Getting back to 2007 to 2010, the world had seen how much better an iPhone was than a Blackberry, Nokia was still trying to catch up in the smartphone race with its Symbian OS, it was the king of feature phones. Smartphones however were a luxury gadget only for those who could shell out some big bucks. Android came into the scene in 2008, and it wasn’t as historic a moment as the launch of the shiny iPhone in 2007, in fact, far from it. Android sucked. Apps crashed, the hardware was cheap, they were nowhere near an iPhone, but android had one big advantage, ‘the hardware was cheap’.
With the evolution of Android, smartphone sales saw huge growth, and it benefited it’s rivals as well. People started opening up to the idea of a $300-$400 phone that could do so many things.
Fast forward to today, the mobile phone market continues to grow at amazing pace, and with the rise of the smartphone, their usage is further peaking. It’s becoming harder and harder to make an innovative smartphone. Since the launch of the original iPhone, smartphone design has converged; with a few exceptions, every new smartphone is a metal, glass and or plastic rectangle with a reasonably big screen. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – a flat rectangular design works pretty damn well. It just means it’s harder to standout, and harder for manufacturers to impress punters. This is especially true when it comes to flagships. How do you justify a price tag that can get as high as four figures when your new handset doesn’t really do anything new?
The fact, however, is clear – the smartphone has evolved to a ‘commodity’ from its earlier status of being a novelty, or a symbol of luxury. The gap between high-end phones and mid-end phones is narrowing, and now, most people don’t get blown away by the release of new flagship smartphone anymore. Safe to say the smart phone market is on the verge of maturity – some consider that it has already matured.
A flagship phone is the best phone offered by a particular brand in a year. A flagship comes equipped with the most advanced specifications and eye-catching design for the period. At the same time, the number’s game is becoming less relevant. Sony’s 23MP sensors on it’s Xperia lineup hardly impress anyone when compared with 12MP iPhone cameras. People are coming to understand 6GB RAM is not necessarily a good thing and maybe 4GB should be enough. iPhone 7 is just the iPhone 6s minus the headphone jack.
It’s not surprising that an increasing number of consumers are switching to the mid-range category as their next smartphone purchase such as the OnePlus 3 or the Honor 8 which are both exceptionally well. The OnePlus 3 runs faster and smoother than even the Galaxy S7 Edge or the Galaxy Note 7. These days, phone performance is pretty much good enough across the board. Well, with a few exceptions —
- The manufacturer got the balance of hardware wrong
- Cases of crappy software optimization
- When you’re buying a super-low-end phone with garbage internals
You may have read several articles titled similarly as “The death of the flagship” but I tend to disagree. So the question is, why would one go out and buy a flagship phone anymore?
Well, first off, if you want the best cameras on a smartphone, you wouldn’t find it in a $400 phone, not yet at least. Sure, most phones — even really cheap ones — can take good photos in daylight, but that good photo keeps getting better and better the higher you go up the smartphone chain. There is still a lot of room for improvement in the smartphone cameras. Producing crisp, noise-free photos in a dark bar or outdoors by streetlight is still challenging, even for the very best of today’s flagships.
That’s why we’ve seen this year’s flagships focus on low light photography, with ever wider apertures and larger pixels, and more advanced optical stabilization. Once you’re at the 12-16 megapixel mark, you don’t really need any more pixels — and so engineering effort can be spent in other areas. In the year ahead, expect more high-end phones to pack dual-lens cameras, especially because the iPhone 7 Plus will be giving momentum to this trend. It’s well known that an android feature only gets widely accepted when the iPhone borrows it. Expect a lot of mid range phones to come with dual cameras as well in the coming year however, but I doubt they will be able to take full advantage of the sensors.
Another reason is the arrival of Virtual Reality and VR headsets. When Sony introduced the first ever 4K display on a smartphone in Xperia Z5 Premium, it received flak from everywhere and rightly so, because dropping the 4K display immediately after the Xperia Z5P showed that Sony had no vision for the 4K display. But we may see another Xperia flagship with a 4K display soon as Samsung is rumoured to be readying one for the Galaxy S8 and it might be driven by VR, because super-dense screens are needed to provide a sharp VR experience.
And as you increase display density, ever more horsepower is required to push those extra pixels, particularly if you’re gaming in VR.
A big part of Google’s Daydream initiative has to do with making sure the hardware’s up to scratch. Daydream-certified phones have to meet certain standards in terms of performance (so the thing runs smoothly), thermals (so it doesn’t overheat in the process) and latency (so you don’t experience nauseating lag when moving around). And those are likely to become major factors in future high-end CPUs — the ones that’ll drive phones at the $700 level, but not necessarily $400 and below.
Even if you’re not interested in VR, there’s plenty of out of the box thinking every manufacturer is doing, ones that are trying to compete that is (looking at you Sony, you’re not trying, nor giving up). Take Lenovo’s Moto Mods for instance, sure most of them are not that useful and are pricey but it’s still in an early stage, Samsung is planning to bring it’s IRIS scanner on most of it’s smartphones, LG has this amazing media consumption package with the HiFi Quad DACs and the amazing video optimizations and manual controls for the camera in the V20, these are all but a few examples of why the flagships are not going anywhere soon.
The iPhone sales are dropping it’s true, but that’s not necessarily the fall of the premium devices as has been proved by Samsung’s impressive Galaxy S7 Edge sales. This just shows that there is still an increasing number of consumers that are ready to pay the top dollar for a device they can flash in a party or feel proud of putting on their desk in a public place.
It’s true that mid-priced Android phones are better than ever right now, with handsets like the OnePlus 3 making top-tier performance and build to more attainable than ever. And as a result, the gap between a $400 phone and a $700 device has never been narrower.
But that doesn’t mean the days of traditional flagship phones are over. There are still many valid reasons to spend top dollar on a phone in late 2016 or early 2017. Even as the majority of cheaper smartphones become basically good enough, they will never be the best, at least not in the near future, mobile innovation hasn’t completely stalled. These are absolutely not the launch of the original iPhone level innovations but they are steps that might lead to another such event in the future.
What are your thoughts? Would you still pay the price for a flagship if you can?