Handsets that are less of a handful
Small is a relative term in 2022: smartphones that were once considered pocket-filling phablets are now par for the course. But if you want a mobile that’s easier to tote, what’s the best compact phone you can buy?
We’ll start by defining ‘compact’. It says a lot that some models with ‘Mini’ in their name still ship with 5.4in screens – and there’s no escaping that handset dimensions have expanded considerably over the last decade. But not all smartphones go big in 2022.
Some adopt form factors from five years ago, while others feature frame-filling displays that maximise every inch of available space. Sure, they’ll still dwarf the 4in phones of old, but they should at least be more manageable than your average modern flagship.
Whether you’ve got smaller paws or simply want a smartphone that doesn’t demand quite so much pocket space, you should find your ideal small phone below.
Want the full-fat Apple smartphone experience with less of the fat? The iPhone 13 Mini improves on its petite predecessor to deliver a pocketable handset that’s largely free from compromise. Almost comically compact next to its contemporaries, you can comfortably use the Mini one-handed – and its flat-panel design looks as tidy as on any recent iPhone.
Its 5.4in OLED display is rich, sharp and brighter than before. The notch has shrunk, although it does still intrude at the top. Refresh rates remain capped at 60Hz, but iOS is snappy enough that this rarely matters. Shooting specs are solid, too: the 12MP main sensor produces impressive results, with the help of optical image stabilisation and enhanced light-gathering. A telephoto lens would’ve been more versatile than an ultra-wide, mind.
Despite its dinky dimensions, Apple’s A15 processor means the Mini tops smartphone performance charts. You’ll regularly revel at how a phone of this size can deal with any app, task or game. Battery life is less spectacular, but it’s improved over the previous Mini. And as a complete package, the iPhone 13 Mini is a little wonder.
Compact packaging, full-size performance: this is by some margin the best small phone you can buy
Adopting the familiar form factor of the iPhone 8, Apple’s revived iPhone SE is a unique proposition. Its 4.7in LCD feels tiny by today’s standards, yet it also ships with a speedy A13 processor inside, with the power to zip through tasks and keep iOS 15 running lag-free.
Its design is evidently a throwback, with a chunky bezel and a physical home button. But while it can’t match the buttonless immersion of full-frame flagships, the styling stops short of dated. It still feels premium in the hand – and refreshingly light at 148g.
With just a single lens on the rear, the camera setup looks seriously streamlined next to the multiple lenses found on contemporary range-toppers. The 12MP sensor itself is the same as the one found on the iPhone 8, but that A13 chip steps image processing up a gear, offering improved colour reproduction and low-light results.
Want 5G connectivity? You’ll need the 2022 edition of the SE, which also offers a faster A15 chip and slightly boosted battery life, in the same compact packaging.
Solid performance in a compact form at an affordable price: the iPhone SE sets the bar for mid-range miniature mobiles
Like its predecessor below, the Zenfone 9 squeezes superlative performance into a pocket-friendly package. Chunky at 9.1mm, it sits comfortably in the hand, with a synthetic layer giving the plastic back something of a premium feel.
Bezels are marginally larger top and bottom, but the 5.9in display otherwise fills the front of the Zenfone 9. It’s a punchy OLED panel with adaptive 120Hz refresh rates, HDR10+ credentials and fantastic colour accuracy. At 445ppi, it’s seriously sharp as well – even if peak brightness is less than the best at 800 nits.
Two sizeable stabilised eyes reside on the rear: a 50MP Sony sensor and a 12MP ultra-wide. Results are reliably fine, occasionally good but never excellent, with auto processing not doing justice to the hardware. That said, 8K video is brilliant at 30fps.
Generally deployed in gaming handsets, a Snapdragon 8+ Gen 1 chip makes the Zenfone 9 something of a small superphone. Asus’ take on Android 12 even includes a ROG-like game enhancer mode. During our time with the device, there were no bugs, crashes or overheating issues. Charging rates are capped at 30W, but the 4300mAh battery can comfortably make it through the day – provided you limit 5G downloads.
Its camera specs might not be best in class, but the Zenfone 9 is otherwise an Android powerhouse in compact packaging, complete with solid build quality and impressive battery life
Google’s Pixel 6a is a superb, well-rounded phone that continues the Pixel range’s track record for killer cameras. Considering the far more affordable price tag —when compared to flagship rivals more than twice the price, at least — you’re getting a hell of a lot of camera quality for your money here.
It isn’t perfect though. Nothing is. You can get other Android handsets for a similar price, that have nippier charging and a faster-than-60Hz display. There’s no wireless charging either, and you might be bored with the relatively unchanged design. With all that said though, this is a choice that’s hard to argue against, especially if you’re perfectly comfortable darting your digits around its 6.1in screen.
Confirmation (if more were needed) that affordable Google phones are the best Google phones. The Pixel 6a has a few rough edges, but its cameras and streamlined software are second to none in the Android world
Apple’s first ‘Mini’ model remains a great small phone today. A downsized iPhone 12, it adopts the same flat-back-and-sides styling and robust Ceramic Shield up front. It’s actually shorter and slimmer than the iPhone SE (above), but the absence of bezels means it can benefit from a bigger 5.4in display. The panel itself is a sharp OLED number that serves up brilliant contrast and vibrant colours – although you’re still living with a notch and refresh rates that top out at 60Hz.
Running the show is Apple’s A14 Bionic chip, a properly capable processor which equips the Mini with super-size performance. The 13 Mini is technically more powerful, but you’ll only notice that difference if you really push the limits. For most people, the 12 Mini is more than fast enough to zip through daily duties.
The camera hardware is similarly convincing, producing well-defined, dynamic snaps in normal conditions. So what holds the original Mini back? Battery life. Where the 13 Mini is just OK, the 12 Mini has disappointing longevity. It’s simply not on a par with its larger siblings. That said, lower prices mean the iPhone 12 Mini still represents solid value a few years after launch.
Battery life isn’t world-beating, but that’s a small price to pay for an iPhone that’s a miniature marvel in every other way
A full-fat flagship with a form factor that’s easier to stash in your trousers, the Asus Zenfone 8 combines portability with serious power. There’s a top-spec Snapdragon 888 processor inside, which can be paired with up to 16GB of RAM. The result is flawless performance, even when playing power-hungry Android games.
Its back might be bland, but the Zenfone 8 is well built. Its 5.9in AMOLED panel delivers dynamic refresh rates which top out at 120Hz, plus HDR10+ support for lifelike visuals – and it’s easy to use with one hand. Camera performance is likewise dependable: using either the 64MP primary sensor or the 16MP ultra-wide, you’ll get crisp, natural stills with plenty of detail. Low-light results are hardly shabby, either.
5G and Wi-Fi 6 connectivity ensure speedy streaming, while the addition of a headphone port will please hard-wired audiophiles. As with many of the best small phones, the only real limitation is battery life. Despite its decent 4000mAh capacity, the cell is often drained before the end of the day. If you’re happy to carry a power bank in your bag, this compact Asus handset offers plenty that’s worth praising.
If you can live with mediocre battery life, this is a diminutive smartphone with powerhouse performance
Not the newest nor the most powerful, the Pixel 4a offers a lot of what you could want from a small, affordable smartphone. It might lack the premium finish of its glass-and-metal competitors, but its pocket-friendly polycarbonate shell doesn’t feel cheap. Likewise, bezels around the 5.8in panels aren’t the skinniest, but rounded edges and punch-hole selfie camera give it a neat look.
Because it’s an OLED panel, contrast is impeccable, while a better-than-HD resolution delivers great definition. Brightness is less impressive, while refresh rates max out at 60Hz. In the shooting stakes, it sticks to a proven formula: a single 12.2MP sensor, inherited from the Pixel 4. Across almost any scene, subject and setting, the 4a captures fantastic photos with outstanding dynamic range and excellent detail.
Snapdragon 765 silicon isn’t top-spec, but it punches high enough. It’s responsive in day-to-day use, with no stutter when switching apps. It helps that the Pixel 4a runs bloat-free Android as standard. And while its small battery doesn’t look promising on paper, modest hardware – plus Google’s Adaptive Battery smarts – mean you can still get through a full day.
A no-frills phone with all-day battery life, streamlined Android software and a form factor that’s friendly on the pocket
With a 6.7in screen, Samsung’s Galaxy Z Flip 3 doesn’t sound like a small phone. But its party trick gives it proper portability: like a classic clamshell, it can flip satisfyingly shut to form a square. Yes, it’s as thick as two phones when folded (17.1mm), but it also measures a miniature 72.2×86.4mm.
Premium materials make it one of the sturdiest foldables to date. That AMOLED main panel is likewise a thing of beauty, with vivid colours, rich blacks and smooth 120Hz refresh rates. Plus its narrower 22:9 aspect ratio makes it ideal for streaming movies. A smaller 1.9in display on the outside is big enough for framing selfies, controlling music and checking notifications.
Dual 12MP wide and ultra-wide main cameras are perfectly capable, but not excellent. They perform well enough in good lighting, but struggle in dimmer conditions. More convincing is the engine: a Snapdragon 888 chip keeps things swift, with the help of 8GB of RAM. And while the cell is smaller than many flagships, it still delivers a full day’s use.
Beautifully built and bold by design, the Flip 3 is a pocket-friendly clamshell that makes folding phones more accessible
Pared-back in the name of attainability, the older Pixel 5’s spec sheet is a clear tier down from today’s flagships. A mix of useful features (5G, 90Hz refresh rates and IPX8 water-resistance) and cost-saving limitations (a mid-tier Snapdragon processor and pared-back design), it does the basics extremely well, with dimensions that just about count as ‘compact’ by contemporary standards.
The edge-to-edge 6in OLED is bright enough and nicely saturated, while its Full HD resolution is sufficiently sharp. Refresh rates are adapted at the Pixel’s discretion, though, so you can’t force the display to stay at the silkiest 90Hz setting.
Back again is Google’s tried-and-tested 12.2MP main camera, which still performs consistently in virtually all conditions, relying on clever algorithms to do the heavy lifting. The 16MP ultra-wide that flanks it is less useful – and less detailed – than a telephoto, though.
Snapdragon 765G silicon has enough oomph to make vanilla Android feel responsive, especially with the 8GB of RAM in support. Gaming is the main area you’ll notice a lack of muscle. There’s also enough battery capacity to last from breakfast to bedtime, with Extreme Battery Saver available if you need to eke out the juice.
With less-than-flagship specs, the Pixel 5 won’t set your world on fire – but it’s still a reliable option for stock Android in streamlined Google packaging
Despite having a 6.1in screen (making it one of the larger displays on our compact handset list), the tried and tested unique Sony aspect ratio means that the Xperia 5 IV is actually narrower than most of the competition. This makes it a pleasure to use for activities like one-thumb typing and scrolling. The downside, of course, is that you’ll have to reach further to drag down the top notification bar, but that doesn’t detract too much from the overall compact feel on offer.
Size aside, there’s a very capable triple-camera system on the rear, though as is the case with most Xperia handsets, you’ll get the best results if you’re tweaking things manually in pro mode. Despite having the less efficient version of the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 processor, it still manages to surpass quite a few rivals in the longevity department too, though the 30W wired charging speed is nothing to write home about.
As with other Xperia handsets, the 5 IV is more of a niche consideration, but definitely worth exploring, especially if you’re already an Xperia fan.
Everything we loved about the Xperia 1 IV, distilled down for the mainstream with a much more manageable price. The Xperia 5 IV is very creator-friendly, as long as you don’t mind doing a lot of the work yourself
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