With the announcement of the iPhone SE of 2020, people have formulated their opinions about the return of compact smartphones. Generally, these opinions can be split into two camps. One is that the new SE marks the return of the compact smartphones. The other is of the opinion that the SE marks the end of the compact smartphones. If I were to pick a camp, I’d say I belong to the latter.
Now, don’t get me wrong. In comparison, the iPhone SE 2020 is indeed smaller than a lot of the other phones available out there. It is basically the iPhone 11 in the body of an iPhone 8 after all, minus an extra camera, and possibly less RAM and a smaller battery. And that may be compact enough for some. But for others, myself included, the iPhone 8’s size is barely counts as compact, for reasons I will now explain. And to help me get the point across, I’ll be referring back to the Sony Xperia line of Compact phones.
Barring their thickness and weight, the Xperia Z1 Compact, the Z3 Compact and the Z5 Compact have basically the same size, so I’ll be using the Z5 Compact as a point of reference. The Sony Xperia XZ1 Compact and XZ2 Compact got steadily taller, from the Z5 Compact’s 127mm to 129mm and 135mm of the XZ1 Compact and the XZ2 Compact, respectively. This brings us to the iPhone 8 and by extension the iPhone SE 2020. At 138mm, it is a full 11mm taller than the Z5 Compact. And also slightly over 2mm wider.
11mm may sound like an inconsequential amount to be fussy about, but when for compact devices, it really matters. Because there’s no slippery slope when it comes to comfort when a phone is held in your hand. Or when it sits in your pockets.
Our hands and pockets don’t grow with them
Take the Sony Xperia Z5 Compact. As the last of the Compacts I use when not reviewing phones, I have fond memories of never needing both hands to operate it, regardless of circumstances. Similarly, I could always keep it in my pocket when sitting down, but don’t need to use it. I’m sure you can relate to having to put your phone on the table while having lunch. Or have at least seen people do it. Chances are this is because it’s uncomfortable for them to stay in their pockets.
Let’s call this quality “pocketability”. Granted, the cutoff point for a phone’s pocketability is slightly different for everyone. But even people with the largest hands and deepest pockets have their limits. And it’s not unreasonable to think that the iPhone 8 is the upper limit of pocketability. Any larger, and you’ll have to take your phone out your pocket when you sit down, and use two hands to operate the phone under certain circumstances.
And that’s the most important part of compact phones we are slowly forgetting. Because as we get used to phones getting larger over time, we forget that our hands and pockets don’t grow with them.
Compact by definition or by comparison?
As it is now, if the iPhone SE 2020 could maintain its screen size while trimming the bezels away the way the iPhone 11 does, then it could comfortably be considered a compact phone. Unfortunately, that means no recycling of the iPhone 8 parts, which will drive prices up. And that would defeat the purpose of an iPhone SE.
Or at least one of the two main reasons to have an SE, the other being size. At least I thought so, until I was reminded of an iPhone SE Plus being supposedly in the works. Clearly someone has lost the plot. The question is, is it fans of compact phones or Apple?
On a personal level, the transition from a Sony Xperia Z5 Compact to the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 was not easy, to say the least. And for owners of the original iPhone SE, which is significantly smaller than the Z5 Compact, I’d imagine the experience of switching to the new iPhone SE would be similar. Never mind switching to any other iPhone today.
Which is why the iPhone SE 2020 doesn’t really mark the return of compact phones. If anything, it marks the end of truly compact phones. Its size is at the very edge of what can be considered compact, and yet it bears the name of a phone that’s known for its small size. The iPhone SE 2020 is an indication that phones will continue to grow in size. And one day, you may just get a phone with the label of “small” or “compact” tacked on not because it really is small or compact, but because it’s smaller than the competition. And the iPhone SE Plus may just prove my point next year.