Opinion: When Did Small Phones Become A Euphemism For Crappy Phones?

Opinion: When Did Small Phones Become A Euphemism For Crappy Phones?

There was a time when you could buy something that was compact, fast and beautiful. That time is over. “Smaller” is just a polite way to say “here’s the cheap version”. That’s awful.

The 4.3-inch HTC 8X looks like a tremendous phone — the ultra-modern, ultra-functional Windows Phone 8 software paired with killer hardware: LTE, super-dense display, thin form factor and fast innards. It also has a little brother: the 4-inch HTC 8S. But instead of just being the smaller version of what looks to be a very good phone, it’s the good enough version. The affordable version. The watered down version: cheaper camera, less storage, less memory, slower processor and an obviously inferior build quality. The 8X is Glock, the 8S is Nerf.

This isn’t to say there shouldn’t be low-cost smartphone options that will of course have to skimp on power — smartphones should be accessible to everyone, regardless of income. But HTC is saying the small one is the handset you get if you don’t have the money or just don’t care.

Nokia recently pulled the exact same manoeuvre with its Lumia 920, a 4.5-inch masterwork of industrial design. Its 820 counterpart? Not so much. It will be a decent phone, but it’s obviously inferior in every way, inside and out, unless you care more about early-2000s throwback swappable backplates. It feels like a phone for tweens or the elderly, relegated to mediocrity and punted out of memory just because it’s smaller.

In both cases, each company has given us two obvious options: you can have a powerful fat phone or a compact slower phone. There’s no sport coupe. There’s no very-pocketable power choice. Big and good, small and worse. There are always engineering snags, of course — sometimes you just can’t pack as much stuff into a smaller body, particularly when battery life is a big concern. But there’s no plausible excuse for cheap-o build quality and exterior attention to detail. None.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Motorola proved it on the same day Nokia presented this false dilemma, stating poignantly: “Some people just want a smaller phone.” Those people don’t want a slower phone, or a weaker phone, or a chintzier phone — just one that’s not as large. They want the same power and capability without all of that taking up more space. And so Motorola now sells the svelte and snappy RAZR M, a 4.3-inch handset (about as “small” as small gets these days, sadly) that still packs the LTE, processor and memory of its big counterpoint, the HD. It feels like a bullet, not a counterfeit. It’s possible. If Motorola could create a compact performer without compromise, then there’s zero reason why HTC and Nokia can’t (and should’t) do the exact same thing.