With the iPhone XR and XS Max, the small phone is officially dead

Commentary: Apple is tripling down on big-screen iPhones, leaving no hope for a delightfully small iPhone reboot.

Lynn La Senior Editor / Reviews - Phones
Lynn La covers mobile reviews and news. She previously wrote for The Sacramento Bee, Macworld and The Global Post.
Lynn La
4 min read
James Martin/CNET

So long, small phones ! It's been real. On Wednesday, Apple announced its trio of new iPhones, and with it, the company put the final nail in the coffin for rebooting a small, pocketable iPhone.

That's because the new lineup includes the 5.8-inch iPhone XS, the 6.1-inch iPhone XR and the 6.5-inch XS Max. Suddenly, last year's biggest iPhone is now this year's smallest option. Couple that with the fact that Apple is discontinuing the 4-inch iPhone SE, and this all means one thing: abandon all hope of ever owning a new small smartphone, iOS, Android or what have you. 

Personally, as an owner of baby hands myself, that's downright disappointing. And I'm not alone.

Enlarge Image

There are dozens of us! *shakes little fist*

Lynn La/CNET

I blame the Samsung Galaxy Note. When it first came out in 2011, its 5.3-inch display -- which these days looks pretty average -- seemed almost comical. I say "almost" because we knew there was was a function to that King Kong of a design. Samsung touted the Note for the power user and the embedded S-Pen drove that productivity angle further. It was a niche product. Not exactly a one-off like the Samsung Galaxy Beam, with its wonky light projector, or vertically curved Galaxy Round -- but it had a definite purpose and I assumed it would serve only a specific group of phone users.

After that though, suddenly every phone had to be big. There was the ridiculously squared 5-inch LG Optimus Vu, the barely holdable 5.9-inch HTC One Max and the 6-inch Nokia Lumia 1520 (may everything about that phone rest in peace) to name a few. 

Things got so out of hand that we had to create the cheesy portmanteau "phablet" just to distinguish these Paul Bunyan devices from regular-human-sized phones.

But then, somewhere along the way, lines got blurred. Phablets started to sound archaic because every phone started stretching out. And people did want to view more things on their phones as display technology improved, resolution sharpened, colors became more vibrant and 30 Rock got onto Netflix.


I mean OK, sure, big screens are beautiful.

James Martin/CNET

Phone companies would argue they're just giving the people what they want. And the numbers bear that out: By 2021, 1 billion phones with 5.5-inch screens or larger are predicted to be sold worldwide, and they will outsell smaller phones by 2019. 

But surely not everyone loves how these overgrown devices fall out of your pockets every time you sit down or require two hands just to peck out a quick text message. It's gotten to the point where we need to stick accessories to the back of our phones just to hold onto them steadily. What happened? How did we lose ourselves on this path? When did we become beholden to these giant phones and their septum-piercing door-knocker accessories?

There are some phones with a small screen like the Sony Xperia XZ2 Compact , the rumored new Palm phone and the Zoolander-worthy Unihertz Atom, with its 2.5-inch screen. But if you're an iOS user, you might not want to switch to a very specific Android phone, and that Palm phone isn't even technically real as far as we know. 

The last bastion of hope was an update to the plucky iPhone SE, which people really liked, but that doesn't look like it's going to happen any time soon. As seen by the company's enthusiasm for "bigness" in its vid below (we get it Apple! It's big!).

Plus, all those phones could use a bump in specs. Don't assume that just because I want a small phone means I want a budget phone too. I want my small phone bursting to its eyeballs with the latest and greatest high-powered specs. I understand that means the space the engineers are working with is smaller, so make the phone thick! That's OK. My tiny hobbit-but-not-as-hairy hands would gladly prefer that shape than another phone that only Godzilla can use.

One reason Apple was late to the giant phone revolution was that co-founder Steve Jobs apparently thought the original iPhones (with screens of just 3.5 inches) were the ideal size. Apple even ran an ad touting how easy it was to navigate the iPhone 5 with just your thumb. It wasn't until after 2012 -- a year after he passed away -- that the phones starting creeping up to a mere 4 inches, with larger ones following. But Apple always lagged Android models in screen size until this year: the 6.5-inch iPhone XS Max bests even the mighty 6.4-inch Galaxy Note 9.

Notable iPhone size changes

YeariPhone modelScreen size
2018 iPhone XS Max6.5-inch
2018 iPhone XR6.1-inch
2018 iPhone XS5.8-inch
2017 iPhone X5.8-inch
2014 iPhone 6S Plus5.5-inch
2014 iPhone 64.7-inch
2012 iPhone 54.0-inch
2007 Original iPhone3.5-inch

Yes, you can still buy new 4.7-inch iPhone 7 and iPhone 8 models at reduced prices, at least for the next year. But with the 4-inch SE gone, small screens are feeling as old-fashioned in Apple's line as the now quaint home button. I think seeing a true iPhone SE 2 next spring -- say, a Face ID phone with a 4.7-inch screen fit into a 4-inch body -- would be a great niche for Apple to return to. Maybe even something the company could sell at a bit of a premium. But in my heart, I know that's a pipe dream.

With this latest batch of iPhones, we must extinguish our small-screen hope and listen to this playlist of songs about small hands. Goodbye small phones, it was nice while it lasted.

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