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The Premium Android Flagship: an endangered species?

“Too high,” muttered my colleague when it was announced that the Huawei P30 Pro would be available at a starting price of Rs 71,990. And he was not alone in that sentiment. The past few years have seen high price points become increasingly difficult to justify for Android phone manufacturers. It has to an extent been the same case in the iPhone world, but then as a dealer pointed out to me, “People do not have much choice when they want a new iPhone. In Android, they have options. Lots of options.”

Huawei P30 Pro

So many options that indeed the premium Android phone seems to be in danger of becoming an endangered species.

If that sounds a little extreme, let us cast an eye on the last two premium Android phones in the market – the Samsung Galaxy S10+ and the Huawei P30 Pro. Both had prices slightly north of Rs 70,000 and although both brought a lot to the table in terms of innovation – be it in cameras, reverse charging batteries, sound and more – they were both seen as being “too expensive.” And the reason for this is simple – there are devices out there that claim to deliver almost similar performance at prices that are significantly less. Perhaps the biggest shadow being cast over the premium flagship segment is that of OnePlus, whose devices often come with comparable specs and decent design at prices that are well below those of most premium flagships. Even though OnePlus itself has been steadily increasing its price – the OnePlus 6T starts at Rs 37,990 – the device still remains well below the likes of the Galaxy S10+, the Galaxy Note 9, the Pixel 3 and now, the Huawei P30 Pro. Even OnePlus itself has been facing competition from the likes of Honor, ASUS’ Zenfone and now, POCO, all of which are replicating its “great specs at a much lower than premium prices” formula, albeit with varying degrees of success.

OnePlus-6T

OnePlus 6T

Just consider the following when comparing mainstream Android devices with premium ones:

  • The display size and resolutions are being matched: full HD+ displays are available for below Rs 10,000 and quad HD displays have not caught on. And you can get a display with a notch for about Rs 10,000 as well!
  • The processors are being matched: You can get a Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 processor in a device that costs around Rs 20,000.
  • The RAM is being matched: 6GB RAM is now available in devices around Rs 17,000.
  • The batteries are being matched: You can actually get a 5000mAh battery for under Rs 20,000.
  • The connectivity options are being matched: 4G, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, the works… you can get them in devices for Rs 10,000
  • The software is being matched: Be it the latest version of Android or an innovative UI, you can get either or both for a price in the range of Rs 10,000. In fact, an Android One device of around Rs 15,000 is likely to get the latest Android update almost as quickly as the Pixel itself!

Google Pixel 3

All of which might make one wonder: what makes a premium device special? Well, to be fair, it is not as if premium devices do not have any aces up their sleeves. They do. Design is one of the most obvious advantages most premium devices offer – the build quality of a Note or a Galaxy S and the materials used in their construction are often significantly better than that of most budget flagships. And at the time of writing, most premium flagships also came with much better dust and water resistance (IP68 ratings). There is also a less covered but nevertheless important area of difference – sound quality. Premium flagships often boast stereo speakers for much better sound and multimedia experience. Another area where so far the premium flagships have held sway is cameras – yes, the cameras on less expensive phones are getting better all the time, but the likes of Huawei’s P30 Pro, Samsung’s Galaxy S10+ and of course, Google’s own Pixel 3 have a very clear edge over the competition. However, that camera gap is narrowing – a device like the Honor View 20 might not be able to totally outgun a Pixel 3, but it can match it in many conditions, something which was not the case a few years ago.

Even multiple cameras which were once the preserve of high-end devices, are now available in devices that cost Rs 10,000. What’s worse, some high end features like pop up cameras and under display fingerprint scanners have not really emerged as killer features, at least not at the time of writing.  What of that quality that some like to call “brand equity” and others “snob/flaunt value”? Well,  even that is being eroded – there are many people who feel that a OnePlus has as much flaunt potential as a premium Android device.

Samsung Galaxy Note 9

And that really sums up the challenge premium segment devices are facing today. While they do offer more than their more mainstream counterparts, the extra they bring to the table is in the eyes of many not quite justifying the extra they extract from the consumers’ wallet. In fact, barring something like the Galaxy Note, thanks to its stylus, and the Huawei P30 Pro, thanks to its remarkable quad camera set up (50x zoom), many other Android flagships are not seen as being really far ahead of their more affordable counterparts.

And truth be told, I am not sure that is a bad thing. On one level it ensures that consumers get premium level experiences at much more affordable prices. At another, it forces the premium device manufacturers to try harder to expand the gap between them and the “budget flagships.” Perhaps foldable displays – if they catch on (and that is an “if”) – will once again open a gulf between the premium segment and the mainstream one. But as of now, the rationale for investing a bomb in a high-end device is getting weaker by the day.

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Nimish Dubey

Nimish Dubey has been writing on technology since 1999. He has contributed to a number of publications and websites including The Times of India, Hindustan Times, Mint, Economic Times, Outlook, and India Today. He is currently the Editorial Mentor at TechPP.com and a regular contributor to Indian Express. When not writing, he loves to read and listen to classic rock.

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