displays is easy to understand.
Smaller phone, smaller price
But in an era dominated by ginormous smartphones, going small affords several potential benefits. You generally pay less for a pint-sized phone, plus you free up space in your pocket or handbag. And folks with smaller hands or who like to use phones with one hand can more easily manipulate smaller devices.
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“Bigger phones sell, and manufacturers have gotten the message. However, human hand size has not increased, so there are still people out there who want hand-sized devices,” says Avi Greengart, president of New Jersey-based technology research firm Techsponential. “One more measurement to consider: the size of the phone in your hand versus the size in your pocket.”
But the market for smaller phones is getting smaller.
Samsung’s latest flagships have big screens and big prices: the Galaxy S22, and S22+ and the S22 Ultra smartphone come with 6.1-, 6.6-and 6.8-inch displays, respectively, and cost $799.99, $999.99 and $1,199.99 to start, though as with other phones in this article, prices can be drastically reduced with trade-ins.
These days, Google is pushing Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro handsets with 6.4- and 6.7-inch displays and prices that start at $599 and $899, rather than its smaller 5.8-inch and now discontinued Pixel 4a. Its less expensive $449 Pixel 5a with 5G ups the screen size to 6.3 inches. Several other companies, including Motorola and OnePlus, manufacture Android smartphones.
Apple a 'small' player
That leaves Apple as the only major manufacturer willing to play a smaller lineup. The iPhone maker has just released a new SE model that not only has a 4.7-inch display like its 2-year-old predecessor, but a classic home button that is yet another throwback. Indeed, this latest SE employs Apple’s Touch ID fingerprint system instead of Face ID facial recognition to authenticate the user and unlock the iPhone — a system some people might prefer.
The SE, now in its third incarnation, fetches $429 to start, which for Apple is a budget buy. It modernizes the prior SE model by adding 5G connectivity, a longer-lasting battery and more computing power through Apple’s muscular A15 Bionic chip, the same processor found on the priciest iPhones. And as with other iPhones, it runs iOS 15 software.
Apple hasn’t abandoned larger phones. Far from it. Its roster includes top-of-the-line iPhone 13 Pro and 13 Pro Max handsets, which boast 6.1-inch and 6.7-inch displays. But at $799 and $1,099 to start, they cost well more than a starter SE.
Apple also sells a $699 iPhone 13 mini with a 5.4-inch screen that also exceeds the display size of that ancient Note. It has Face ID, and the higher price in comparison with the SE is largely because of that larger, higher quality display and superior camera.
The latest SE is a tad taller than the 13 mini, but it has wider borders around the screen, which makes the design feel a bit dated and the display even more cramped, especially if you’ve spent any meaningful time using a larger smartphone.
Other compromises: At $429 you only get 64 gigabytes (GB) of internal storage. You can spend more for more storage — $479 for 128GB and $529 for 256GB.
It has a very good camera, but the SE lacks the fancy night mode feature found on more expensive models that let you capture decent pictures even in near darkness. It also has a single rear camera lens, not the multiple lenses found on costlier devices. While the SE adds 5G, it doesn’t support the fast but short-range variety techies refer to as millimeter wave, though that’s not likely to be much of an issue for people shopping in this price range.
Android small-screen choices limited
Your choices tend to be limited if you’re an Android user seeking a more compact device. Samsung’s folding Galaxy Z Flip3 actually has a 6.7-inch display. When you flip it closed, it fits neatly in a back pocket. But at $999.99 before trade-ins, this isn’t exactly the choice for someone on a fixed income or limited budget.
Another option is the Asus Zenfone 8, which has generated favorable reviews on tech websites. The folks at Tom’s Guide recently rated it as “the best small Android phone, hands down.” The Verge called it “fantastic” and likened it to an Android version of the iPhone mini. It has a 5.9-inch display and lists for $699.99, but like other handsets in this class you'll have to compromise. It lacks wireless charging, for example, and while it works on AT&T and T-Mobile, it is not compatible with Verizon’s network.
You may want to hunt down an older Android model that is still operational, such as the aforementioned Pixel 4a from Google. Though no longer available in the Google Play Store, you can find it elsewhere online, typically for less than the $350 or so it used to cost, though some units are used or refurbished. It has a 5.8-inch screen and has generally garnered strong reviews. You can also find a Pixel 4a that taps into 5G, but it costs a bit more and has a 6.2-inch screen, which by our measure is no longer considered small.
How about a flip phone?
Of course, you might want to eschew smartphones altogether if for the most part all you want to do is make and receive calls and not spend a lot of money. For example, the TCL Flip Pro, around $80 at Verizon, and the TCL Flip, which is selling for as little $30 or so on Boost Mobile and is also available at US Cellular, both have 1.44-inch preview screens on the outside and 2.8-inch internal screens when you flip them open, along with an old-fashioned telephone keypad.
For some, thinking big means going really small.
Edward C. Baig is a contributing writer who covers technology and other consumer topics. He previously worked for USA Today, BusinessWeek, U.S. News & World Report and Fortune and is the author of Macs for Dummies and the coauthor of iPhone for Dummies and iPad for Dummies.