Zanco tiny tl handset

Teardown: Zanco tiny t1 handset

Image credit: Zanco

The world’s smallest phone caused the wrong kind of fuss on Kickstarter.

Not all crowdfunding projects succeed. Kickstarter says that just 37 per cent of those that have used its platform have been ‘successful’. Among the failures, those where a product is prototyped, made in volume and then sold are rare. The Zanco tiny t1 is such an outlier. It is also, to date, the world’s smallest mobile phone.

The tiny t1 got a lot of coverage on the big gadget sites and from YouTube influencers a little over a year ago. Prototypes were then circulating of a working phone that was roughly the same size as your thumb – 46.7mm x 21mm x 12mm with a 12.5mm LCD screen – and weighed just 13g.

It was the result of a gauntlet thrown down before the founder of Zini Mobiles, the handset’s designer, based on an existing product line-up ranging from large-button phones for the elderly right down to some already very small ones: “How small can you go?”

Launched on Kickstarter in partnership with a specialist gadget marketing company, Clubit New Media, the tiny1 exceeded its original $25,000 target and secured £187,247 in pledges from 3,405 backers.

Then things went pear-shaped, as Zini and Clubit fell out. If you look at the ‘Comments’ and ‘Updates’ sections of the Zanco’s still-live Kickstarter page, you can see that they fell out very publicly.

The result was that even though tiny t1s began to pop up for sale online – they can still be found on China’s Taobao equivalent of eBay and from a handful of UK retailers – backers were told they would be given refunds rather than handsets.

With a product in circulation, quite a few backers were even more embittered by the fact that Kickstarter’s platform fee was still deducted.

What makes this all rather sad is that crowdfunding should be a good way of realising this kind of, let’s be honest, gimmicky product.

The tiny t1 is all about the form factor. It is a 2G-only phone capable of only voice calls and text messaging (though with hands-free Bluetooth). By eschewing even 3G and the most basic data functionality, Zini’s designers were able to concentrate on the shrink and keep the price low, as SoC integration meant the vast majority of the functionality could be achieved with older-generation devices (a Mediatek single-core SoC and an RDA Microelectronics front-end module) and off-the-shelf, commodity components.

According to an iFixit teardown, the greater size challenges the Zini team faced were the 200mAh, 0.74Wh battery that takes up about a third of the volume – but provides three days standby and three hours talk time on a single charge – and the nano SIM slot, which occupies almost half of the printed circuit board (PCB).

On top of and around that PCB, Zini has squeezed in a backlit keyboard that uses four surface-mounted LEDs to illuminate the minuscule but still usable keypad, a Bluetooth antenna (OK, it’s a wire), a pinhole microphone and a speaker. There are no proprietary screws, the front plate is clipped rather than screwed in place and the one downside, for repairability at any rate, is that most of the components are soldered in place.

It is a product for people who like curios or who want to see engineering pushed from a purely record-breaking point of view, where the tradeoffs (here the low specification) are as much of an attraction as any innovation. After all, 2G is now being phased out in much of the world, so we are not talking about a product with much of a shelf-life other than as a talking point.

Nevertheless, the tiny t1 is indicative of a kind of ‘look at me’ design emerging from Shenzhen, home to Zini’s engineering team. Maker Naomi Wu, Twitter’s ‘@realsexycyborg’, is the best-known purveyor, but the city’s origins as global technology’s main contract manufacturing hub has nurtured a plethora of talented designers. They now want to try making their own products, and prove themselves to the wider world. And why not?

Many crowdfunders do not mind a small punt towards the promotion of these kinds of products and ambitions, and the tiny t1 was priced to attract gadget hounds and the curious. The entry-level £30 pledge was supposed to give you a phone, charging cable and a manual, delivery included.

For Zini, Kickstarter provided an obvious chance to raise brand awareness against a pre-sold product. Until the fundraiser went awry, that much was happening – but when it did... crickets.

Without getting lost in the weeds of the claims and counterclaims made by Zini and Clubit, one teachable moment out of all this may revolve around the age-old issue of ‘too many cooks’. Crowdfunding is often about small commitments made against products likely to be manufactured in small volumes or serving niche interests. It is also largely about putting the innovators directly in touch with potential seed-​level backers. By combining technology and marketing partners, the tiny t1 may have pushed up against – and breached – the limit of what at least one of its promoters considered economically viable. The proceeds had to be split too many ways.

Zini has now decided to go it alone, and has launched another Kickstarter for its Smart-Pen, which it claims is the world’s thinnest mobile phone (though still 2G only). It had, however, attracted fewer backers (929) and pledges ($71,840) than the tiny t1, as this is written.

Key components       

Zanco tiny t1

Exploded view

 1  Main casing

 2  Battery

 3  Motherboard

 4  Speaker

 5  Front panel

 6  Keypad


 7  Speaker

 8  Front-end module

RDA Microelectronics

 9  Oscillator

 10  SoC


 11  Nano SIM tray

 12  Bluetooth antenna

Texas Instruments

Zanco tiny tl teardown

Image credit: iFixit

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