EletiofeBig Love for the Small iPhone

Big Love for the Small iPhone


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The people have been heard. Over the years, iPhones have swelled in size. Phones with giant displays are appealing: Our eyes can’t help but look at them, hundreds of times a day, just as our hands can’t help but fumble them. They seem to never run out of juice.

But plenty of people have begged to see the trend reversed. They’ve wanted smaller phones, an iPhone reminiscent of the rugged iPhone 4S, or the slightly larger, 4.8-inch iPhone 5. They’ve wanted a phone they can comfortably hold, not another aluminum albatross with a force-field hold over them. A smartphone is supposed to fit into your life, not give you hand cramps or tumble out of your back pocket when you use the toilet.

So Apple made the iPhone 12 Mini. It’s part of this year’s lineup of iPhone 12s—four in total. The iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro shipped first, and now, a few weeks later, the iPhone 12 Mini and iPhone 12 Pro Max are ready. The Mini, as its name suggests, is the smallest of the lot. It has a 5.4-inch diagonal display. It weighs under 5 ounces. Remember flicking, swiping, and texting with one hand? It’s that.

Unlike the small-ish iPhone SE, which was just released this spring, the Mini has newer tech packed in it. The latest chip. A better camera. And support for 5G. Honestly, the iPhone 12 Mini is such a no-brainer that even if you didn’t think you wanted a smol phone, you might still find yourself drawn to the Mini. I’m tempted to upgrade not to the “regular” iPhone 12, but the iPhone 12 Mini—even if using the smaller keypad makes my text accuracy noticeably worse.

The smallest iPhone 12 next to the biggest iPhone 12.

Photograph: Apple 

The iPhone 12 Mini starts at $699 if you purchase it along with a carrier plan. It’s $729 if you buy the phone unlocked. That’s for the least amount of storage (64GB). Naturally, prices go up from there. It caps at 256 gigabytes of internal storage.

It’s not a cheap phone. It exceeds what market research firms would consider a “midrange” price for a smartphone, and it’s the same price as Google’s newest Pixel phone. The iPhone 12 Mini is also significantly more expensive than the 2020 iPhone SE, which starts at $399. I’ve included a few photo comparisons in this review, taking a series of shots on both the iPhone 12 Mini and SE, because I think these are the two main contenders for people who seek a small-ish, less expensive iPhone.

But the way to think about the iPhone 12 Mini is really that this is a new iPhone. The iPhone SE has top and bottom bezels, a liquid crystal display, and a home button. That’s all good and fine. But the iPhone 12 Mini is a modern pocket rocket. It has almost all of the same features of the new iPhone 12s (except for some of the advanced camera stuff that comes with the Pro models). It has the same flat edges, the same hardened glass-ceramic composite, the same edge-to-edge OLED display, the same super-speedy processor, and the same 5G support. Another way to look at the iPhone 12 Mini is to just read my review of the iPhone 12. It’s that, but smaller.

Size Matters

As I write this, I am tired of screens. I’m sure this has nothing to do with the fact that I’ve been living my life primarily through screens for the past eight months, or refreshing maps of the US electoral college for the past week. (Of course it does). Since the pandemic began, I’ve noted that the structure of my day has been assembled around whatever screen I need to use—waking up to check the phone, shuffling over to the laptop, transitioning to entertainment on a TV, falling asleep to an iPad. Even my cult-ish exercise bike has a giant tablet jammed on it, and I sometimes imagine it is only a matter of time before these products come with three screens and are marketed under the name Cerberus.

Wouldn’t it be nice to deprioritize screens? Even if that means just using one that’s slightly smaller? That’s what it felt like to switch to the iPhone 12 Mini. It’s still a smartphone. It’s not this kind of baby phone. But I just felt like I had more control over my phone. It’s so light, so airy. It fit into the small side pocket of the stretch pants I’ve been wearing more than I care to admit.

Its screen is big enough to read emails, scroll on Twitter, or look at maps when it’s docked in your car, but it’s small enough that watching more than one episode of a Netflix series gets annoying. This was my experience, anyway; I watched an hour-long episode of The Queen’s Gambit on it, but by the following episode I was tired of watching on my baby phone and went to bed. It can be used as an entertainment device, for how-to videos on YouTube or dance duets on TikTok, but the iPhone 12 Mini just didn’t suck me in the same way my larger phone does. I found myself hitting the edges, both physically and metaphorically, of the amount of stuff I’d look at or watch or read. That’s a good thing.

Its tininess has its downsides. I am in awe of some of the non-words I have almost sent in text messages this week, autocorrect be damned. Its speakers aren’t spectacular, as you might expect from a physically smaller device. It’s fine enough for watching videos, but phone calls at high volumes sometimes sound distorted. Since I make a lot of calls on speakerphone (I know, I’m sorry, I only do this when I am alone), this felt like an actual drawback.

Blame It on the Juice

The iPhone 12 Mini’s battery life was better than I expected—but still not great. On a particularly active day last week, I took the fully juiced phone off its charger at 11 am, used Google Maps for 20 minutes or so, listened to a couple of podcasts, snapped photos and videos, made a few phone calls (including one lasting over an hour), browsed Twitter and Instagram, and watched Netflix at night. I hit the 10 percent battery mark around 10 pm. So the phone wouldn’t have lasted a “full day” had my phone test started earlier that morning.

Also, I wasn’t connected to a 5G wireless network. I was using my 4G SIM card that particular day. After that I swapped in a 5G SIM, but 5G isn’t widely available where I live, and as I experienced when I reviewed the regular iPhone 12, I only noticed the iPhone 12 Mini connect to a 5G network on one occasion. So I can’t say how regularly connecting to 5G will affect battery life on this phone. This is something to consider if you plan to try to squeeze years out of this phone, as ideally you would with any consumer electronic.

  • Image may contain Animal Mammal Pet Cat and Sink

  • Image may contain Animal Mammal Pet Cat Furniture and Home Decor

  • Image may contain Gravel Road Dirt Road Tree Plant Path Ground and Trail

Photograph: Lauren Goode

A photo of Nougat, the best cat in the world (according to my expert opinion), shot on iPhone 12 Mini. 

As for the iPhone 12 Mini’s camera—it’s the iPhone 12’s camera! (You’ll notice a theme here.) The rear camera module contains both a wide camera and an ultrawide camera. The selfie-camera (which is part of the Face ID system) is a single wide lens. Apple has made some improvements in computational photography over the past year, though, which means the camera software is better. The faster chip in the iPhone 12s helps a lot too. And here, again, is where the 5.4-inch iPhone 12 Mini stands out from the similarly sized, less expensive iPhone SE; the iPhone SE doesn’t take wide-angle photos, can’t capture objects in Portrait mode, and doesn’t handle high-contrast settings nearly as well as the Mini. Obvious product differentiation aside, it’s kind of remarkable that these two phones were released just six months apart.

Have I convinced you that a slightly smaller iPhone might be what you need? A phone you’ll carry comfortably on walks and jogs, lose between the couch cushions, and fish for in the dark space of your bag or backpack? A phone that won’t take up too much space on your nightstand, or on the dinner table when we can all go back to eating together again? A phone that won’t suck up too much space in your brain?

I’m not suggesting a small iPhone will cure our collective obsession with phones. But maybe, with all the big things we’re facing every day, a phone doesn’t have to be one of them. It could be one less thing.

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