Is 2016 Going to See the Return of the Compact Phone?
“Yes, we can make a bigger phone. We have. But the question you need to ask is: how big can your hand get?”
That was Xiaomi’s Vice President Hugo Barra’s response to a query from a member of the media about why Xiaomi had not endowed the Mi 4i with a larger display. It was mid-2015 and it was high noon for the phablet – devices that tried to blend the large displays of the tablet with the features and functionality. The whole trend towards bigger displays had been triggered by perhaps the first Galaxy Note from Samsung, which presented extra display real estate like perhaps no device had before. Yes, it was big and yes, it was bulky but there was no doubting that it was also – surprise, surprise – fun to use.
There was a period of resistance from other manufacturers, but towards the end of 2013 most had joined the race for bigger displays and by the time we swung into 2015, rare was the manufacturer/brand who did not have a high-profile phone in the 5.5-6.0 inch display, even the fruity brand from Cupertino that had for many been defender of the “compact phone” – Apple joined the phablet race with the iPhone 6 Plus, which was a staggering hit, notwithstanding grumbling from some (Yours Truly included) that it was unwieldy. “I think it is way too big, but it seems 5.5 inches is the new 5.0-inch,” muttered an executive from one of the companies to me at an event. But such voices were relatively rare. Phones seemed to be in “bigger = better” mode.
And then something happened.
No, we are not sure what it was. We are not even sure if this is a trend or just a minor aberration, but the fact is that even as we come to the end of 2015, phone sizes have just started to shrink. Yes, they are still huge by the standards of say, 2011, but it does seem that some are beginning to question the “bigger=better” equation. Samsung has shrunk the size of its S6 and Galaxy Note 5 significantly, LG is happy with the ever compact LG G series, Lenovo made the Vibe S1 and Vibe Shot relatively compact, OnePlus has introduced the smaller OnePlus X, Huawei resisted the temptation to make the Honor 7 a much bigger device, HTC has gone for being compact rather than beast-like in the sleek One A9, …even Apple is strongly rumored (and Apple rumors are being proved right at an amazingly un-Jobsian rate) to be working on a smaller, more compact iPhone 6c, and all indications are that the next Xiaomi flagship (the Mi 5) will be closer in size to the Mi4 than the massive Mi Note Pro. Newcomer Qiku also stressed the sheer compactness of the 6-inch display sporting Q Terra by thinning out the bezels, and YU went for a more hand-friendly frame for its Yutopia (“It has to fit into your hand for you to be really able to use it,” YU founder Rahul Sharma told me when I asked him why he had not opted for a larger display than the 5.2 inch one on the Yutopia – the first phone from the brand, the Yureka, had a 5.5 inch one).
It is difficult to pinpoint which phone in particular started this off, but we suspect it was a combination of devices that were not as overwhelmingly large as the competition – the first Moto G/X and E, the Xiaomi Mi 3 and Redmi 1S, and perhaps even the likes of the LG G2 and Nexus 5 – that proved that you did not have to expand the user’s palm to be awesome. In fact, over the past year or so, we have been hearing complaints about devices being too big resurface – the likes of the Nexus 6, the Lumia 1520, the Moto X (2nd generation, compared with the first mainly!) and the Sony Xperia Z Ultra were panned for being downright difficult to use, and this has carried over to the present day where the Gionee Elife E8 and even the generally acclaimed Nexus 6P and iPhone 6S Plus were criticized for being too big. Raju PP summed up the sentiment of many people when he said at the launch of the Nexus 6P and 5X, “The 6P has the better material and specs, but the 5X…just FEELS better!” Suddenly big displays are being viewed with caution rather than exuberance, and a number of brands are coming out with smaller variations of their flagships – the Sony Xperia Z5, the iPhone 6s, the Nexus 5X, the Lumia 950 – it is almost as if Godzilla has sat down and wondered if size DOES matter?
Although it is early days to call this a trend (and no, we don’t see large phones riding into the tech sunset just yet), but we do think that 2016 could see a course correction of sorts when it comes to phone sizes. No, we are not predicting the returning of 3.5 and 4.0 inch displays in flagships, but we do think that if “5.5 inch was the new 5.0 inch” in 2015, the optimum screen size could well be closer to the 5.0-inch mark than the 5.5-inch one. More significantly, even larger display devices will be trying to squeeze themselves into smaller frames, a la the Lenovo Vibe Z2 pro and Qiku Q Terra (the most compact 6-inch display devices we have used). Is this wishful thinking? Well, it might be, as we do plead guilty for having a streak that favors devices that fit easily in our hands.
To get back to that Hugo Barra quote at the beginning, it is not just our hands that cannot get bigger – our jacket and trouser pockets have been complaining of the burden imposed on them by Hulk-like phones for a while now. So yes, we are so hoping the phone manufacturers bring out the shrink rays in 2016!