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After iPhone 13, it's not looking good for Apple's iPhone Mini

You can get an iPhone 13 Mini starting at $700, but will there be an iPhone 14 Mini? Maybe not.

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The iPhone 13 Mini lives.

Screenshot by CNET

Apple unveiled the iPhone 13 Mini at its Tuesday event, giving fans of smaller phones something to be excited about yet again. Just like its predecessor, the iPhone 13 Mini is a 5.4-inch version of Apple's flagship iPhone that comes with all the same features in a smaller design.

However, there's a chance the $700 iPhone 13 Mini, which is available for preorder and will be released Sept. 24, could be Apple's last smaller iPhone. Reports suggest that last year's iPhone 12 Mini didn't sell well, and more recent rumors indicate that Apple may cut the Mini from 2022's iPhone 14 lineup.

Read more: CNET's reviews of the iPhone 13 and 13 Mini, and the iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max

CNET's Patrick Holland praised the iPhone 12 Mini for its pocket-friendly design, top-notch cameras and 5G support -- all for $100 less than the iPhone 12. So what's the problem? The iPhone 12 Mini felt a little lost in Apple's iPhone lineup. Priced at $729 when it debuted in 2020, it was hardly a budget phone, especially considering Apple offers other inexpensive options such as the iPhone SE and iPhone 11. And after years of embracing larger phones, the value of a miniature iPhone didn't feel as relevant as Apple may have hoped. 

Read more: Should you upgrade to the iPhone 13? We compare to iPhone 12 through iPhone 7 to find out

iPhone 13 Mini could be Apple's last smaller, premium iPhone

Apple isn't planning to introduce an iPhone 14 Mini next year, according to a July report from Nikkei Asian Review. An April research note from industry analyst Ming-Chi Kuo obtained by MacRumors also suggested that Apple's 2022 iPhone lineup would lack a sequel to the Mini. 

Removing the iPhone Mini from Apple's flagship lineup would be understandable. Reports from the past year have suggested that people just aren't interested in buying it. Apple slashed orders of the iPhone 12 Mini in the first half of 2021 because of weak demand, according to a previous Nikkei Asian Review report. Counterpoint Research reported similar findings earlier this year, saying that the iPhone 12 Mini only represented 5% of US sales of the iPhone 12 lineup in the first half of January. 

If the iPhone 12 Mini hasn't been selling well, why would Apple even bother releasing the iPhone 13 Mini? It's partially because the lead time for smartphone development is more than a year, according to Ben Stanton, a research manager for research firm Canalys. As such, there probably wasn't enough time for Apple to factor iPhone 12 Mini sales data into the development cycle for the iPhone 13 generation. 

Apple also doesn't usually make major changes to its product lineup so quickly. It kept the controversial butterfly keyboard in its MacBook laptops for about five years before entirely switching to the new Magic Keyboard, despite years of customer complaints. Not everyone loves the MacBook Pro's Touch Bar, but five years later it's still on Apple's high-end laptops. 

Why the iPhone 12 Mini didn't catch on

There are two simple reasons that could explain why the iPhone 12 Mini struggled in 2020. For one, Apple faces a lot of competition within its own lineup

Take the iPhone 11 for example. When Apple launched the iPhone 12 last year, it cut the iPhone 11's price down to $600, which was $100 less than the iPhone 12 Mini's starting price. Even though it's not Apple's newest iPhone, there are plenty of reasons why customers may have been tempted to buy the iPhone 11 over the iPhone 12 over the past year.  

Apple's 2019 iPhone comes with a 6.1-inch screen, solid battery life, excellent cameras and fast performance, since it runs on a relatively recent A13 Bionic processor. It lacks 5G connectivity, MagSafe support and Apple's more durable Ceramic Shield coating, but otherwise comes with many of the same benefits as the iPhone 12 (here are all the main differences between the iPhone 11 and iPhone 12). It's even cheaper now that the iPhone 13 has arrived, bringing the price down to $500. 

Read more: iPhone 13 vs. 13 Mini vs. 13 Pro vs. 13 Pro Max: A spec-by-spec comparison based on rumors

And for those who want the cheapest iPhone possible without making big performance sacrifices, there's the $399 iPhone SE. It has a compact design similar to that of the iPhone 8, meaning it's missing Face ID and Apple's more modern bezel-free design. But it's also the only current iPhone with Touch ID, and it still packs plenty of power for a phone of its price and size thanks to its A13 Bionic processor.

In other words, there wasn't really a place for the Mini in Apple's iPhone 12 lineup. It wasn't quite cheap enough to be a budget phone like the iPhone SE, and there wasn't enough that set it apart from the Phone 11. 

Apple is taking a similar approach this year by keeping the iPhone 12 in its lineup alongside the iPhone 13. The iPhone 12 Mini now starts at $600, while the iPhone 12 begins at $700. That means the iPhone 12 is the same price as the iPhone 13 Mini, while last year's miniature iPhone is $100 less expensive than this year's model.

But there's a key reason why the iPhone 13 Mini may see a better outcome than its predecessor: carrier deals. Apple's telecom partners are offering aggressive discounts this year that could make it hard for iPhone shoppers to turn down the iPhone 13 or its smaller companion. AT&T, for instance, is basically giving away the iPhone 13 and 13 Mini for free by offering up to $700 in discounts, as my colleague Eli Blumenthal points out. And T-Mobile has a pretty iPhone 13 trade-in deal going, too.

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Apple's $599 iPhone 11 is still an excellent value in 2021.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The other major hurdle to the iPhone 12 Mini's success was that people simply prefer phones with larger screens. Reports from analytics firm Flurry and Consumer Intelligence Research Partners also indicated that the 6.7-inch iPhone 12 Pro Max was the most popular of Apple's 2020 Phone models. 

Patrick noted in his iPhone 12 Mini review that some may find the device's smaller screen less practical for typing, reading and viewing documents -- critical tasks that many people use their phones for everyday. That smaller size also meant a smaller battery and therefore shorter battery life, a compromise many people might not have been willing to make. Apple clearly understands this, which is why it's extended the iPhone 13 Mini's battery life by an hour-and-a-half compared to the iPhone 12 Mini. (The iPhone 13 Mini's battery life will still be shorter than the iPhone 13's, however.)

Plus, the iPhone 12 Mini's compact design may have been less valuable during a year when many people spent most of their days at home. Who cares about having a phone that's more portable when you're not going anywhere? 

The only time I regularly struggle to use my phone with one hand is during my morning commute since I'm usually gripping the subway pole. Otherwise, a phone with a screen that's 6.1 inches or larger is usually manageable. I also imagine that having a phone with a larger screen and longer battery life was particularly important over the last year considering the amount of time we've spent on video calls throughout 2020.

And finally, large smartphones aren't new, meaning most of Apple's customers have likely adapted to the bigger screens. A phone with a 6.1-inch screen was considered large in 2014, but today that's just the norm. So maybe you had trepidation in 2014, but today you're used to it and may even want a larger screen. 

Read more: iPhone Flip rumors: A foldable iPhone probably won't debut soon

The iPhone 13 Mini and beyond

Some reports we've seen around the iPhone 14 so far indicate Apple is planning to focus on larger phones for its flagship models. Apple's 2022 iPhone family will still consist of four iPhones, according to Nikkei Asian Review and Kuo. However, Apple will reportedly replace the Mini with another 6.7-inch variant, meaning there will likely be two versions of the iPhone 14 Pro Max. 

Apple could instead focus its budget smartphone efforts on the iPhone SE. A new iPhone SE 3 model with 5G support, the same A15 Bionic chip that powers the iPhone 13, and a 4.7-inch LCD screen could arrive in the first half of 2022, reports Nikkei Asian Review.

The iPhone 13 Mini certainly has more going for it than the iPhone 12 Mini did. Carriers are offering compelling discounts that could make it an attractive buy over cheaper older models. Apple has addressed one of the biggest complaints about the iPhone 12 Mini by extending the iPhone 13 Mini's battery life. And people might find more value in a compact phone now that the COVID-19 vaccine has made it safer to spend less time at home compared to 2020. Only time will tell whether these changes are enough to make the iPhone 13 Mini stand out in Apple's increasingly crowded iPhone lineup.