Bigger isn’t always better: Six of the smallest smartphones worth buying

pixel 2 best smallest smartphones
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Sony Xperia XZ2 and XZ2 Compact hands on review
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

With smartphones seemingly getting larger and larger with each year, you’d be forgiven for forgetting that the smallest smartphones out there can be just as good as the big boys on the block. Having a huge screen is great, but sometimes you just want something that you can easily use in one hand — and that’s why we’ve assembled this list of the greatest, smallest smartphones that will steal your heart, but sit comfortably in your palm.

Google Pixel 2

Pixel 2 best smallest smartphones
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Like the Pixel that came before it, the Pixel 2 is the best way to experience Android. That’s because it comes from the creator of Android, Google, and as a result, the Pixel’s hardware is closely tailored to complement Android’s every little need. And what hardware it is! The Pixel 2’s small frame is packed with the latest technological advances, including the raw power of the Snapdragon 835, the new Active Edge system, and quite possibly the best smartphone camera on the planet. It’s a little bigger than the first Pixel, but it still sports a 5-inch screen that makes it perfect for use with just the one hand.

There are downsides. There’s no MicroSD card slot again, and the headphone jack seems to have been taken around the back of the barn. The lack of an edge-to-edge display also means that the Pixel 2 looks a little dated when compared to the latest phones from Samsung, LG, and Apple — but if you’re looking for a phone that won’t stretch your hand, then the gorgeous and easily reached confines of the 1920 x 1080-pixel AMOLED screen should be right up your alley. The blacks are inky dark, the colors vibrant, and the details are crisp in all the right places. Despite the bezels, it’s still a gorgeous device.

The highlight of this phone is without doubt the camera. Google has snubbed the dual-camera trend again, instead rocking with a single 12-megapixel lens with an aperture of f/1.8. There’s nothing stunning about these numbers to indicate the incredible performance, and it’s within the camera’s software that we see the magic that Google has wrought. Simply put, Google has somehow created software that allows the Pixel 2 to perform the same photography trickery that other manufacturers use two lenses to create. This is no half-baked implementation either; we think the Pixel 2 beats most other smartphones, and it’s consistent, too. Quite possibly the best smartphone camera around at the moment.

Getting real for a second, it is expensive. Prices start at $649 for 64GB of internal storage, and it costs an extra $100 to upgrade that internal storage to 128GB. And remember, since there’s no MicroSD slot, that’s all you’re getting. Granted, Pixel owners do get unlimited high-quality photo storage on Google Photos for free, which goes some way to redressing that issue. Other issues persist from the first generation of Pixels, including the rubbish battery life. Though, like the Pixel, that’s countered by the exceptionally fast charging speed. Waterproofing has been added, with an IP67 rating, so you’re protected from some of the elements, though wireless charging is missing again. But if those downsides and the dated looks don’t bother you, you like the look of the camera, and you want the best Android performance possible, the Pixel 2 is the smaller screen for you. You can find more in our full Pixel 2 review.

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iPhone SE

iPhone SE - smallest smartphones
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If you’re an Apple fan with a penchant for smaller screens, then this entry isn’t for you. Why? Because you already own the iPhone SE and are reading these words in teeny-weeny-vision. The iPhone SE has the smallest screen size on this list, measuring in at a practically minuscule 4 inches. But if you long for the days when you could reach the top of phone screens with no issue, then the iPhone SE is the phone you’re looking for.

Don’t be fooled by the small screen — the iPhone SE is no tiny performer. Apple has used dark magic to cram the powerful guts of the iPhone 6S into the SE’s tiny shell, and it works beautifully. The design is reminiscent of the iPhone 5S because, er, it is the iPhone 5S — but that shouldn’t put you off, because 2013’s iPhone 5S is still something of a looker four years later, and the retro look the 5S’s body affords the SE only adds to the charm.

There are downsides to the iPhone SE, of course. While the camera on the back is the same solid 12-megapixel snapper we saw on the iPhone 6S, the front-facing camera is something of a let down, with a puny 1.2-megapixel eye staring back at you. If you take a lot of selfies, then the front camera is likely to be something of a disappointment. 3D Touch is also missing from this, despite making its debut in the iPhone 6S, and the overall battery life might well struggle to make it through the day unaided. As is par for the Apple course, storage is limited to what you get onboard, with 32 GB and 128 GB options available.

However, these downsides are fairly minor, and regular for Apple fans. Apple’s usual polish is present throughout, and the SE’s performance is as smooth as you expect from the Cupertino giant. The iPhone SE also currently runs the latest version of iOS, with regular and prompt updates continuing to be Apple’s strength over the Android masses — and since it’s Apple, the SE will likely continue to be supported for a few more years yet.

This tiny titan is definitely worth your time if you’re not opposed to picnicking in Apple’s walled garden — and you can check out our full iPhone SE review for more details on how well it handles. But if you’re not sold by the SE, it’s also definitely worth checking out the 4.7-inch iPhone 8 as another astonishingly good iPhone that fits the boundaries of the smallest smartphones.

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Samsung Galaxy S9

galaxy s9 Plus hands-on review front full
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

OK, so we’re really starting to push the acceptable boundaries for “small” here, but hear us out. The Samsung Galaxy S9 is the largest phone on this list, and while it’s rather larger than entries like the iPhone SE and the XZ2 Compact, it’s only fractionally larger than the Pixel 2. That still doesn’t make it the smallest phone around, but it’s one of the best phones around right now, and packs an awful lot of features into a relatively svelte body.

As has been Samsung’s wont since the Galaxy S8, the S9 is dominated by a huge 5.8-inch display that curves around the edges and takes up almost the entire front of the phone, save for slim bezels at the top and bottom of the screen. The display has received some accolades already, with DisplayMate awarding it an A+ rating and praising Samsung’s screen tech. It’s as gorgeous as you’d expect from an AMOLED display, with deep inky blacks, vibrant colors, and a super-crisp pixels-per-inch measurement of 570.

It’s not all beauty and no brains either — it’s powered by Qualcomm’s newest Snapdragon 845, which blew away our benchmarking expectations in our S9 Plus review. The 4GB of RAM means it can multitask beautifully, while 64GB of internal storage and space for a MicroSD card means you shouldn’t be running out of space any time soon. Best of all if you’re still rocking a pair of wired headphones, the S9 comes with a headphone port.

If you’ve been following our camera tests then you’ll know the S9’s camera is top-of-the-range, and possibly one of the finest in the world. While you won’t find the dual-lens set-up from the S9 Plus, the single snapper on the S9 is more than up to the job with a mechanically altered aperture that delivers excellent low light performance.

It’s not the most affordable of smartphones. Prices for the Galaxy S9 start at $720, and while there are plenty of carrier deals that can snag you money off with trade-ins and the like, it’s an undeniably expensive phone. Still, it’s one of the best phones in the world right now, and if money is no object but hand-space is, then you’ll struggle to find a better phone for your money.

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Moto E4

Moto E4 lifestyle - smallest smartphones
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If you’re looking for something that won’t impact your bottom line as much as the first few entries, then you could do much worse than the Moto E4. It’s clearly a budget device, and the materials the Moto E4 is made from reflect this — as does the lack of NFC support. The 5-inch screen is decent, capable of outputting up to 720p — which is more than enough for most applications if you’re not squinting at the screen. The camera is similar budget stock, and pretty standard for the price-point. The battery is decent as well, and capable of making it through the day.

The real key with a budget device is getting enough bang for your buck, and it’s here that the Moto E4 really shines. In our review of the E4, we found the E4 to be a pleasant surprise, both smooth and responsive. The device is running the latest version of Android — Android 7.1.1, and the experience is as close to stock Android as you can get without going “full Google”, with a minimal amount of bloatware.

Yes, the Moto E4 has made compromises — but it’s nothing that you shouldn’t expect for such a budget device. We racked up the negatives in the early part of this entry, but it’s important to realize that it’s in spite of these limitations that the Moto E4 comes out as a great phone. If you can put up with a cheaper build, and not having top-of-the-line specs, the Moto E4 is a steal for its $130 price tag — and doubly so if you get it with an Amazon Prime Exclusive deal.

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Sony Xperia XZ2 Compact

Sony Xperia XZ2 and XZ2 Compact hands on review
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Sony is one of the few big names still in the business of regularly updating its range of small smartphones, and we love the company for it. The Xperia XZ2 Compact, the most recent addition to the Xperia’s Compact range, is Sony’s most powerful yet, and a great choice for a smaller smartphone that’s squat in the hand but doesn’t compromise on power.

You might have noticed something if you’re familiar with the older Xperia phones. Yes, Sony has finally moved away from the old Omnibalance design philosophy and embraced “Ambient Flow,” a new design based on water. It’s great looking, with softer curves that may remind you of an HTC phone, while still retaining the traditionally “boxy” Xperia silhouette. This device isn’t much larger than the iPhone SE, but still manages to squeeze an 18:9, 5-inch screen that displays a full HD 1080p resolution, as well as IP65/IP68 waterproofing. There’s no headphone jack, but there is now a fingerprint sensor on the back, ending the long tradition of Xperia phones shipping without fingerprint support in the U.S.

It’s similarly impressive on the inside, with the latest Snapdragon 845 taking up residence, as well as 4GB of RAM and 64GB of internal storage — the same specifications as the Galaxy S9. While we’re still waiting to test the XZ2 Compact to see whether it’s as impressive as Samsung’s latest, we expect the phone to do well in our performance tests.

The camera is as impressive as in past Xperia phones, and though we haven’t yet had the time to fully evaluate the tech, the XZ2 Compact is packing a hefty 19-megapixel, f/2.0 camera that should offer decent shots. The standout feature here, though, is the slow motion video, which is now capable of capturing 960 fps at 1080p HD quality. That’s seriously impressive.

We’re not sure on U.S. pricing or release dates for the XZ2 Compact yet, though we do know that Sony will be launching a Verizon-specific version of the phone when it releases. The XZ2 and XZ2 Compact have recently gone up for pre-order in Europe for the sum of 599 euros for the XZ2 Compact — roughly $700. The Amazon listings for those pre-orders put the release date at April 6, so it’s likely the phone will release around that time in the U.S. as well.

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Essential Phone (PH-1)

Best Essential Phone cases
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We hesitate when putting edge-to-edge displays on this list. A loss of bezels on a modern phone usually means screen sizes in excess of that we previously saw on phablets, but it also means the frame itself is of a significantly smaller size, so we feel we can recommend these handsets to a few people who might be curious on the benefits of a bezel-less future. Such is the case with the Essential Phone (or Essential PH-1). With a 5.7-inch screen it’s one of the largest displays on this list, but the body of the phone itself is about the same size of that of the Pixel 2. The result is a front area dominated by a screen, and it’s utterly gorgeous, in fact, we could barely keep our eyes off it. The back is clad in ceramic over titanium, and it’s minimal, but also really quite hefty.  We didn’t mind that though, as it added an extremely premium feel to the phone.

The internals are pretty much what you’d expect from a flagship. Our old friend the Snapdragon 835 is here again — give it a wave — as is the Adreno 540 you’ll find on the Pixel 2 and various other 2017 flagships. It’s a great combination, and it keeps the Essential Phone running vanilla Android 7.1 Nougat smoothly. An update to Android 8.1 Oreo is on the way, though, so no need to worry about be stuck in Nougat-land while everyone else is enjoying the new Android. The Essential Phone also employs a system of modular attachments that can be stuck onto the two shiny pins on the back of the phone. At this time, there’s only a 360-degree camera available, but Essential is working on a wireless dock too.

It has a few downsides. The 3.5mm jack is missing, presumed dead, and there’s no MicroSD card slot either — though the one option of 128GB of internal storage should be enough for anyone. It’s also lacking in some of the waterproofing you might expect from a flagship phone, and only includes protection against water spray with an IP54 rating. The largest let-down has to be the camera, and while it has improved since our first review, it’s still lacking in what you should be expecting from this price range, and falls well short of the leaders in smartphone photography.

Despite those few downfalls, the Essential Phone is still a great phone, and since its launch, it’s suffered a few drops in price. You can currently pick it up for $499 from Essential themselves, for just $449 from Amazon, or pick it up from Sprint starting from $5 a month. A great phone for those who want to look into this new trend of maximum screen size and minimal phone footprint, and who aren’t bothered by the shortcomings. You can read more about the phone in our full Essential Phone review.

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