iPhone 12 Mini: As smartphones get bigger and bigger, some people resent demanding the return of smaller, pocket-sized phones. These reasons range from the nostalgic to the practical. By releasing the iPhone 12 Mini in 2020, Apple has met that demand. The company released a powerful phone that took everything the iPhone 12 offers and reduced it to the size of the iPhone 5S, which is not much by today’s standards. It performed well in reviews, and our review noted that it was “a quite capable modern iPhone in a size that doesn’t get in the way of the hand.” It was also the cheapest of the iPhone 12 series. Unfortunately, it was also the worst seller.
With the hype for small phones and the criticism that Android phones are getting too big, one would think that Android manufacturers are deliberately missing out on a large potential market. Apple’s iPhone 12 Mini proved that’s not the case. In an experiment that addressed the typical criticisms of small phones (weak, poorly designed, cheap), the iPhone 12 Mini performed so poorly that Apple is rumored to be taking it off the market with no plans to release a sequel. This does not bode well for future small phones. Apple usually has enough market power to pursue what would be considered unthinkable, from non-replaceable batteries to phones with no headphone jacks or chargers. If anyone can resurrect small phones, it will be Apple.
Value over size
The iPhone 12 Mini isn’t Apple’s only small phone. Apple offers a phone with a smaller screen, the iPhone SE. Word is that this phone will get a sequel, so perhaps there is interest in small phones after all? Not really. While the iPhone SE has a smaller screen, it’s also much cheaper. In fact, it’s smaller because Apple is using the chassis of older iPhone models for this line: first the iPhone 5S, then the iPhone 8. In the future, Apple will reportedly increase the size of this phone to a 6.1-inch model based on the iPhone XR or iPhone 11. Obviously, the size of this phone is an accident, not a feature.
That value may be more important than size is not an uncommon idea. “Without numbers from Apple, it’s hard to say whether the iPhone 12 Mini is a ‘failure,’ but it’s clearly not selling as well as other models in the lineup. The main reason is simple: The regular iPhone 12 is perceived as a better value model — $100 more for a bigger display and better battery life. It’s this latter attribute that has convinced people who might have preferred a smaller device to buy the iPhone 12,” Techsponential analyst Avi Greengart told me in an e-mail exchange.
If Apple, with all its scale and expertise, can’t sell small phones what company can?
Limitations on size
Many of the limitations of a small phone are insurmountable. You need the physical space to store the camera hardware, and you need a big enough battery. Apple may also work to fit as much screen as possible into as small a case as possible, but it will still be too physically small to really work. That’s why many expensive smartphones position large screens as a feature.
“Generally speaking, smartphones are so important and useful that consumers gravitate toward the largest screen that will even fit somewhat awkwardly in their hands. However, when considering the smaller iPhone 12 Mini and iPhone SE, it’s worth remembering that the iPhone is so popular that a niche for Apple would be a hit with most other manufacturers,” Greengart added.
There have also been small Android phones in the past. Sony offered a compact line of phones that kept growing in size. Google‘s Pixel 3a and Pixel 4a were delightfully small. Now the pixel size starts at 5.8 inches for the cheapest models. Rumors about Google’s next Pixel lineup indicate that the size will only increase, and the “small” Pixel will match the Pixel 4 XL in size. Since Apple, the company best known for changing consumer behavior, has failed to make small phones relevant, it is unlikely that Android phone makers will make a serious attempt.
To be clear, the iPhone 12 Mini’s struggles may not only prove that small phones are dead. Perhaps the phone was too expensive. Maybe the battery life was too weak. Or maybe people really needed the extra camera. Or, most likely, Apple set up a failure by making the basic iPhone 12 so damn good. One thing is for sure: None of these factors have affected iPhone sales in the past. Many people probably wish they had a powerful, small, compact smartphone. But when it comes time to put money on the table, not many are as willing to go after it.