What's so hard about making smaller high-end phones, OEMs?

Taylor Martin
 from  Concord, NC
| October 11, 2012

Back in July, I asked readers what their idea of the perfect smartphone size is. With just shy of 250 responses, the answers varied from 3.5-inches to phablet extremes beyond 5-inches. Just skimming through the horde of comments, it's not hard to tell that the majority of responses mark displays sizes between 4.3- and 4.8-inches as the ideal size for a smartphone.

For all intents and purposes, most modern smartphones – particularly the higher profile handsets – fall within that commonly acceptable range.

A nice representation of this is our Official Smartphone Rankings™. Most of the top rated smartphones in both the People's Choice Chart and Mobile Tech Expert's Chart are between 4.3- and 4.8-inches. The HTC One X is 4.7-inches; the Samsung Galaxy S III is 4.8-inches; the Samsung Galaxy Nexus is 4.65-inches; and the Nokia Lumia 900 is 4.3-inches.

Notice that I excluded three important phones from the top smartphones. Two of those excluded are the upper and lower extremes in the market. The Apple iPhone 4S is on the lower end of the spectrum at 3.5-inches while the Samsung Galaxy Note II, the largest smartphone to date at 5.5-inches, is two diagonal inches longer. Then there's the iPhone 5 at 4-inches, which was once renowned as the "sweet spot" size. (In today's market, 4-inches is regarded as too small to many individuals, such as myself.)

Many of the highly-anticipated smartphones are within the 4.3- to 4.8-inch range, too. The Nokia Lumia 920 and Lumia 820 are 4.5-inches and 4.3-inches, respectively. The HTC Windows Phone 8X has a 4.3-inch display. The Motorola DROID RAZR HD and DROID RAZR MAXX HD are both 4.7-inches. And the HTC One VX is 4.5-inches.

What does all of this mean, exactly?

The obvious takeaway is that smartphones are larger than ever, and the average smartphone size is growing quite rapidly. Aside from that, though, it means a point I made in May of this year has never been truer.

The morning of May 7, I asked, "Why are there so few high-end smartphones under 4-inches?" At the time, I couldn't name a single high-end device with a display smaller than 4-inches – save for the iPhone 4S. With the arrival of the iPhone 5, the iPhone 4S has arguably slipped into the mid-range sector, effectively making the iPhone 5 the only high-end smartphone smaller than 4.3-inches.

For many, rumors of the miniature version of the Samsung Galaxy S III was solid hope for change, a break from the gargantuan phone trend. The Galaxy S III is arguably the best smartphone on the market today, so the Galaxy S III mini should simply be a smaller version of just that, right?

Unfortunately, no. As we learned today, the only resemblance the Galaxy S III mini has to its larger sibling is the name and outward design. Specifications are far from the original, making many scratch their heads as to why this device is even considered a miniature version of the S III, or why it has the "S" branding to begin with.

For those who need a refresher:

  • The original Galaxy S III (here in the States, at least) touts a 4.8-inch HD Super AMOLED display, 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4 chipset, 2GB RAM, 16GB or 32GB of built-in storage, LTE connectivity, an 8-megapixel camera and a 2,100mAh battery.
  • The Galaxy S III mini features a 4.0-inch WVGA (800 by 480 pixels) display, 8GB or 16GB of built-in storage, 1GB RAM, a 5-megapixel camera, 1GHz dual-core NovaThor U8420 processor, HSPA+ connectivity and a 1,500mAh battery.

Several of my Twitter friends and colleagues – like David Beren of TmoNews and Dima Aryeh of DroidDog – expressed their disappointment in Samsung following the press release.

Sadly, scoring a smaller device with high-end specifications is much easier said than done. Right now, the closest thing to that is the DROID RAZR M, which touts an "edge-to-edge" 4.3-inch display. It has a respectable display, decent specs and noticeably less bezel than most other phones.

That said, if you want an Android device smaller than 4.3-inches, although whatever device you choose will undoubtedly be easier on your wallet, you're looking to take a serious hit in performance, capabilities and quality. The 8-megapixel standard in high-end devices drops to 5-megapixels, display resolutions bottom out at 800 by 480 pixels and manufacturers skimp on processors for their not-so-giant phones. Take the HTC One V, for example. It has a 3.7-inch WVGA display, 1GHz single-core Scorpion processor (versus the much more efficient and powerful 28nm Krait found in the One X and One S), 1,500mAh battery and 5-megapixel camera.

It's naive for these companies to believe everyone wants a gigantic phone. They are cutting out a huge market for teens, women and essentially anyone with smaller hands, those who want a high-end phone but don't want to carry around a miniature tablet in their pockets.

Not everyone who wants a smaller phone wants a cheaper phone, and not everyone who wants a cheaper phone wants a smaller phone. Yet manufacturers continue to pump out smaller, cheap phones and high-end super phones with little to no middle ground. Some people want that middle ground. And some want high-end phones under 4-inches. Why is this such a hard concept for them to grasp?

Were any of you hoping the Galaxy S III mini would literally be a smaller version of the Galaxy S III – same specs and all? Would you buy the S III mini if it had a 1.5GHz Krait processor, higher-resolution display (qHD, for example) or the same camera sensor found in the larger variant?