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An ode to Lite phones

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The commotion in the smartphone market lately hasn’t been quite like it used to be. We’re seeing some major activity outside the usual launch seasons, non-flagships are creating headlines more often, consumers have started to look for options beyond the upper tier, and companies, too, are making mid-range models that we can actually recommend. All these are signs that the smartphone industry has graduated to a stage where even cheaper phones can make sense for consumers without degrading their overall experience.

Phone makers are busy shifting gears to meet the changing consumer preference, and the results have been positive so far. The last few quarters have given us a new kind of mid-range phones — one that has the potential to become the new mainstream.

Rising flagship prices and falling marginal benefits

Your usual glass-sandwich flagships simply haven’t seen real transformation quite literally in years.

I’ll take this moment to call out the sheer absurdity that modern flagship pricing has turned into. And to back my censure with an example, I won’t even need to go that far back in time. Samsung’s $1200 entry into the Galaxy S series is merely a glimpse at what the new normal with such super-premium phones (superphones?) is going to look like. Foldable phones are kind of already there, raising the bar for the entire category and indicating that prices will only go north hereon.

If you think about it, foldables can still defend their sky-high prices with the innovation leap they’ve taken both in design and display tech. That makes for a reasonably good case if you ask me, but you can’t say the same for your usual glass-sandwich flagships that simply haven’t seen real transformation quite literally in years. Do you think that the Galaxy S21 Ultra actually offers $400 worth of more value over the standard Galaxy S21? It doesn’t, at least for the majority of us who aren’t a camera whizz. But still, that price point is only getting crowded by the day with no sign of abatement.

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And you can’t really help it either; the maturing smartphone market ensured that these price leaps were inevitable. Even OnePlus, a brand that was actually conceived in the mid-range segment, gradually moved further up to finally launch a $1000 (non-enthusiast) phone last year. But, in a way, that upward trend, too, has a silver lining: Without it, there would’ve been no space for a phone like the Nord — or even the new 9R — in OnePlus’ lineup. And not just Nord, the whole budget flagship category wouldn’t even exist if it wasn’t for this new (super) premium tier.

The golden age of humble mid-rangers

The Pixel 4a is a testimony to the fact that you don’t need to make a hole in your wallet just to have a good camera experience.

The smartphone market’s ultimate maturity wasn’t completely bad news; it, in fact, helped streamline the supply chains to become both effective and efficient. While all this happens backstage, what it means for you is that being on a tighter budget doesn’t necessarily imply you’ll have to put up with a shoddy phone anymore. If anything, recent mid-range phones have far outgrown their trashy past, and, to be frank, it’s getting harder by the day to distinguish them from real flagships. I know that’d happen only to an untrained eye, but that still counts as a monumental leap.

Budget phones, which were once ill-famed for their subpar cameras, have managed to catch up, and how! The Pixel 4a is a testimony to the fact that you don’t need to make a hole in your wallet just to have a good camera experience. We’re living in a time when a sub-$500 Nord has a high refresh rate screen, but the $1000 Galaxy Note20 doesn’t — that realization was frankly a bit hard to digest. What’s even more baffling is that you can get a 120Hz panel on Samsung’s own Galaxy S20 FE, even though it costs $300 less. Despite that price difference, the S20 FE offers top-notch performance using a Snapdragon 865, just as its flagship peers, although with a few corners cut in other areas.

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The point is that the compromises are so few — and arguably insignificant — that we aren’t complaining anymore. The iPhone 11, for example, was an excellent buy for those in the other team, despite its little flaws that didn’t quite matter to many among us anyway. The same goes for the OnePlus 9 and the Galaxy S20 FE. These phones are as close to their flagship counterparts as a mid-ranger can possibly get — only in terms of hardware and software, not price. And that’s the precise combination that’s giving us the new mainstream — one that’s tailor-made for an average Joe and not some selected pros and ultras.

Companies that haven’t had a good run in the smartphone business are also picking up on the increased consumer interest in the segment as a chance to redeem themselves. The Google Pixel 5 and the LG Velvet are clear signs of the shifting focus and the catch-up game these brands have been trying to play. And going forward in 2021 and beyond, we’ll be seeing more of these value smartphones take the centerstage, almost stealing the spotlight from the top-tier options.

What you need is the key

Even though I belong to this side of the fence, I’ll admit that media has had a part to play in overhyping and overselling upper-tier products and their peripheral features beyond what’s reasonable. Most people don’t have ten phones lying around to compare if a certain app opens a tenth of a second slower on their new phone or if the vibration motor’s rattle doesn’t sound as refined as on the next device. These microscopic differences don’t even matter when you’re out there, looking for a decent phone that gets the basics right.

But the very definition of a decent phone is quite subjective. I don’t mind having an average camera on my daily driver, but that may be a dealbreaker for someone else. You’ll have to clearly identify the things that you can comfortably do without and won’t necessarily miss when going about with your regular day — after all, not everyone needs a fat periscope lens on their phone. This is important because not everyone can set aside hundreds of dollars for a smartphone when they have other necessities to attend to.

Whatever you may decide, do bear in mind that no matter which phone you pick, you’re bound to make compromises — if it’s a top-tier flagship with absolutely no shortcomings, then it’s the buttload of money that you’re parting with.

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There’s always room for improvement

It wouldn’t make any financial sense if you got yourself a $600 mid-ranger that needs to be replaced every other year instead of a $1000 flagship that could comfortably last you three years or even more. While recent 700-series processors from Qualcomm have enough headroom to keep the devices going for more than a couple of years, you need fresh software updates to keep up with ongoing optimizations. Right now, Apple leads the pack, with some iPhone models receiving even 5 years of major updates.

Samsung’s lead will hopefully inspire other phone makers to offer extended software support.

That kind of commitment is unheard of on the Android side. The closest any Android phone has gotten to iPhones is Google’s own Pixel range. Samsung, too, last year decided to match Google’s three years of support, even for some of its mid-rangers. While that’s great news for Galaxy handset owners, Samsung’s lead will hopefully inspire other phone makers to follow suit. With that last piece of the puzzle in place, mid-rangers should be able to make a stronger case against those upmarket super-premium phones that many of us don’t necessarily want to splurge on.

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