The Paper Chase

Thin Phones and Fat Features

Paper_thin_lBe prepared for lean times ahead. Keeping a low profile is still a key selling point for smartphone makers.

Xiaomi is indicating that the main feature of its upcoming flagship phone — to be unveiled in two days — is its sleekness. Xiaomi’s enigmatic banners hint at a phone that’s as thin as paper. In reality, the new flagship is likely to be more of a marginal upgrade, with a lighter profile and a larger screen.

Samsung is also selling thin with the recently unveiled Galaxy A7 — a device that’s 6.3mm thick yet runs an octa-core processor, comes in a Dual SIM version and boasts a 5.5-inch HD display, a 13-megapixel rear camera and a five-megapixel front camera. It’s an impressive amount of kit for such a slim handset.

The thickness of a device was a serious discussion point in the days of true practical advantages to shaving millimetres off a phone’s depth, but the law of diminishing returns appears to be setting in for thin.

Oppo announced the 4.9mm R5 in October, and took the liberty of crowning it the thinnest phone in the world. The company’s claim may have been accurate at the time, and the device still has most — though not all —the features expected of a high-end smartphone, including a 5.2-inch full-HD display, a 13-megapixel camera and 1080p video recording capabilities. However, the phone is so thin that there’s no standard headphone jack, instead requiring a special USB headphone adapter.

Oppo might have reached the practical physical limitations of thinness for a smartphone. The lack of a headphone jack can be rationalised by the growing use of wireless headphones, but it’s uncertain whether the market is truly demanding phones so thin they forfeit features like memory expansion or a longer battery life. It’s a choice between perceived stability and holdability.

In a smartphone market standardised on rectangular touch-screen devices and with all software and services designed to work on such flat surfaces, one short-term method of standing out is getting thin. The bar for flagships now appears to be set at sub-7mm (though Apple’s iPhone 6 Plus is 0.1mm above that). Xiaomi’s current high-end phone, the Mi 4, comes in at 8.9mm, and the company is likely to shave off about 2mm in its newest edition, mimicking Samsung’s efforts with the A7. However, while thin is still trending, devices are getting down to their optimal size.