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You’ll Have to Pry My Tiny Smartphone From My Cold, Dead, Very Small Hands

An ode to the last gasp of small phones in the era of phablets

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

I didn’t realize it at the time, but 2012 was as good as it was going to get for me and smartphones.

My phone at the time, an iPhone 4, was not the nicest handset I would come to own. Its technical capabilities have been dwarfed many times over by the phones I’ve used since, phones with richer displays and ever more luxurious memories and less enthusiastic tendencies to alert me to my dwindling storage. There are at this moment 53 apps open on my current phone; that, and my hours of sweaty-palmed, in-transit Candy Crush binges—and, yes, my continued Pidgey-mongering—would probably melt my old 4’s sweet little brain.

But I find myself looking back on those days tenderly because they were some of the very last when I could take out my phone and not face mockery. Put differently: That was the very last time when what I wanted from my phone was the same thing as what my phone, or at least the people selling it, wanted me to want.

Because, you see, there’s a problem between me and phones: I have small hands. And phones—well, they’ve gotten awfully big.

We are living in the age of the “phablet,” defined as any phone with a diagonal screen size between 5.5 and 7 inches. Apple phones have gotten progressively bigger over the past few years: from a 4.7-inch screen (the iPhone 7), to a 5.5-inch screen (the iPhone 8 Plus), to a 5.8-inch screen (the iPhone X). The upcoming Galaxy 9, the latest offering from Samsung’s best-selling American line, will have a screen that’s 5.8 inches across. Google’s Pixel 2 has a 5-inch screen; its high-end XL variant has one that’s just 6 inches.

But the term “phablet” is something of a misnomer. Back in 2011, when supersized phones were first entering the U.S. market, it was meant to indicate that they were halfway between phones and tablets: a specialty item, in short. But as their popularity has grown, eating away at the market previously known as “phone,” they’ve simply subsumed that title themselves. Worldwide, phablets are projected to overtake non-phablet sales within the next year, according to the market-intelligence firm International Data Corporation. Some 611 million phablets were purchased in 2017; IDC predicts that number will breach 1 billion by 2021. This year, Apple has said it expects its jumbo-sized Plus and X phones to make up more than half of all its sales.

It wasn’t so long ago that this would have been unimaginable.

Steve Jobs famously declared that he had identified the perfect size for a phone. In an ad for Apple’s iPhone 5—screen size: 4 inches—a disembodied thumb ranged effortlessly across the device, scrolling and tapping and easily reaching the farthest corners. This, a voice-over intoned, was either an “amazing coincidence” or “a dazzling display of common sense.” The implication was clear: A phone’s size should be determined by the size of the hand operating it.

”You can’t get your hand around it,” Jobs said of larger models in 2010. “No one’s going to buy that.” At home, I idly flipped my beloved 4 around in my hand, not realizing how soon I would come to miss this time.

Apple Announces New iPhone At Developers Conference
Steve Jobs holds the iPhone 4 after he delivered the opening keynote address at the 2010 Apple World Wide Developers
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

My last phone, a gleaming iPhone 6s, shattered. It did this because I dropped it relentlessly. I dropped it at restaurants, at bars, at sporting events. Once, I dropped it on an escalator, and it skipped down to the next step with a thwack of metal-on-metal as I looked on in horror.

But the funny thing, if there’s a funny thing about your $750 supercomputer Slinky-ing toward oblivion before your eyes, was that I’d never really been much of a phone-dropper before. Other than that 6s, my now seven years of continuous—and mostly, to the chagrin of many a concerned loved one, case-less—iPhone ownership saw exactly one cracked screen, when a past phone bounced out of a bag as I ran to catch a train.

As the weeks slipped by, I started to get suspicious about my 6s: If it wasn’t me that had changed, could it be that the 6s was just harder for me to hold onto? It was 2.64 inches across, with sleek, rounded edges, compared to the 2.31-inch and 2.33-inch widths of the two phones I’d had before it. I found that I could easily wrap my fingers around the phone as it sat in my hand, but not so easily that I really had a grip on it. Using it with just one hand was impossible: My thumb simply couldn’t reach the upper corners. To use the phone, I needed both hands and some amount of concentration, of which at least one escalator found me lacking.

In early 2016, as rumors of Apple launching a smaller line swirled, I hung onto my hideously shattered 6s in the hope of a tinier future. (Fanboy I am not, but the prospect of leaving iMessage feels only slightly less daunting than starting a new life in the North.) Glass splinters filled my thumbs. Friends and coworkers gasped at the sight. I would remove it from my back pocket and then sit down cautiously, waiting to see if its jagged remains would draw blood. A pricey screen repair seemed untenable; surely, I thought, something better suited to my needs would appear soon enough. Metal guts began to show beneath the fragmented glass, and when I tried to use my phone in the rain, I imagined my post-electrocution tombstone: Here lies Claire McNear, who refused to fix a phone she hated.

Today, I use a two-year-old iPhone SE, ordered the very day the line was announced that March. It has, like Jobs’s ballyhooed 5 before it, a screen that’s 4 inches across. This isn’t a coincidence: The SE is Apple’s Frankenphone, the circa-2014 iPhone 6’s guts mashed into the 5s’s smaller body, which is to say it was already outdated the day it was released.

Two years on, my phone is starting to show its age. And while there are copious rumors of an updated model on the horizon, they’ve arrived in tandem with whispers about the release of Apple’s biggest phone ever, a behemoth with a 6.5-inch screen that is reportedly already in production testing. Should a rebooted SE fail to materialize, you can bet you’ll find me many years hence, backpack full of portable chargers as I tap feverishly, and blissfully one-handedly, at the time-sanded outer edges of my current phone.

For years, I believed my phone woes were the work of a conspiracy. The unstoppable crush of large phones was the tyranny of the big-handed, who cared not at all for my minuscule digits, my puny thumb range, my phone-tilting pinky’s looming arthritis. Men were making phones for other men, I would hiss when my SE’s stature was challenged—which was often, because it turns out there are few things people (cough cough men) love to do more than guffaw “How old is that?!” at apparently inferior devices. When challenged, I have a tendency to rant about how well my teeny, tiny phone has served me. I can use it with a single hand! It fits in pockets! It was cheap! (For Apple!) But the crux of my argument is this: Maybe if your hands were small, you’d want a little phone, too.

And, indeed, the design of today’s phones is almost certainly the product of a mostly male workforce. At Apple, just 32 percent of employees are female, according to the company’s own diversity data. On the tech side, that number shrinks to 23 percent. While Apple doesn’t release data about specific teams, it stands to reason that the majority of the workers involved in the company’s design choices, from longtime chief design officer Jony Ive on down, are men. And given that the average man’s hand size is notably bigger than the average woman’s—well, you get the idea.

In 2013, as the march toward supersized smartphones began to seem irrevocable—TechCrunch declared phablets “the new normal” that same year—writer and researcher Zeynep Tufekci wrote about her struggle to find a phone she could manage in a post titled, “It’s a Man’s Phone.” Ringing in at “5 foot 2 inches on a good day,” Tufekci described her frustration when she found herself unable to operate a too-big phone when a protest she was attending in Istanbul suddenly turned violent.

“Increasingly, on the latest versions of the kinds of phones I want to use, I cannot type one-handed,” she wrote. “I cannot take a picture one-handed. I can barely scroll one-handed—not very well, though. I can’t unlock my phone one-handed. I can’t even turn on my phone one-handed as my fingers cannot securely wrap around the phone while I push a button with a finger.”

The problem, in her words, was that this was a disparity starkly amplified by sex, the most obvious predictor of adult hand size. As she wrote, “I can no longer do what I enviously observe men do every day: check messages one-handed while carrying groceries or a bag; type a quick note while on a moving bus or a train where I have to hold on not to fall.”

Tufekci was hardly alone in her suspicions of a male-female smartphone gap. “Smartphones Are Made for Giant Man-Hands,” Jezebel declared in 2013. In 2016, Motherboard’s Casey Johnston suggested in an essay titled “A Big Phone Works for Everyone But You” that gigantic phones were yet another form of planned obsolescence, a manufacturer’s insurance policy that soon enough you’d drop your oversized handset and shatter its precious, enormous screen.

This much, at least, is true: Our phones are intentionally being designed so that they’re harder to hold.

We increasingly use our phones for activities like reading, gaming, and watching videos, all of which are better suited to more substantive screens. The prospective hurdle of making a call on an unwieldy phablet has shrunk alongside our collective desire to make calls at all. The NPD Group, a research firm, found in November that 57 percent of smartphone users regularly streamed videos on their devices. Monthly data consumption, an indicator of data-intensive activities like streaming, has soared: NPD found that the average American smartphone user goes through 31.4 GB of data a month, a 25 percent increase over 2016.

Apple Launch iPhone X In The U.K
A customer with the iPhone X.
Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images

With this comes an inherent tug of war: Do you want a phone that can be easily held, a helpful feature for things like making calls or taking pictures, or do you want a phone that eases media consumption?

“Ideally, people want the phone to be huge, so you can see everything,” said Alan Hedge, a professor of ergonomics at Cornell. “On the other hand, you have to be able to hold it.”

The critical dimension when it comes to phone holding, Hedge said, is the distance between the pit beside your thumb and the second joint of your pointer finger. That, of course, means that your ability to hold a phone comfortably depends on the size of your hands.

In 2018, those who do want smaller phones are left to pick between a hodgepodge of mostly disappointing options. Even at its outset, the SE was less a real flagship offering than the repurposing of already outdated software and even more outdated hardware, deployed as much to meet consumer demand as to find a use for leftover iPhone 5 inventory. Other manufacturers are scarcely better: Sony’s Xperia X Compact is about as close a competitor as there currently is to the iPhone SE … and it’s made of plastic.

Several companies have tried to fill the void. Last year, the Chinese mobile phone company Unihertz launched a Kickstarter to produce a phone it dubbed the Jelly, which it now advertises as “Impossibly small. Amazingly cute. Totally functional.” The company reached its fundraising goal in just 57 minutes.

Unihertz CEO Stephen Xu says Jelly was a reaction to the increasing homogeneity of the smartphone market, where devices that looked steadily more alike—and were all getting bigger. “Yet there are still many people like to use smaller phones,” Xu wrote in an email. “So we decided to make some unique stuff which [fell] between normal smartphones and wearable devices.”

The Jelly’s display is a diminutive 2.45 inches, and the phone can be yours for just $124.99. But the problem with Jelly, and with other would-be miniature usurpers like the Posh Micro X (billed as “the market’s smallest smartphone” with a 2.4-inch display), is they’re aimed more at providing a low-cost option rather than a high-end one. Jelly isn’t competing with the iPhones or Xperias of this world so much as it’s offering a different service entirely—which is to say that I don’t want a phone that’s cute. I just want one that’s small.

“Compared to the normal phone,” Xu said, “I think the small-phone market is not big enough to arouse the interests for many manufacturers.”

And my heart sank all over again.

The idea of there being one ideal phone size is perhaps something best left in the past. What is comfortable for a phone user is “going to depend on the size of your hands,” said Hedge. “If you’re a petite woman with small hands, or if you’re a president with small hands, what’s comfortable for you is not going to be the same as someone who’s a basketball player with huge hands. So the idea that any one can truly be optimal is complete nonsense.”

There’s little data to be found on how sex influences smartphone choice. But that in itself may suggest there’s little effect present. Steven Hoober, a mobile UX consultant and designer, says he eventually stopped including data about user sex in his work. “My research did initially code for observed sex in the old-school binary identifiers (so it’s coarse),” Hoober wrote in an email, “and after a while I found zero correlation between this, or age, or handedness, or anything else to any phone selection or usage.”

Hoober has been a vocal critic of the thumb charts used to show the correlation between hand size and phone comfort. In a 2017 study, he wrote one-handed reach matters little, given that users rotate through a variety of different grips on their phones during use, with fewer than 50 percent using just one hand.

Indeed, Hoober said, women may be more likely than men to carry larger phones. “Anecdotally, it seems that carriage is the only issue: men have pockets, women have purses, as a general rule.”

And so I turned to my coworkers. Please, I asked in a bid for neutrality and scientific rigor, help me prove my conspiracy theory.

Among six male and six female Ringer employees, the women carried bigger screens by nearly 0.2 inches.

It has taken me a while, but I am coming around to the truth of my SE love, which is that I am a dinosaur. I am a crank, a holdout, and a neo-Luddite. The overwhelming majority of my phone-cradling brethren would rather not do all their tapping in the space of a 2.31-inch keyboard; if their thumbs cannot reach the far corners of their phones, they will opt for the revolutionary technology of using their other hands. The technology has evolved.

And yet: Plenty of people still want small phones. At the 2016 unveiling of the SE, Apple revealed that 30 million people had purchased its 4-inch phones in the previous year—the then-outdated iPhones 4 and 5—good for almost 8 percent of the 232 million phones Apple sold in 2015, according to Wired.

So we wait for the next little thing. And though it might be a long time coming, we may at least stand a better chance of not cracking our old ones.