The Diminishing Returns of Flagship Phones During the Mid-Range Renaissance

Moto X Style, image by Motorola.

I gotta say, I’m not so sure there’s much reason these days to buy a phone that retails (unsubsidized) for more than $600. Merely a year or so ago, I wouldn’t have said this, as the most well-regarded and reliable phones were those such as the HTC One M8, the Galaxy Note 4, the LG G3, the Nexus 6, and of course the iPhones 6 and 6 Plus. All of them came out at prices over $600, and reached into the realms of $800–1000.

There were exceptions in the flagship realm: the 2014 Moto X was just under $600, and the OnePlus One blew minds at the low price of $350 or so – that is, if you could actually get one. The Nexus 5 was technically a 2013 phone, but at about the same price at the OnePlus One, remained a strong contender.

But generally, unless you wanted to take a chance on a crazy “flagship killer” with hit-or-miss service and a decent chance for receiving a lemon, or you were okay with using a year-old device, you had to spend at least $500, but more likely closer to $700 or $800, if you wanted a solid, well-made device. Goddamn that’s a lot of money.

But today? While the current crop of high-end flagships are great, they’re not so much greater than the new middle-range, which is in the midst of some kind of sudden renaissance, to make the extra few hundred dollars worth it for the general customer.

I recently wrote that last year’s flagship phones are usually a better bet than a current-generation mid-ranger, but that truism has been exploded entirely with a slate of recent announcements. Last week, Motorola announced its new flagship, the Moto X Pure Edition (or “Style”), which will start at $400, a hundred less than last year. (It’s also got a new Moto G, which competes competently for under $200!) OnePlus has a new Two, which is only a little more expensive than its last phone, under $400. Asus has its Zenfone 2 at $300, and Alcatel has its Idol 3 at $250, both of which have been widely heralded as excellent, far exceeding the expectations set by their prices.

The LG G4 looks gorgeous. The upcoming Note 5 will certainly be a powerhouse. The Galaxy S6 has a screen so gorgeous I could just die. And so on. But for most people, there’s almost no reason to get any of them instead of one of the sub-$500 phones in the previous paragraph.

Here are the exceptions: General consumers who simply can’t be bothered to learn something new, who will be so flummoxed by anything that’s not iOS, or are utterly entrenched beyond all measure into the Apple ecosystem (or just spent an enormous amount of money on an Apple Watch), they should still get an iPhone. They’re amazing, they’re beautiful, and are far more than the sum of their specs. (I played with a 6 Plus the other day, and I swear, its display seems sharper and appears bigger than it actually is. It’s a marvel.) But a lot of folks who think they fall into that easily-flummoxed category would actually be just fine with the stock-Android experience offered by something like a Moto X or Moto G. We still don’t know what the next Nexus (or Nexi) will be or how much it will cost, but if it goes the 2013 Nexus 5 route, it will also be an easy recommendation for this crowd.

Also, those who have a specific need for high-quality stylus work, clearly you’ll want the Note. (Though the Note 4 will remain a kickass phone well into the next year, so I’m not so sure how necessary the 5 will be, but we’ll see.) If you must have the absolute best camera possible on a smartphone, get an iPhone, a Galaxy S6, or an LG G4. By all means!

But for everyone else, I am becoming convinced that spending the additional $300 or $400 one would spend on a high-end flagship will yield ever-diminishing returns. Manufacturers are getting better at what they do, understandings of software interface and optimization are improving, technology is advancing, and the general consumer who needs an excellent phone simply doesn’t have to drop a fortune to own one outright. Whether or not they’re usually iPhone people, now’s a great time to doff the high end, save some cash, and still be happy.

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