If the iPhone 9 is truly small, I'd pay $999 for it. Here's why

Commentary: Apple's rumored follow-up to the iPhone SE needs one feature above all: To actually be small.

Patrick Holland Managing Editor
Patrick Holland has been a phone reviewer for CNET since 2016. He is a former theater director who occasionally makes short films. Patrick has an eye for photography and a passion for everything mobile. He is a colorful raconteur who will guide you through the ever-changing, fast-paced world of phones, especially the iPhone and iOS. He used to co-host CNET's I'm So Obsessed podcast and interviewed guests like Jeff Goldblum, Alfre Woodard, Stephen Merchant, Sam Jay, Edgar Wright and Roy Wood Jr.
Expertise Apple, iPhone, iOS, Android, Samsung, Sony, Google, Motorola, interviews, coffee equipment, cats Credentials
  • Patrick's play The Cowboy is included in the Best American Short Plays 2011-12 anthology. He co-wrote and starred in the short film Baden Krunk that won the Best Wisconsin Short Film award at the Milwaukee Short Film Festival.
Vanessa Hand Orellana CNET Senior Editor
As head of wearables at CNET, Vanessa reviews and writes about the latest smartwatches and fitness trackers. She joined the team seven years ago as an on-camera reporter for CNET's Spanish-language site and then moved on to the English side to host and produce some of CNET's videos and YouTube series. When she's not testing out smartwatches or dropping phones, you can catch her on a hike or trail run with her family.
Patrick Holland
Vanessa Hand Orellana
5 min read

Update, April 22: Read our iPhone SE 2020 review. Original story follows.

Rumors of an iPhone 9, also known as the iPhone SE, have percolated to a boil. Apple was expected to announce the follow-up to the iPhone SE at an event in March, which didn't take place because of the coronavirus pandemic. (Instead, on March 18 the company announced updates to the iPad Pro, MacBook Air and Mac Mini.) This led to uncertainty about the future of the iPhone 9. However, I'm still excited about the possibility of the phone (especially given this week's iPhone 9 leak), especially if Apple can keep it truly small.

In 2016, the original iPhone SE (based on the body of the iPhone 5/5S) was a huge success due in part to its $399 starting price. It was largely considered Apple's first "budget" iPhone. Small-phone lovers flocked to it because of its petite size and then mourned when Apple stopped selling it in 2018. By today's phone standards, the SE is absolutely tiny.

If the reaction to an earlier story I wrote about the iPhone 9 (SE 2) and its possible features was any indication, people still want a small iPhone. Rumors indicate that the iPhone 9 will likely have a body around the size of the iPhone 8, which is smaller than the iPhone 11 Pro (the smallest phone in Apple's current generation). But when compared with the iPhone SE, the iPhone 8 is large. 


On the left is the iPhone SE and on the right is the iPhone 8.

Patrick Holland/CNET

Because of that, I'm worried the iPhone 9 might not be small enough. For me, a small phone has to be easy to pocket and use one-handed. I also hope, like many others, that the iPhone 9 will keep some of the modern features seen in current iPhones, but with a low price. And yet if I had to sacrifice one thing on this wish list (small, cheap and current), I'd be willing to forgo the potential wallet-friendly price for a truly pocket-friendly design with premium fixings.


Here are just some of the comments from people wanting a small iPhone.


The iPhone 9 needs to fit into a woman's pants pocket

Fellow CNET editor Vanessa Hand Orellana and I are fans of small phones and agree that one of the areas modern smartphones leave behind is portability, specifically the issue of fitting into a woman's pants pockets.

Vanessa says that the iPhone SE was the optimal size to fit into a woman's pocket and when a pocket wasn't available, like during workouts, it fitted comfortably into a sports bra.

"I'm certainly not going to do that with a Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra," she said.

The iPhone SE was also easy to hold. Current models of the iPhone are often seen with a PopSocket attached to the back to make gripping the beautiful glass behemoths easier. In fact, there are times when a PopSocket prevented me from dropping my old iPhone 6S Plus while I was performing an acrobatlike software maneuver one-handed. I have large hands but I appreciate a smaller phone like the SE because I was confident I wasn't going to drop it. I never needed a PopSocket on the SE.

Motorola Razr Foldable Flip Phone

When the Motorola Razr foldable phone is closed it is smaller than an iPhone SE.

James Martin/CNET

Foldable phones like the Motorola Razr and Galaxy Z Flip attempt to be more pocketable by letting a phone the size of the Galaxy S20 Ultra fold into a size that's actually smaller than an iPhone SE. But when I use a Motorola Razr or Galaxy Z Flip in its open position one-handed, I'm still unable to tap buttons or swipe through menus that are at the top of the phone.

At this point Apple hasn't officially dipped its toe into the foldable phone waters. And even if it did take this approach there was one more thing the iPhone SE was naturally great at: one-handed use. You didn't need any software tricks or fancy foldable screens to reach things.

iPhone SE 2 needs more than just Reachability mode

The iPhone SE has the same body as the iPhone 5 and 5S and those phones were built to be used one-handed. With their 4-inch displays, your thumb could reach pretty much every part of the screen easily, and that's what I want in the iPhone 9.

When it launched the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus in 2014, Apple employed a new feature called Reachability as a workaround for reaching the top of the new larger screens. To use Reachability, you double-tapped the home button, which lowered the top part of what was on the screen to the middle. It made it easy to reach things one-handed. But having to toggle the mode on and off added extra steps to anything you wanted to do on your phone one-handed.

Initially, using Reachability on an iPhone X was an exercise in frustration.

Jason Cipriani/CNET

With the launch of the iPhone X, Apple said goodbye to the home button. This time, you triggered Reachability by swiping down on the onscreen home bar. At best it worked intermittently but I'll give Apple credit that it's got better over time because of software updates, and on my end, getting used to the precision needed to trigger the mode on the first try.

Reachability is a software Band-Aid to get around the fact that iPhones are not easy to use one-handed, but something more drastic should be done.

iOS 14 needs a one-handed overhaul

All the focus on iPhone 9 hardware and Reachability leaves out another part of the puzzle: iOS. There are a number of software and interface improvements Apple could bring to iOS 14 that would make even an iPhone 11 Pro Max easier to use one-handed.

For starters, Apple should look at the most current version of Samsung's One UI. It's far from perfect and the Galaxy S20 Ultra and Z Flip aren't exactly ideal one-handed phones either, but One UI is well thought out in terms of the ways people can reach and interact with onscreen elements, and there's still a lot you can do one-handed on these Samsung handsets.

Like on all Android phones, you can move the apps wherever you want so you can reach them better. On the iPhone, the home screen pulls apps as far away from the bottom as possible. 

In One UI, for example, arrows that would be at the top of the screen for Samsung's search feature are moved to the bottom where you can easily reach them. Imagine being in the Mail app on an iPhone, reading a message and having the forward-backward messages arrows at the bottom instead of the top. Or imagine the Inboxes for different accounts occupying the middle or bottom of the screen instead of the top.


On the left is a message from the Mail app. Notice the navigation arrows are on the top right side of the phone. On the right is a photo showing the find feature in Safari with the arrows on the bottom. Guess which is easier to tap one-handed?

Patrick Holland/CNET

The worst offenders are iOS apps where you have to go back and forth between an element on the very top of the screen and one on the bottom. In Messages, you have to tap the top right corner to start a new message, then move to the bottom of the screen to type on the keyboard. These are little things that add up and become super irritating.

To be clear, I'm not prescribing any major software changes and I don't want iOS to end up like that ridiculous $82,000 car Homer Simpson designed. I just want to acknowledge that one-handed use needs some attention and improvement. If such an iOS revamp happened for the iPhone 9, with its rumored iPhone 8 body, I imagine there are a number of small-phone fans who'd be willing to familiarize themselves with new updates. But hey, Apple could just go for it and make a tiny iPhone SE-size model instead.

iPhone SE (2016) is the iPhone Mini

See all photos

Originally published last week.