As with so many things, bigger isn’t always better with regards to smartphones and this list best represents the top picks for worthwhile small phones on the market in 2021.
Why get a small phone?
When the 4.7in iPhone 6 was released, many were outraged at the size increase. Nowadays, such a screen size is considered comically small.
Simply put, phones have gotten too big. Bezels on phones have shrunk significantly in the last few years, but that doesn't mean people are suddenly willing to wield a 6.9in monster, like the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra.
People with smaller hands are going to find a permanently two-handed phone an inconvenience, not just when in-hand but when it's constantly poking out the top of their jeans pockets too. Handsets of a smaller size can be used one-handed, fit in a pocket or bag far more easily, and can do everything a bigger phone can do in a more compact package.
There's also the matter of foldables to now consider, with devices like the revived Motorola RAZR and the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip, embracing the clamshell designs of old but combining them with new foldable display technology, giving you the best of both - a larger-screened device in a compact package.
Best small phone 2021
iPhone 12 Mini - Best overall
In what is the most diverse iPhone lineup to date, the iPhone 12 Mini serves as the smallest of the four handsets from Apple's 2020 lineup.
It boasts the best size to performance ratio of any smartphone right now, with a beautiful 5.4in display that extends across the entirety of the phone's front (save for the Face ID-capable notch).
It also packs in a pair of stellar cameras, MagSafe for iPhone-compliant wireless charging and one of the most powerful SoCs out there in Apple's own A14 Bionic. 5G is included too, if that's what you're looking for.
Read our full iPhone 12 mini review
Google Pixel 5 - Best for Android
Google's first 5G flagship walks a different path to its predecessors, showcasing Android 11 to the best of its abilities but also shedding the more experimental features of previous generations and opting for more conservative hardware at the same time.
Its clean design and user experience are supported by a set of superb - and now more feature-rich - cameras, as well as an incredibly compact design and battery life that's actually usable.
Good small Android phones are hard to come by, and this is easily the best, in terms of its power-to-size ratio.
Read our full Google Pixel 5 review
iPhone 12 - Superb camera
The Mini may embody the modern 'small iPhone' but at 6.1in, the display on the standard iPhone 12 is still pleasingly compact.
Although it may not be quite as pocketable, it boasts all the same great specs as the Mini (including 5G) but leverages its larger footprint in order to accommodate a bigger battery and a faster 15W (up from 12W) wireless charging system.
Read our full Apple iPhone 12 review
Samsung Galaxy S21 - Great performance
Samsung kicked 2021 off with a bang by releasing what is one of the world's most power Android phones - thanks to the next-gen Exynos 2100/Snapdragon 888 at its heart.
Beyond raw performance, the Galaxy S21 boasts a distinct new design, comes jam-packed with features and undercuts its predecessor on price by quite a margin.
Its 6.2in display is already relatively compact, but One UI's flexible one-handed mode also helps further the benefits of this compact Galaxy.
Read our full Samsung Galaxy S21 review
iPhone 11 Pro - Still excellent
We're not fully on board with the 'Pro' naming but there's no doubt that, for various reasons, this was 2019's best iPhone (and is still a capable option in early 2021).
We like the matte finish, which provides more grip than standard glass and helps negate fingerprints. The OLED screen is stunning, especially with Dark Mode - introduced in iOS 13, the cameras are excellent, performance is slick and battery life is impressive.
Still, it's a lot more expensive than the regular iPhone 11, which has the things that most people want, and doesn't really break any new ground. It's not even 5G capable (see iPhone 12).
Read our full Apple iPhone 11 Pro review
Samsung Galaxy S20 - Well-rounded
The best entry in the S20 series and simply Samsung's best phone of 2020. It’s compact, powerful and packs a versatile camera system that may not match the top-tier S20 Ultra on zoom or detail but still meets - and sometimes beats - it across the rest of the board.
While battery life remains a slight concern, that’s really the only major fault here. The Android ecosystem offers more for less elsewhere, but usually without Samsung’s level of prestige or polish, and in this case, we think that’s worth paying for.
Read our full Samsung Galaxy S20 review
Apple iPhone SE (2020) - Best value
The iPhone SE is a phone devoted to function over form, prioritising raw performance and camera capabilities over design or aesthetics (though battery life gets caught in the crossfire), all in the name of hitting an astoundingly low price (as far as iPhones are concerned).
That makes it a very un-Apple iPhone, but that’s unlikely to help it win over Android users, who can still get a lot more for less by resisting the Apple allure - with the exception of the impressive inclusion of the company's A13 processor at a mid-range price, along with luxuries like wireless charging and waterproofing.
It’s hard to entirely forgive the choice to save money on a budget 720p LCD display and dated design, and you’ll be committed to carrying a battery pack with you every day. Still, if you want a reliable camera, fast performance and guaranteed iOS updates for years to come, without breaking the bank, then this is the iPhone for you.
Read our full Apple iPhone SE (2020) review
Google Pixel 4a - Most affordable
If you're in the US and looking for a great mid-range Android phone the Pixel 4a is one of the best choices you can make. It really is a knockout handset from Google with so much on offer for an incredibly affordable price.
In the UK, as far as features are concerned, competition is much tougher from rivals with things like 5G support and higher refresh rate displays, if those are important features.
Otherwise, it's a charming phone with a rare compact design, smooth performance, excellent cameras and easy-to-use software with at least three years of updates.
Read our full Google Pixel 4a review
Samsung Galaxy Z Flip - Best foldable
The Galaxy Z Flip isn’t a perfect phone. It’s expensive, there are only two main camera lenses, and the fingerprint sensor sucks.
Price aside, these are minor quibbles, however, and even while this may not be the best phone we used in 2020, it’s still one of our favourites. With the Z Flip, Samsung has nailed the compact foldable form factor, and by comparison, every other 2020 flagship felt ungainly and oversized.
This phone looks great, offers solid performance and flagship features, and is just plain cool. Most people probably shouldn’t spend this much on a phone, but if you can afford to then nothing else right now can match the Z Flip.
Read our full Samsung Galaxy Z Flip review
Sony Xperia 5 II - Best for gaming
In a world where so many smartphones look similar, you have to admire Sony’s desire to be different. Having a notch-less display and 3.5mm headphone jack is practically unheard of in current smartphone circles, but after using the Xperia 5 II we wish they were still on more phones.
There are plenty more highlights here, which make it a big upgrade over the original Xperia 5. The stunning 21:9 OLED display is now 120Hz - a feature you won’t find on even the more expensive Xperia 1 II. Performance is superb across the board, while the all-too-rare front-facing stereo speakers are a delight.
That all said, it’s not all good news. The cameras flatter to deceive unless you’re willing to play around in the native Photo Pro app, while a surprising amount of bloatware taints an otherwise excellent software experience. There’s also no wireless charging, a major omission at this price point.
There’s definitely a market for the Xperia 5 II but it’s unlikely to contribute to a sudden increase in Sony’s slice of the smartphone pie.
Read our full Sony Xperia 5 II review
Related: How we test smartphones