• Where did all the compact phones go?

    By Josh Bethell , 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 Bethell

    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.


  • Dear All.

    After several years since my original Motorola ‘brick,’ I’ve bought many, many mobile phones, but I have to say that my current Motorola/Lenovo Moto G is the best to date & fulfils all of my needs.

    Its screen is superb, it’s easy to use, has a reasonable battery life, & has never let me down. It was purchased at under £100 & at the time there was nothing else on the market that came even close – and so as such, it’s highly recommended.

    Kind regards,

    Paul Walker 😊

  • I was using an iPhone 6s for a year or so but it was getting unreliable. My girlfriend is still using a 5s and I started looking at it and wondering. So I got myself an SE a couple of months ago and at first I thought I’d never survive the drop in screen size and loss of 3D touch. But I stuck with it and it fits in my pocket much more easily and I’ve got used to the 4″ screen and don’t really miss 3D touch all that much. If only the fingerprint scanner was a little faster like my old 6s, but you know, my SE is perfect really and I enjoy using it. It feels better in my hand and more solid too. I just wish I’d left it a little longer with speculation of a newer edition of the SE but I’m happy.

  • I find myself wanting a small phone much of the time, and a big – indeed tablet sized – device as well. The small one fits in the pocket, makes calls, provides updates on the go; the big one is for browsing the sort of social media that includes video, big pictures and so on; for reading books and blogs, and for a few games (I’m not a great gamer).

    I’ve sometimes wondered whether there is any margin in a small, slim phone which in some way docks into a tablet-sized screen. Someone clever would have to think through whether the tablet ‘dock’ also provided extra memory, battery power, GPU etc, and just how that could all work – but for the consumer it could be great. Your apps in one place on one device, no duplicated notifications on two devices, something really non-bulky to carry around, but something bigger and easier on the eyes to use at home or in the office.

    And for the manufacturer – one thing to manage upgrades on, a higher value for the overall package, and probably a better chance of getting the business again on renewal, compared with separate tablet and phone customers.

    Any thoughts?

  • Yes, more compact phones with high specs would be welcomed. If Blackberry would produce a KeyOne mini, with more or less the same specs I probably would by that phone immediately.

  • I’m one of those small form factor fans. I REALLY like being able to navigate and even write/text with one (relatively small) hand. In the last few years I’ve had an Apple 4S, a Moto X (2013) and then got a Sony Z5 Compact (from Clove UK – I’m in the US) specifically because it is (or was) relatively high end specs in a small form factor. Then, when I needed to send in my Z5 Compact for service (to the UK), I bought a Galaxy S7 in a pinch, as it was the available Samsung flagship at the time. And while I don’t mind the bigger screen when reading a book or a website, I really HATE using that larger form factor as a functional communications device. I’m perfectly happy to pay the going rate of a flagship phone, I just demand the smaller (4.7″ is ideal) screen. And if you want to give me a SLIGHTLY larger screen because you’ve eliminated some bezel, that’s great. But don’t make the phone any bigger to accommodate it. Love my Z5 Compact.

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