When Apple unveiled its iPhone 12 lineup this year, it came with a fourth entry that surprised and delighted many Apple fans: the diminutive iPhone 12 mini. For many folks, this was the iPhone they had been waiting for since the days of the iPhone 5s — a pocketable iPhone that matched the specs of Apple’s larger models.
Even the wildly successful original iPhone SE that was introduced in 2016 only satisfied some of that desire for a more compact iPhone, since even though Apple had stuck with the original four-inch iPhone 5s form factor and packed in the same A9 chip as the contemporary iPhone 6s, in every other way it was merely a rehashing of the 2013 iPhone, most notably lacking the better cameras and display technology of its larger 4.7-inch and 5.5-inch contemporaries.
This left users with the difficult choice of whether to go with a smaller phone that lacked the most current features or bite the bullet and move up to the now-standard 4.7-inch model — the size that would continue to represent the iPhone lineup for the next four years.
So, needless to say when the iPhone 12 mini was unveiled it became a breath of fresh air. The 5.4-inch edge-to-edge display brought the iPhone 12 mini down to nearly the same size as the classic four-inch iPhone 5-era design, since that earlier model was hampered by large bezels above and below the screen, and yet it packed in all the exact same features of the 6.1-inch iPhone 12 — a size that has become the new standard for Apple’s most popular iPhone models over the past few years, beginning with the surprising launch of the iPhone XR back in 2018.
On top of all that, the iPhone 12 mini also came in at $100 less than the standard 6.1-inch iPhone 12, so in most ways it should have been a clear winner. In reality, however, the uptake on the iPhone 12 mini hasn’t been as big as many expected; sales of the standard iPhone 12 and the iPhone 12 Pro have been off the charts, with demand shattering expectations and both models quickly rising to the two best-selling 5G smartphones on the planet, while the iPhone 12 mini has gotten off to a much slower start by comparison.
In fact, Flurry Analytics called the iPhone 12 mini the least popular launch-week iPhone in the past three years, drawing the conclusion that perhaps consumers don’t consider a pocket-friendly device as important as many people seemed to think, particularly since there are always at least some tradeoffs involved — even if those are nothing more than smaller screen sizes.
That said, there may be many other reasons why demand for the iPhone 12 mini has been low, and we’re not ready to count a 5.4-inch iPhone model out of the race just yet.
Not Everyone Knew It Was Coming
Analysts and Apple enthusiasts who follow the company’s every move knew months before Apple even announced the new iPhones that the smaller form-factor was coming — in fact, reliable reports that Apple was working on a smaller iPhone surfaced as far back as early 2019, although it wasn’t always easy to make sense of them back then.
Still, it’s easy for those of us who follow the industry to assume that every consumer who was shopping for a new iPhone 12 knew in October that a smaller version was waiting in the wings, but it’s important to remember that even though Apple announced the entire lineup at its October event, it was only the 6.1-inch models that went on sale right away.
This meant that many customers walking into an Apple Store — or worse yet, a carrier store — and looking for a new iPhone would have found only two models available, both in the 6.1-inch sizes that have more or less become the standard for modern iPhones, leading some to assume that this was the totality of this year’s iPhone lineup.
Further, even those customers who had heard of the smaller iPhone 12 mini on the horizon had no way of comparing the sizes, and may have chosen to settle for the 6.1-inch iPhone 12 rather than wait to see what the smaller model would be all about.
A Bird in the Hand
With many carriers offering some really great deals on the new iPhone 12 models, many customers may have also been encouraged to pick up the new models right away, fearing that they might not be able to get the same deal later on in November.
After all, in October, a customer could walk into many carrier stores or even big box retailers, and trade in their old smartphone in exchange for a “free” iPhone 12. While we know now that those offers continued well beyond the release of the iPhone 12 mini, the apparent urgency of these deals likely contributed to at least some impulse buying.
No Pro mini
It’s also worth keeping in mind that there is no iPhone 12 Pro mini. For its premium iPhone models, Apple went in the other direction with the iPhone 12 Pro Max, increasing the size to a gargantuan 6.7 inches.
Customers looking for the more advanced features of the iPhone 12 Pro such as the much better camera system wouldn’t have even considered the iPhone 12 mini as an option.
While the iPhone 12 is still clearly the better-selling model of the two, the fact that the iPhone 12 Pro has taken up a very solid second place in overall 5G smartphone market share suggests that a significant portion of Apple’s customer base wasn’t even in the market for the iPhone 12 mini, but we really have no way of knowing if they would have jumped on an iPhone 12 Pro mini if such a thing existed.
Most iPhone users hold on to their devices for at least two years, and sometimes even longer. This means that very few people who bought an iPhone 11 last year are ready to upgrade to the iPhone 12 mini just yet. Even if they really like the smaller form factor, things like carrier contracts and other upgrade programs more or less force them to wait for next year’s “iPhone 13 mini” to arrive.
This means there’s likely still a lot of pent-up demand still for the smaller iPhone that simply hasn’t surfaced yet.
The 2020 iPhone SE Came First
If at least some ordinary iPhone 12 buyers didn’t know about the iPhone 12 mini even in October, it’s a safe bet that nobody outside the world of Apple watchers knew it was coming when Apple unveiled its second-generation iPhone SE back in the spring.
While at least some quarters had been eagerly hoping that the next-generation iPhone SE would be a repeat of the smaller form factor of its 2016 predecessor, when the iPhone 8-like design arrived earlier this year, many took that as a sign that the day of smaller iPhones had come to a resounding end.
This would have also encouraged those looking for a more inexpensive iPhone to simply jump on the new iPhone SE, which is still smaller than Apple’s 6.1-inch iPhone models, and even if the iPhone 12 mini suddenly looked like a more attractive option in October, few people who were in the market for a budget iPhone in the first place are going to be in a position to replace it less than six months later.
A Bounty of Budget iPhones
In addition to the iPhone SE, Apple still has plenty of other inexpensive options on the market, meaning that the appeal of the iPhone 12 mini isn’t really about price.
Sure, it’s $100 less than the 6.1-inch iPhone 12, but you can also still buy last year’s iPhone 11 for $100 less than that, and the two-year-old iPhone XR for even $200 less, and then of course there’s the 2020 iPhone SE, which comes in at $399 with the same A13 chip as the 2019 iPhone 11 lineup.
So more than ever before, Apple has a really solid and appealing lineup of lower-cost iPhones that offer something for everybody. That doesn’t mean that the iPhone 12 mini isn’t still a great deal in terms of what you’re getting for the price, but that price tag is certainly far from the most compelling thing about it.
The iPhone 12 mini is also uncharted territory for many iPhone customers. Sure, Apple says it’s got all the same features of the 6.1-inch iPhone 12, but there’s always uncertainty about whether that’s really true or whether they may be hidden compromises.
By comparison, the 6.1-inch version is now a proven and true form factor that many iPhone owners have become much more comfortable with, making it feel like a far safer choice than the first version of Apple’s smaller iPhone.
It also quickly became apparent that the iPhone 12 mini had one pretty big compromise in comparison to its larger sibling in the form of shorter battery life.
While this doesn’t mean that the diminutive iPhone 12 can’t hold its own — most users still shouldn’t have any problems getting through a typical day — it would be enough to scare some people off, or at least make them re-think whether having a smaller iPhone was really worth it.
For most people, smartphones aren’t the same devices that they were four or five years ago. While a four-inch screen may have been suitable for many users back in 2016, with many more people expecting to be able to watch videos and play games on their iPhones, it’s possible that a smaller screen just doesn’t cut it anymore for many people.
While the 5.4-inch edge-to-edge display on the iPhone 12 mini is much more expansive than the tiny four-inch screen of the 2016 iPhone SE, it’s still 24% smaller than the 6.1-inch screen that’s become the de facto standard as a result of the overwhelming popularity of the iPhone XR and iPhone 11 in the past couple of years. In short, people are used to the larger screens now, and many users would be hesitant to go back to what they might believe is a more cramped screen just to have a smaller iPhone.
This also goes right back to the fact that Apple released the iPhone 12 mini later, preventing customers from getting a true side-by-side comparison of the new devices to judge this for themselves — unless of course they were willing to wait until November to purchase a new iPhone 12.
Apple Plays the Long Game
At this point the sales of the iPhone 12 mini have simply suggested that it’s off to a slower start, and that doesn’t mean that we won’t see the numbers pick up in the new year; in fact, most analysts haven’t even calculated sales figures for December yet, leaving out a chunk of holiday season sales. The iPhone 12 mini may yet turn out to be the dark horse in Apple’s iPhone 12 lineup.
Further, Apple almost certainly had to have known that releasing the iPhone 12 mini so much later than the 6.1-inch iPhone 12 would have a negative impact on sales, with many customers clamouring to get whatever was available first rather than waiting to see what would come next.
In a future where global viral pandemics aren’t slowing down Apple’s production lines, we can pretty safely expect all the various iPhone sizes to launch simultaneously, ensuring customers can make a much more informed side-by-side decision when picking out a new iPhone.
Regardless of how the iPhone 12 mini sales turn out this year, it would be extremely premature to consider this a nail in the coffin for smaller iPhones. Apple doesn’t make product decisions on a whim, and now that it’s put the effort into designing a smaller iPhone model, it’s a very safe bet that it’s going to be with us for a while.