Smartphones, or mobile technology in general, is in a purple patch right now. From a market that only had five or six recognizable names, it ballooned to a diverse sector with so many manufacturers that it’s hard to keep up. Amazon is flooded with off-brand Android smartphones, and the list is only growing. Apple is still exclusive to Apple, but design-wise, Apple isn’t the only manufacturer with a focus on feel and user experience. OnePlus, HMD Nokia, Samsung, and Google themselves release phones that rival the iPhone in terms of aesthetic and user-friendly features.
There has never been a better time for smartphones, but for however good the flagship phones are, your S9s and XSs and V30 Thinqs, the top deck of phones betray the industry as a whole. These phones are good, don’t get me wrong. The user interfaces are nearly flawless in executing what the manufacturer’s intent, and they’re well-made. They just don’t do well in showing that the mobile industry has come a long way.
Examining the Value of Flagships
Are flagship phones worth their price? The short, and only answer, is no. The Apple iPhone X was never truly worth $1,000, the company just decided that that’s the price point they want to occupy. It put the iPhone X in uncharted territory for mobile phones in terms of price and premium-ness. The same goes for the S9 Plus, Note, V40 Thinq, Mate 20 Pro, Pixel 3, and every other smartphone that’s on flagship-level price tier ($700 to $1,000).
Technologically, if you compare flagship phones from four years ago to what we have today, there aren’t many differences. Sure, the chips have changed, there’s more RAM in phones now, and battery life improved. But do the top smartphone manufacturers charge so much money because their phones are so good? Most tech journalists would argue that it’s their usefulness that’s make these smartphones worth the (exorbitant) money. But once you actually buy one, you’ll find it hard to justify half a year’s worth of rent to a device that can’t even act as a replacement to our laptops.
The gimmicks don’t help these phones, either. AR is one of the latest cutting-edge tech that made their entrance to smartphones last year, but to date, Apple’s AR and Google’s ARCore has never been put to good use. The primary reason is that these phones, even the most powerful ones, aren’t the least bit capable of running a full-blown AR program. There’s not even a practical use for it to most people.
In return to what mobile phones did well, it’s not all good news. Smartphones are using more powerful, desktop-tier processors now? Well, they’re being used to run apps, which never use more than half of a mobile processor’s power (unless it’s a really taxing game). More RAM? It has been central to the growth of games in smartphones because they can take the memory load now, but for most apps, 4 GB is plenty. Bigger batteries? These flagship phones are so powerful that they drain the battery in a day so if you’re the kind of person who needs your phone to be on at all times, you may need to carry a powerbank.
But we shouldn’t forget flagship features that are doing well to make a difference in our lives. Their cameras have been so good that most people don’t have to carry a separate digital camera anymore. Voice assistants are allowing for better multitasking (you be the judge if that’s good). Smartphones basically gives you the option to communicate however you want. In short, these top-tier phones are excellent aggregators of some of the most practically useful technologies that make a difference in our lives.
Is it worth an absurd amount of money, though? Still no. More than that, the very same thing that’s chipping away the value of smartphones are smartphones themselves. It’s just these ones occupy the middle part of the industry.
As Always, the Meat is in the Middle
The most exciting sector in smartphones today is in the middle. This is where mobile technology is creatively distributed among markets that actual uses for them. It’s also fun to see what combinations manufacturers deem best for mid-level consumers. Not that packing all the cutting-edge technology in one device is boring, but it’s hardly fun.
Now, HMD Nokia’s new 7.1 is fun. It’s not an all-screen device like an iPhone XS or even a OnePlus 6T, but in terms of general usage and features, it’s probably one of the best Android phones around. You can even make an argument of it being the best Android One phone in the market today (Android One is Android’s software initiative that provides quick updates to third-party users, i.e. every phone that’s not the Pixel). Honor phones push the envelope on what you can fit mid-range phones with their flagship specs and mid-level build. The freshly released LG Stylo 4 is taking stylus to a wider market, and spec-wise, it’s everything a modern phone buyer could want.
The same goes for Asus, Xiaomi, and Moto phones, which provides outstanding value for money to consumers. These evidently the very best in specs, features, and gimmicks, but ask yourself if you really need those things. It’s likely that there’s an app that outperforms the OEM software that certain companies tout during a smartphone’s launch. You don’t buy into a brand when you do buy a flagship, but it won’t be long before you ask if these are what you paid close to a thousand dollars for.
As an owner of a flagship phone, I really can’t wait to buy a new mid-range phone. I’ll still probably stick to Android, but I don’t doubt that even if I spend hundreds less on my new phone, I’ll be more excited to use it and fiddle with it. It’s always exciting to push a device to its limit, but it excites me more that I won’t have to spend an extravagant amount just to get what I need (and want). For me, that’s why this is the best time for smartphones.