We’ve spent a good chunk of space extolling the virtues of phablets lately, telling you which ones to grab and why they aren’t as intimidating as they might appear. In some cases, though, big is always going to be just a little too big. The smartphone world continues to trend towards the supersized, but if you’re dead set on something you can always use with one hand, we’ve rounded up our favorite compact phones currently on the market.
A few notes: For the sake of this article, we’re considering “compact” to be any phone with a screen smaller than 5 inches, as that’s become the general cutoff point for most top-tier devices. A 4.7-inch screen is the most common size here; although that’s far from tiny, most recent phones with more diminutive panels are too cheaply made for us to recommend in good faith. A few of our choices aren’t totally new either, but that’s what you get when so many manufacturers refuse to build high-end features into phones of this size. Nevertheless, the lot of them are still more than capable for most needs. More importantly, they’re some of the only phones that are both reliable and easy to fit in your pocket.
But First, A Few (Dis)Honorable Mentions
As we said, most smartphone manufacturers have become convinced that there isn’t much money to be made in a high-quality handset with a sub-5 inch screen. The area between 5 and 5.5-inches is now the comfort zone for most modern flagships, with those big screens featuring high resolutions, the most recent software, and generally overpowered internals. They’re marketed the most, they’re updated the most, and they sell the most.
That doesn’t mean that these OEMs have completely forgotten the small — or smallish, a 4.7-inch screen is still considerably bigger than what was commonplace as recently as 2011 – phone sector,. For the most part, the smaller phones we get nowadays can be broken down into two types. The first are those that are dubbed “mini” versions of existing flagships, even though they usually aren’t close to what such branding would suggest in terms of power, features, and general togetherness.
There’ve been many examples of these over the past few months: LG’s G2 Mini, for one, is a decent enough mid-range phone in its own right, but its low-res display and bland build make it a far cry from the tricks you’d from a genuine flagship like the LG G3. The HTC One Remix is more or less the same thing, providing a passable imitation of the superior One (M8), but downgrading almost every aspect within it. Samsung’s Galaxy S5 Mini is a little more egregious, taking an already disappointing phone and diminishing the one thing (its spec sheet) it had going for it. Devices like these aren’t as expensive as their flashier siblings, but directly further the unfair perception that “smaller” equals “weaker.”
The second group that’s emerged consists of devices from companies that aren’t quite bathing in smartphone pedigree, and see the sub-5 inch arena as an open market. These include the Sharp Aquos Crystal and Amazon Fire Phone, which carry plenty of interesting ideas but are ultimately as good as you’d expect from a manufacturer’s first real moonshot. (The former is mediocre in everything besides its stunning design; the latter is saddled with aimless gimmicks and ugly software.) Then you’ve got something like the BlackBerry Classic, which comes from a recovering OEM and is generally solid, but is considerably tailored towards a particular niche of users. (In this case, anyone who still swears by BlackBerry.)
So the field of non-huge handsets isn’t at its strongest, but that doesn’t mean small phone shoppers are totally devoid of viable options. Here are five of them, which are either helping to reverse this troubling trend or are simply aging well.
The Galaxy Alpha is far from perfect, but with the pickings this slim it does just enough right to warrant a spot on the tail end of our favorites. Like the aforementioned Galaxy S5 Mini, it brings a few too many of the things that made the flagship Galaxy S5 so underwhelming – namely, Samsung’s sloppy and bloated TouchWiz interface. The AT&T exclusive also suffers from a display marred by color reproduction issues.
However, when looked at purely as an alternative for the millions of existing Galaxy phone owners, the Alpha is one of the better handsets Samsung has produced over the last couple of years. It’s certainly one of the best built – for now, at least; the Galaxy S6 is just around the corner – it takes high-end photos, and it’s packed with internals befitting a phone a half-inch bigger. AT&T’s also cut its price since launch, so those weaker areas a little bit easier to gloss over than were before. If you’ve always been able to live with the Galaxy line’s shortcomings, you could do worse than this.
4. Moto X (2013)
We know, we know – that says 2013. We weren’t kidding about the whole “all the attention goes to the big phones” idea. Buying a two-year old phone on contract isn’t smart if you want something futureproof, but if you need compactness and can buy unsubsidized, the device that started Motorola’s renaissance is worth picking up.
Yes, the original Moto X was underwhelming on the spec sheet even when it launched, so its 720p display and Snapdragon S4 Pro chipset look even more dated today, but the differences aren’t as bad as they might seem in practice. It’ll never be blazing fast, but it’s not like it’ll be outright slow either.
The main reason you’d want this Moto X, though, is its software. Motorola produces the best Android skin in the business, letting Google do its thing while adding genuine enhancements like enhanced voice control and a faster camera app. It’s also among in line to receive an upgrade to Android 5.0, making it a great and not-huge way to get a pure version of Google’s newest UI. The latest Moto X is almost universally superior, but it’s bigger, so the original remains a good choice for Android loyalists looking for something easier on the pockets (and the wallet).
3. HTC One (M7)
The One (M7) is another phone that will be two generations old in the near future, but it’s aged much more gracefully than its Motorola counterpart above. It’s still gorgeous, for one – although we adored the added metal on its successor, this is still the phone that helped push the phone world towards actually caring about design quality.
The visual differences between it and the 5-inch One (M8) aren’t dramatic in the slightest – in fact, its smaller frame and polycarbonate edges actually make it easier to grip. It’s still powerful, too, with a gorgeous 1080p display (the sharpest of any phone on this list) and a Snapdragon 600 chipset that more than holds up today. HTC’s also worked hard to upgrade its Sense UI skin over the past few years, so the One (M7)’s software today is much less cluttered than it was at launch. Again, we wouldn’t recommend tying yourself down to a two-year old phone for too long, but given that it only goes for a couple hundred bucks today, the One (M7) still provides good value in a small (enough) package.
There isn’t much we can say about Apple’s iPhones that hasn’t already been said. They’ve done good by millions upon millions of users for close to a decade now, and the iPhone 6 doesn’t do much to stop the juggernaut. Apple’s latest flagship is a leap forward for the iPhone line’s design, as it increases the metal, rounds out the edges, and slims the sides of the series’ old look, all while dramatically boosting the screen size from the (still excellent) iPhone 5s.
But even with its new (and pretty) 4.7-inch panel, the extreme growth on the Android side of the market means that this comparatively compact among other high-end devices. The iPhone 6 isn’t without faults – lacking storage space, an underwhelming and non-removable battery, and a display that could maybe be a little sharper – but it’s an upgrade over the 5s all the same, with the kind of reliable performance and superb camera we’ve come to expect from an Apple phone. It’s the top choice for any iOS user interested in a one-handed phone.
It’s a shame that Sony’s had such a hard time getting its Xperia series off the ground, as it’s really the only Android manufacturer willing to treat its “mini” flagship like, well, a flagship. Much like the Xperia Z1 Compact before it, the Xperia Z3 Compact simply doesn’t skimp in any notable way. Just like the standard Xperia Z3, its quad-core Snapdragon 801 chipset is supremely strong, it carries a superb 20.7-megapixel camera, and its build is stylish, well-proportioned, and heavily water-resistant. It also takes the idea of being “compact” seriously, as it’s thin and light in addition to having a smaller, 4.6-inch screen.
As with the iPhone 6, the 720p display would benefit from a resolution bump, but it’s a plus panel on the whole. Unlike the iPhone 6, its 16 GB of included storage is upgradable through microSD. And while Sony’s Android skin is a little bit heavier than Motorola’s, the changes aren’t thick – good news considering that, like the Moto X, the Z3 Compact is one of the first non-Google phones to get upgraded to Android 5.0 Lollipop. Oh, and it also comes cheaper (now around $500) than most other flagships, iPhone 6 included.
Really, the only major negatives here are a non-removable (but still solid) battery and some quirks with the display’s viewing angles. Other than that, the Xperia Z3 Compact is a top-notch, up-to-date phone that just happens to be small. It’s an example worth following for other OEMs, and a reason to hope that the small-handed among us won’t be forgotten after all.