About four years ago, the principle behind getting a high-end Android smartphone was simple – you had to be ready to part with a significant amount of money. You wanted a high end device, you had to pay a premium for it. And then in 2014, the high-end flagship rules were turned on their head by the likes of Xiaomi and OnePlus, both of whom came out with devices boasting flagship level hardware at prices that were radically lower than many flagships from “traditional” players like LG, Samsung, Sony and HTC. To refresh your memories, at a time when a high-end device generally meant a price well north of Rs 40,000, the Xiaomi Mi 3 came at Rs 13,999 and the OnePlus One at Rs 21,999 in 2014.
Some predicted that this was a passing phase and that in due course of time, the new upstarts would not be able to hold their own against the established players. However, four years down the line, even though the price of the OnePlus has gone up by more than fifty per cent, the one question that we are often confronted with from most users considering buying a high-end Android device is:
“Should I buy this or go with the OnePlus 6?”
Yes, that has been a query that has come in from users considering purchasing devices like the Samsung Galaxy S9, the Galaxy Note, the Pixel 2, the LG V30+, the HTC U11+ or the Huawei P20 Pro. It is almost as if everyone out to spend a bomb on a flagship is looking over their shoulder at a more affordable option. And while the OnePlus 6 is certainly the most high profile “budget flagship” (yes, that is a category now), it is by no means the only one – we have the likes of the Nokia 8, the Mi Mix 2, the Honor 10 and the Moto Z2 Force, all of which boast very good specifications and come with price tags well below Rs 40,000. And no, they do not cut as many corners as you would imagine – the Mi Mix 2 has a ceramic back, the Z2 Force comes with support for Mods that make it unique as well as a ShatterShield display, the Nokia 8 boasts Carl Zeiss optics for its cameras and of course, the OnePlus 6 remains a blend of great design and hardware.
Which of course begs the question: is it worth spending a premium amount on a smartphone any more? What extra does one get for all those extra bucks one spends?
The answer in 2014 was pretty straight forward: you got much better cameras, superior hardware (generally in terms of display quality and sound), much more premium build, better battery life in some cases and in most, much better and less buggy software. Do those reasons apply even today? Well, they do, but to a much lesser extent.
Yes, I still think that when it comes to cameras the troika of the Pixel 2, P20 Pro and S9 Plus pretty much bosses anything that the budget flagship brigade can provide, but the big difference between 2014 and now is that the budget flagships have very good cameras. Yes, they will get shown up when they go up against a Pixel 2, for instance, but on their own, they are superb performers. The difference is akin to getting an A and an A+ – in 2014 it was pretty much A+ against B. In matters of design, the gap is even narrower – yes, the Samsung Galaxy S9 and Note 8 have that very distinct and incredibly classy tall look, but we can see people loving the ceramic back of the Mi Mix 2, the glass finish of the amazing Honor 10 and yes, we have seen people queuing up for the Kevlar-under-glass look of the Avengers’ edition of the OnePlus 6. Water and dust resistance is an area where some of the premium flagships still hold an edge in build quality terms but we do not see it swaying people to pay much more.
What about better hardware? Well, the displays on the Note 8 and Galaxy S9 remain in zone of their own, but again, the competition is catching up – the Mi Mix 2 has even fewer bezels and the OnePlus 6 has an AMOLED display too. And the Pixel 2 XL actually took flak for its display quality. Some might point to the quad HD resolution on the premium flagships (most budget flagships stop at full HD+), but honestly, it is not a killer difference. Sound, however, is one department where we do think the premium players still hold a discernible edge – the S9 and the Pixel 2 deliver great stereo sound, which honestly cannot be matched by the budget flagships. Not yet anyway. Crucially however, there is not much that separates the two categories when it comes to those core necessities – processor, RAM, storage and connectivity options. The Galaxy Note remains the only high profile flagship with a stylus – so if it is a scribbling and sketching device you seek, you really have no alternative (an iPad with an Apple Pencil does cost lesser, but hush, this is about phones!). In fact even the resale value commanded by the budget flagships has become respectable when compared with their prices.
It is software, however, where the advances made by the newer players become most obvious. Both OnePlus and Xiaomi are incredibly regular with updates, Nokia brings Android updates to its devices sometimes even faster than Google does to its Pixel range, and Huawei has been working hard to cut the bloatware on its EMUI. In comparison, the software on the HTC, Sony and even Samsung devices seems almost too complex, and the companies’ update record is also not exactly sterling. Yes, getting a Pixel will ensure you get updates speedily but then you would get them on a Nokia 8 almost as quickly (yes, the Pixel 2 does have better cameras but we are talking software here). And to be brutal, I much prefer Oxygen OS, MIUI and EMUI to the interfaces on Samsung, LG, Sony and HTC.
So in sum, what you are generally going to get for your extra money is likely to be cameras that are better but not by a huge margin, a better and perhaps higher resolution display, generally better sound and perhaps some water and dust resistance and perhaps (perhaps) a slightly more eye catching build. Is that going to be worth the extra Rs 10,000-25,000 you are going to shell out for them? It really depends on your priorities. Speaking for myself, I would recommend a high end premium phone only to phone photography enthusiasts – the P20 Pro and the Pixel 2 are still exceptional – but then as a friend told me rather bluntly “I can buy a OnePlus 6 AND a DSLR for less than the price of a Pixel 2 XL…”
There is perhaps still a case for investing in a high end premium Android smartphone. But as the competition grows, that case is getting weaker.
PS: We have kept the iPhone out of this argument because unlike Android, only Apple can provide the platform it runs on. And well, Apple has managed to keep its premium tag alive and kicking through constant innovation and very effective communications – witness the iPhone X sales.