Japanese design company Balmuda today announced its first smartphone at a press event in Tokyo. The straightforwardly titled Balmuda Phone is the debut product from Balmuda Technologies, a new division of the company previously known for stylish, premium home appliances like air purifiers and rice cookers. Balmuda’s toaster in particular has a cult following in Japan.
As you’d expect, the Balmuda Phone is quite a bit different to other phones on the market. CEO Gen Terao said on stage that he felt that smartphones have gotten too big and unwieldy in recent years, so the Balmuda Phone was designed with compactness and elegance as the primary goals. It has a very sharp 4.9-inch 16:9 1080p display and is roughly comparable to a 4.7-inch iPhone SE; the display is slightly bigger and the phone is 2mm wider, but the smaller bezels mean it’s 15mm shorter.
The Balmuda Phone is a full 13mm thick at its thickest point, but the back panel tapers down heavily toward the edges. There’s a single large camera with a 48-megapixel sensor in the top right corner, and it’s mirrored by a fingerprint sensor in the top left. The 8-megapixel selfie camera is housed in a hole-punch cutout at the top right of the screen.
The phone’s specs are generally mid-range. The processor is a Qualcomm Snapdragon 765 and there’s 6GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. The battery is just 2,500mAh, which will hopefully be offset somewhat by the lower-power processor, though we’ll have to test for ourselves to see. The phone does thankfully have wireless charging.
Where Balmuda is really differentiating itself is with design. It’s a well-worn tech writing cliche to say that something “feels good in the hand,” but that was clearly Balmuda’s intent here with the compact size and curved back that nestles into your palm like a pebble. I have big hands, granted, but I think just about anyone would find this more comfortable to use than the hefty 6-inch slabs most of us carry around these days. While the case is plastic, build quality feels solid and there’s a nice contrast between the textured back panel and the glossy edges. All in all it’s a cute, attractive object.
The software, based on Android 11, is also very different to what you’d find on most Android phones today. There’s an interactive home screen with various elements of the wallpaper customizable for different shortcuts; for example, you could swipe on one of the lines to launch Google Maps. Horizontal swipes move you between some of the built-in software, like a calendar, a notes app, and a calculator. All of these had neat design touches, like the notes app’s visual timeline of photos and memos, or the calculator app’s built-in currency conversion and ability to handle large Japanese numbers that are counted in the 10,000s rather than the thousands.
The Balmuda Phone will be available in Japan on contract with SoftBank later this month, and Balmuda is selling an unlocked model itself for 104,800 yen (about $920). That might sound like a lot for a compact Android 11 phone with these specs, but then $329 probably sounds like a lot for a toaster, too. In both cases, you’re paying for the design and the user experience rather than the bill of materials, and this clearly isn’t aimed at anyone who wants a conventional Android flagship. As someone who does own Balmuda’s toaster, I’m looking forward to finding out how well the phone holds up under general use — because much as I like the toaster, a smartphone is a lot more important to my life.