• Where did all the compact phones go?

    By Josh , August 9, 2017 - Leave a comment

    What happened to compact phones?

    Not too long ago, it was common for there to be a ‘Compact’ or ‘Mini’ version of many manufacturer’s flagship phones.

    With the trend to towards ever larger devices, this practise seems to have fallen by the wayside. What’s worse for fans of smaller phones is that even the more budget-friendly handsets now seem to start with a 5-inch panel as the norm. Anything less is becoming increasingly difficult to find.

    Apple iPhone SE
    The iPhone SE has a 4″ screen and has been hugely popular

    Several years ago Steve Jobs famously said “no one’s going to buy that” in reference to large Android phones. He was wrong; large Android phones arguably forced Apple to increase the iPhone’s size over time, albeit still noticeably smaller than each year’s equivalent Android devices.

    Still, the popularity of the 4-inch iPhone SE, released in 2016, shows that there’s definitely a market for a smaller product.

    So where have they gone?

    It’s tough to say but I think a big part of the issue is the slim margins made in the Android OEM world. As the smartphone market matures, the amount of competition is staggering. This forces prices down and even manufacturers with big customer bases are making slim profits. All this results in companies streamlining product ranges and making ‘safe’ bets on their lines.

    If all the competition has a 5-inch screen as a minimum, it’s suicide in the tech world to go smaller. Even if you think potential customers might like it!

    Reviewers and bloggers will cry out: “It’s ONLY 4.5 inches” or “Why would anyone make such a thing in 2017!”. It’s something we see a lot at Clove: a disconnect between industry narrative and what the average consumer actually wants.

    The impetus for this piece was the news that Samsung are going to make a Galaxy S8 Mini. This news has me in two minds.

    A properly miniaturised version of the S8 is, in theory at least, an excellent idea. The S8 is already big and the Plus, whilst a beautiful piece of engineering, is monstrously large. However Samsung have history in the Mini world and it isn’t great.

    “Mini” phones aren’t always just smaller

    Previous Samsung ‘Mini’ versions were misnomers, verging on the edge of misrepresentation. Playing on the brand name of the flagship release, they often had dramatically reduced specifications. In my opinion this lead to customer confusion as your S4 Mini, for example, actually had a lot less features than the S4 proper.

    Sony Xperia Z3 Compact
    The Z3 Compact had a 4.6″ screen and remains one of Clove’s best ever selling smartphones

    The counterpoint to this was, until recently, Sony. The Z3 and Z5 Compact phones were excellent products. They didn’t compromise on internal specifications, yet reduced the overall size. Of course, keeping the spec high did impact the RRP.

    Cost is always the final piece of the puzzle. With cameras and processors being two of the most expensive components, just reducing screen and chassis size doesn’t end up delivering a big saving to the manufacturer. Less so when you consider the phone will have the same development overheads (physical design, circuit/electrical design, prototyping, marketing etc).

    It’s not actually much cheaper to make a compact phone

    As a result, producing a physically smaller version of an established high-spec phone is going to reduce the manufacturer’s profits. Additional development costs + cannibalised sales of the flagship line = reduced profits. It’s no wonder Samsung took the stance of lowering the specifications on their Minis. We’ve also seen Sony step backwards. The recent Xperia X Compact lowered the specifications compared to the larger X.

    So is there place for Mini / Compact phones to make a comeback? Personally I think so, however perhaps we shouldn’t bet on the big boys here.
    Apple’s unique vertical integration and customer base means they can afford to produce the iPhone SE as a separate line. However Samsung, Sony, LG et al. are unlikely to put top specifications in a small phone as they concern themselves with avoiding a loss making product at all costs (even the upcoming S8 Mini is being trimmed).

    Who could take the plunge?

    So where should we look? As with many things today: China. The number of brands that start up in China is incredible, all of them looking to have a slice of the country’s huge economy and customer base. As they rise through the ranks, some of those brands start to spread across the globe. Just look at Oneplus, Honor (albeit part of Huawei), Xiaomi, Meizu and others.

    Established Chinese Phone Brands
    Perhaps one of the more established Chinese brands might risk bucking current trends to approach a different market?

    If anyone is going to make a disruptive phone that merges high specification, low cost and a small body, it could well be one of these brands. Otherwise, I think there’s potential for a newcomer to specifically target this niche.

    For many a 4 to 4.5 inch screen is perfect. The smaller, lighter phone is easier to carry round and hold. For those that don’t require a big screen for modern multimedia consumption, the reduction in overall size and cost is an ideal few manufacturers seem willing to cater for.

    So what do you think? Would you like to see more smaller phones on the market? Would you like these to be high specification models, or stick to a lower specification? Let us know your thoughts!


    Josh joined Clove part time a few years ago whilst studying Computing at Bournemouth University. Since finishing his studies he has remained at Clove in a full time position, involved in sales, returns and social media. Involved with both consumer electronics and software since the mid 2000s, keeping up to date with industry developments is as much a hobby as it is a job. Easy going but never afraid to share an opinion, Josh can often be found in his spare time listening to some heavy rock or at a local gig as well as playing with the latest gadgets and video games.


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