There’s currently a lot of controversy surrounding the frequency changes of the Rakuten Mini smartphone from Rakuten, but it’s fair to say that many buyers were attracted by the contract price of 1 yen. And the Rakuten Mini isn’t just cheap: it’s so small that it fits snugly in the palm of your hand, which means excellent portability. It does lack a bit of power, but this is still a really handy smartphone to carry around.
The Rakuten Mini isn’t the only super-mini smartphone: There are several alternatives, including the Palm Phone from Palm and the Jelly Pro and Atom from Unihertz. The roots of these types of devices go all the way back to the Xperia mini series launched by the now defunct Sony Ericsson. The Xperia X10 mini Pro, which was announced in 2010 and featured a small 2.55-inch display and sliding QWERTY keyboard, was a sophisticated small smartphone the likes of which only Sony was producing at that time.
Even now, there are several manufacturers outside Japan producing mini smartphones. A quick search on Amazon or Aliexpress reveals quite a wide selection of such devices on the market. All of the producers of these devices are minor players, but they’re finding their own niche with small smartphones, the size being the USP, which means no need to compete with the big players producing typical cheap smartphones.
There are some products that keep appearing when searching for mini smartphones currently on the market. For example, Soyes’ S10 seems to be one of the leading mini smartphones thanks to its hugely appealing performance.
It has a 3-inch display combined with a tough-looking design housed in what looks like a very strong body. Mini smartphones often tend to have such strong bodies, which is good because their small form makes them easy to drop. In addition to IP68 waterproofing, the manufacturer also claims the body of the S10 can survive 2-meter drops and 2-ton loads and is able to withstand oil and chemicals, but there’s no way of verifying these claims.
It also features NFC, which means you can use it to make payments, so it’s also ideal as a secondary smartphone. Its dimensions are impressive (97.8ｘ51.6ｘ15.7mm), making it the same length as a credit card. Purely looking at the specs, this seems to be an eminently usable device.
It features an 8 MP camera and fingerprint authentication sensor on the rear, and an SOS button and PTT button on the front, so you can call an emergency contact with a single push or connect with another PTT terminal to have conversations as though using a transceiver. The main specs are as follows: an MT6737M SoC, 3GB RAM, 32GB ROM, a 3-inch display (854 x 480 pixels), an 8 MP camera (F1.8), a 2 MP front camera (supporting face recognition), and a 1900mAh battery. There’s 4G network support. The price is in the region of US$100 (about 11,000 yen).
Soyes is also releasing other mini smartphones and expanding its roster of small devices with mini cell phones too. The S7 is a card-sized 2G (GSM) cell phone, and its camera setup is worthy of attention. There’s nothing in the specifications to indicate whether it really does have a triple camera, though, so it’s probably better to think of its a basic cell phone you could use for calls and SMS. This one costs around US$20 (roughly 2,100 yen).
Another prominent example of a waterproof mini smartphone is Servo’s X7 Plus. There are similar products also available from other manufacturers, so it seems likely that the base construction is from some kind of OEM/ODM manufacturer. Servo also deals in products such as pen-type cell phones, and again, similar products are available from other companies too.
The X7 Plus has a 2.45-inch display. There’s a bezel that makes it bigger than the Atom, even though both devices technically have the same display sizes. The dimensions of the Atom are 97 x 45 x 19mm, while the X7 Plus measures 116 x 61 x 24mm. It weighs 182 grams. But even at this size, the X7 Plus fits snugly in the palm of your hand. Another feature is an LED light at the top of the phone. Charging is a breeze, too, thanks to its cradle charger.
It has an MT6737 SoC, 2GB RAM, and 16GB ROM. The 2.45-inch display has a resolution of 480 x 320 pixels. There’s an 8 MP camera on the rear and a 2 MP camera at the front. The battery (3100mAh) is quite large, and there’s 4G support. The X7 Plus also has built-in NFC and a fingerprint authentication sensor. Servo has opened an official store on Aliexpress, where you can find this smartphone retailing at US$123.90 (approximately 13,000 yen).
Melrose produces a mini smartphone for people who want a streamlined body design. But this is where things start to look a little dubious, with the product appearing under a variety of different names depending on the retailer. It could be that these phones are being produced by an OEM/ODM manufacturer and sold on as-is. This device also appeared when searching for “Super Mini Smartphone”, but rather than being a genuine product name, this is probably a simple adoption of the phone’s description as a title.
It looks classy, with an octagonal design (no sharp corners) and a leather-style finish on the rear. If the product article really has the feel suggested by the photo, it’s pretty impressive. However, products like these have few actual photos on their sales pages, so it pays to check user reviews for real-life photos. Unfortunately, it wasn’t possible to find any actual photos of this Melrose device.
There’s a fingerprint authentication sensor at the back. There’s also an LED light for notifications on the side of the phone, but this was probably adopted as a last resort because a light couldn’t be built into the display. The idea itself isn’t bad, though. Specs are as follows: an MT6739 SoC (MT6737V variations are also available), 1GB RAM, 8GB ROM, a 3-inch 800 x 340 pixel display, an 8 MP camera at the rear and a 2 MP front camera, with a 1200mAh battery. There’s 4G support. Retail price is around US$80 (about 8,500 yen).
In February 2020, Unihertz launched crowdfunding for its Atom L and Atom XL - models with 4-inch displays - both of which were successfully backed and are currently in production. The design adopts a tough body like that of the previous model, with a home button at the bottom of the display. The design is symmetrical at the top and bottom, so the size is a bit on the large side, measuring 134.5 x 65 x 17.5mm. It’s right on the edge of being classifiable as “mini”.
Cubot’s Kingkong Mini is a smaller take on the 4-inch display format. The original iPhone SE had a 4-inch display, so this is a phone you could use every day. Cubot’s Kingkong series is a range of smartphones with tough-looking bodies, but this Kingkong Mini is small enough at 119 x 58 x 12.1mm. For reference, the iPhone SE measures 123.8 x 58.6 x 7.6mm. So this could be suitable for people who feel this year’s new iPhone SE is too big.
Apart from being waterproof, the phone doesn’t really have any standout features. However, there’s no mention of the IP waterproof indicator in the specs, so it’s probably only waterproof at a basic everyday level. There’s no SOS button or LED light, either. However, if you’re using it as a normal smartphone, maybe you don’t need special features anyway. Having held this phone, I can report that it feels good.
The SoC is an MT6761, and the phone has 3GB RAM and 32GB ROM. Its 4-inch display has a resolution of 1080 x 540 pixels, falling just short of the old iPhone SE’s 1136 x 640 resolution. It also has a 13 MP main camera and an 8 MP front camera. There’s 4G support, and the battery is 2000mAh. The retail price on the official site is 118.99 Euros (about 14,000 yen).
In Japan too, mini smartphones are being released by the likes of NTT DoCoMo. Smartphones designed for kids have small displays and child-oriented functions, but these could also be suitable for people who just want small smartphones. There are some kids’ smartphones appearing outside Japan as well, and Korean carriers are developing these as series of products.
Korea’s SK Telecom has even released a kids’ smartphone in collaboration with Disney. The latest model is the ZEM PHONE, which features characters that are popular with children. This is a mini smartphone that features a 3.4-inch LCD (manufactured by Sharp) and measures 107.5 x 56 x 9.7mm.
This is a product launched by Korea’s biggest carrier, so the SoC is Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 439 rather than a MediaTek. Other specs include 2GB RAM, 32GB ROM, a 3-inch display (960 x 540 pixels), a 13 MP main camera, and a 5 MP front camera. The battery is 1000mAh, and there’s 4G support.
The phone is made in China, but the quality level is surely fine, as it’s being produced for Korea, home of the Galaxy series. It should also be noted that phones from Korean carriers don’t have locked SIMs, so you can also find this ZEM PHONE in NOS resale shops and elsewhere. The standalone price is 253,000 won (about 22,000 yen).
The Rakuten Mini is made in China. In fact, all of the mini smartphones featured in this article are made in China. However, the fact that there are many manufacturers producing these small devices in China means this is more than just a passing fad. There’s surely a future for small smartphones in everyday use. Mini smartphones are also perfectly adequate for use as secondary devices, so let’s hope that at least one excellent phone in this niche comes to market every year.
This article was originally written in Japanese. All images and content are directly from the Japanese version at the time of publication.