When rumors about Apple’s 2018 iPhones started leaking out, I crossed my fingers. We knew before Wednesday’s event that Apple would be releasing three new phones and that one of them would be a budget model. There were a number of ways Apple could choose to make a cheaper iPhone: Using less expensive exterior materials such as aluminum or plastic, using last year’s internal hardware in a redesigned outer shell, or making a device that uses less battery and fewer materials because it’s smaller in size. It was this final option—a smaller phone—that I hoped for.
Unfortunately, my dreams have officially been dashed. Apple unveiled the “budget” iPhone XR, an iPhone X–like smartphone with a 6.1-inch edge-to-edge LED display. The phone is cheap, comparatively: $749 compared with the iPhone XS’s $999 price tag. Inside, it’s not all that different from the iPhone XS and XS Max, the other new iPhones announced on Wednesday, with the same A12 bionic chipset. But while the phone may be a lot of things, it’s definitely not small.
I have the same problem as many other smartphone owners: I have small hands. Well, they’re not that small, they’re just woman-size, less than 3 inches across and less than 7 inches from wrist to fingertips. With my average-size hands, I have problems with today’s phones. They’re virtually impossible to use one handed, which is of course necessary this time of year because I’ve got a pumpkin spice latte glued to my other hand. I kid, but one-handed use is nearly out of the question. On bike rides, I see riders whipping out their phone to take a selfie or snap a photo of a beautiful vista, but I don’t dare for fear my $1,000 slab of glass will slip from my awkward sweaty grasp. Then there’s the problem of fitting into pockets in the first place. Years ago, I bought jackets and workout clothes with specific pockets for a phone. The apparel is still in great condition, but these phone pockets are woefully, impossibly small for a 5-plus-inch handset—never mind a whopper like the 6.5-inch iPhone XS Max. And while the increased screen real estate is convenient for multitasking, watching videos, and getting work done on the go, I’d much rather be able to comfortably slip my phone into my jeans pocket again—a feat that hasn’t been possible for years.
These problems are felt by men, too. After switching to a Nexus 6P in 2016, one Computerworld columnist commented that he “always resented having that hulking rectangle in [his] pocket,” an annoyance in dress pants and nuisance in athletic attire. He even started leaving his phone at home more often and opting to bring an older, 2014-era phone to the gym for music. Switching to the smaller 5-inch Google Pixel solved his woes.
According to the experts, nobody wants small phones anymore. In May 2017, analysis firm IDC charted expectations for best-selling smartphone sizes from 2015 to 2021. Its research suggested demand for sub-4-inch smartphones would shrink from 100 million units to nil over the next few years, and shipments of 4- to 5-inch smartphones will drop by more than half. In the meantime, 5- to 7-inch smartphones will be, and have become, the new norm.
The industry has turned this into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Smartphone-makers barely offer small smartphones anymore—the 2-year-old, 4.9-inch iPhone SE and 4.6-inch Sony Xperia XZ1 Compact are a couple of the few left, and Apple just discontinued the former. Since consumers can’t buy these smaller-size phones if they’re not available, it proves analyst predictions like IDC’s to be correct as new phone buyers are forced into buying giant phablets.
Now, phones that are less than 6 inches in size are considered small. But even on a “small” phone the size of an iPhone 6, 7, or 8, the average woman can only reach around two-thirds of the screen with her thumb. The Ringer’s Claire McNear recently lamented that the iPhone 4 was “as good as it was going to get” for her and smartphones now that they’re all so large.
I had hopes that Apple might throw us little guys a bone with an update to the iPhone SE this year, but instead we’ve got the 6.1-inch iPhone XR and no iPhone SE. Large-screened devices may suit a certain percentage of the population, but despite the stats, there are still consumers who crave a phone that can be used one handed without sustaining a texting thumb injury. I’m sure the XR is not a bad phone, but it’s not the phone I want—a phone I can use, and fit in my pockets, comfortably.