The Tiny Hands Review of the iPhone SE

A history of smartphone screen sizes.

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May 17 2016, 6:41pm

For the past three weeks, I've been using an iPhone SE.

I'm an Android user. I like my widgets and my Google apps, and I always felt the iPhone was too fancy and breakable for me. This was my first experience using an iPhone as my everyday device.

The phone, which has the same processor as the iPhone 6s, is certainly fast. The camera is crisp and good in low light. The battery has remarkable stamina.

The iPhone SE is also cheaper than other iPhones, starting at $399 as compared to $649 for the 6s.

But there's really only one thing that would make me break for an iPhone: size.

The iPhone SE and the larger iPhone 6 Plus.Photo: Derek Mead

I'm five feet tall and have proportionately small hands, something I've become increasingly aware of since becoming a smartphone user.

The first generations of cell phones were no problem. The Nokia 3310 candy bar I had in high school and the LG VX3100 flip phone I had in college were adorable paragons of compactness.

It was an innocent time, when phones didn't have to do so much. I remember shopping at the Verizon store and overhearing someone say, "Why would you want a camera in your phone?"

Soon, though, everyone wanted a camera in their phone. As phones started to get more powerful, they grew bigger.

At first, screen sizes were all over the place. The early stages of the personal cell phone revolution were marked by variety. Phone makers incrementally increased screen sizes, conscious of the high cost of displays and what was perceived as the need for a physical keyboard.

Then, the iPhone came out.

It's funny to remember that the first iPhone was considered enormous. In 2007, Apple's mobile competitors were the Samsung Blackjack, which had a 2.2 inch screen; the Blackberry Curve 8300, which had a 2.5 inch screen; and the Nokia N95, which had a 2.6 inch screen, according to Apple Insider. The iPhone left them all behind with its 3.5 inch screen. "It's big for a phone," David Pogue wrote.

"Also interesting to note is that small phones will be extinct by the second quarter of 2016."

Meanwhile, Samsung's market research in 2008 found "a consumer need for size diversity," as opposed to Apple's one-large-size-fits-all approach, quoting one user who preferred a smaller phone "because I can use it with one hand while walking."

Complaints aside, Samsung also found that consumers, especially Americans, reported wanting larger screens.

Although it took Apple's competitors a while to catch up, it was the release of the iPhone that triggered the first insane ramp-up in screen sizes. Norwegian serial entrepreneur Morten Hjerde analyzed data from 400 smart and dumb phone models sold in his home country and found a massive spread in the sizes released between 2005 to 2008, with the largest screen a whopping 23 times bigger than the smallest.

Copycatting is a powerful force in technology design. This fueled the big phone arms race.

The first smartphones had been modeled after the successful Blackberry, with a smaller screen and keyboard. Then phones began to take after the shiny new iPhone.

The average smartphone screen size grew rapidly, according to market research firm IHS, and accelerated as Android handset makers realized large screens were a way to differentiate themselves. Senior analyst Daniel Gleeson described the phenomenon as "an explosion in size."

In South Korea, over 80 percent of active smartphones are over 5 inches, and 40 percent are over 5.5 inches, he told Motherboard. In the US, 20 percent of active smartphones are larger than 5 inches, but that segment is growing fast.

Left: iPhone SE. Right: iPhone 6 Plus. Photo: Derek Mead

"The phablet will become the dominant form factor by October of next year," Flurry Insights wrote earlier this year. "Also interesting to note is that small phones will be extinct by the second quarter of 2016."

Samsung kept pace with Apple by going HAM on bigphones. If the first catalyst in the growth of phone sizes was Apple, the second was Samsung.

Let's zoom back to 2010 and what was arguably Samsung's first major smartphone success, the Galaxy S. "With a whopping 4-inch Super AMOLED display, it's one of the biggest phones on the market," PocketLint wrote at the time.

The Galaxy line continued to grow and it continued to do well for Samsung: Galaxy SII, 2011, 4.5 inch screen. Galaxy SIII, 2012, 4.8 inch screen. Galaxy SIV, 2013, 5 inch screen. This year's Galaxy S7 has a 5.1 inch screen and the Galaxy S7 Edge has a 5.5 inch screen.

"There's always been one race Samsung has led, though: Really Big Phones," David Pierce wrote for Wired.

An internal 2013 Apple presentation that came out during the Apple v. Samsung patent trial showed that Apple was feeling the pressure. The presentation said competitors were spending "obscene" amounts on advertising (definitely Samsung) while releasing larger, less expensive phones. "Consumers want what we don't have," the document read.

Noted Apple watcher John Gruber recalled seeing this trend in action once when a problem with his Verizon account required him to visit a retail store. While he was waiting for help, he saw a young woman who was very short shopping with a friend. "She was obviously very informed," he recalled. "She was looking at a giant Samsung phone. And she was like, 'I want either this or I want the Galaxy Note, the one that comes with the pen.' And the guy was like, 'but that's humongous, how is that going to fit in your hand?' And she said, 'what do I care, I always have my phone in my purse.' I know it's just one person, but I thought, that's really interesting that one of the smallest adults I've ever seen, she knew definitely what she wanted. She wanted a really big phone."

Was Steve Jobs on Team Smallphone? For a long time, there were only small iPhones. Even as bigphones blew up around it, Apple did not increase the size of its screen until 2012. Those five years were a blissful period for accessory makers and app developers, who enjoyed the simplicity of making their products in a single size.

Every iPhone up to and including the 4s had a 3.5 inch screen. The iPhone 5, released in September 2012, marked the first significant change in screen size: 4 inches of real estate instead of 3.5 inches. Most noticeably for the user, it grew taller: 4.87 inches compared to the 4.5-inch 4s.

There is a perception that Steve Jobs and Apple were holdouts because of some principled, high-minded objection to larger phones. This all seems to hinge on one quote Jobs gave at a press conference about iPhone 4's reception problems, dubbed "Antennagate." One reporter asked if the problem might have been fixed by making the phone larger. Jobs said that making a phone so big "you can't get your hand around it" would have helped with reception problems, but that "no one would buy it." Jobs also reportedly called big phones "Hummers."

I couldn't find proof that Jobs was actually that passionate about screen size

I couldn't find proof that Jobs was actually that passionate about screen size, however. He approved the larger iPhone 5 and iPhone 5s, which were designed before his death. Gruber said he doesn't recall Jobs saying anything specific about small phones.

Apple did release at least one ad that highlighted the fact that the average thumb could reach all the apps on the screen—which, whatever, the marketing department decided that would be a good thing to say in order to sell phones.

Apple boards the bandwagon, and it works. Normally a leader in design trends, Apple seemed to have missed all the signs that many people wanted bigger phones.

"I think maybe that the popularity of larger phones did take Apple by surprise," Gruber told me. "They're so secretive, and they don't tell you, but it just seems as if they were at least a year late to market in terms of where the industry was going."

Once Apple realized where demand was heading, it had no compunction about serving the bigphone market. The iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, released in September of 2014, have 4.7 inch and 5.5 inch screens respectively.

Apple backtracks, and it works. At the end of April, I received a rose gold, pretty little iPhone SE from Apple.

As I unboxed it, I was struck by the irony: I use to roll my eyes at the "shrink it and pink it" design philosophy that often influences women's tech products, and here I was, thrilled at my tiny pink phone.

The SE has the same dimensions as the iPhone 5: 4.87 inches tall, 2.31 inches wide, and .3 inches thick with a 4 inch screen. Weight: 113 grams.

Even when shielded in a leather case and tempered glass screen protector, it's smaller and lighter than my regular device, a Sony Xperia Z5 Compact. (Most phone makers will make a "compact" version of their premium phones that is just plain crappier; Sony has actually made the compact version of its flagship a premium phone.) It's 5 inches tall, 2.56 inches wide, and .35 inches thick with a 4.6 inch screen, and is a little zaftig at 138 grams.

The Xperia Z5 Compact and the iPhone SE. Photo: Derek Mead

Using the smaller iPhone SE was delightful. My current Z5 Compact and the Z3 Compact I had before it were both excellent, premium phones, and waterproof to boot. However, the iPhone is a luxury by comparison. It was nice to use a luxury phone in my size. If I were in the market for a new phone right now, I'd seriously consider buying one. It is the only truly small high-end smartphone.

As usual, Apple won't say how many units it's selling, although the company did say on its earnings call that demand for the iPhone SE is higher than anticipated. "We are thrilled with the response that we've seen on it," Tim Cook said on the call. "It is clear that there is a demand there even much beyond what we thought."

So if Apple is seeing demand for a smaller phone, does that mean more small phones will follow? It seems clear that while some people want large phones, others, like me, do not—and it seems sort of insane to neglect the part of the high-end smartphone market below 4.5 inches.

"It really is a Goldilocks situation. Some people want their porridge really hot, some want it cold, some want it in the middle," Gruber said.

Gleeson, the IHS analyst, said his firm has seen promising data on sales for the SE, and predicts it will do as well as the iPhone 5c and become Apple's third-best selling phone. "If the SE proves successful, which we think it will, there will be more Android manufacturers producing phones for a smaller form factor," he said.

But while "there is a niche demand for more compact iPhone SE-type smaller handsets," phones are likely to move more toward 4.5 inches than the SE's trim 4 inches, he said.

The bottom line: There still isn't much choice when it comes to size for top-shelf smartphones. I'm crossing my fingers that the success of the SE turns the hypetrain the other way.