The state of cheap Flagships

The smaller companies keep on Climbing

As you know, I am using the OnePlus 6 as my daily driver while writing my ongoing review. The other day I started thinking though. People always talk about the pricing of OnePlus phones as if the increased price makes them absolute. Is that really fair?

Story Time

It has only been 4 years since the OnePlus One was all the rage, and yet, the once small and unknown company now sells phones to people who would have never considered something other than an iPhone or Samsung Galaxy one year ago.
An elder colleague of mine muffled something about the text being way to small on her phone, hearing it in the background I thought I could help so I asked her what phone it was. Imagine my surprise when she answered the OnePlus 6

The word is out, OnePlus have moved from being the niched product for developers and nerds that are only spec-hungry. The company now appeals to people who feel that the prices of flagship phones have spiraled out of control. Where $1000, that after customs and taxes have been the standard in Sweden for years, is too much to ask. 

Development costs have gone up, marketing is more important than ever and everyone seems to crumble underneath Apple, Samsung and Huawei. OEMs like LG, Sony and HTC reports sales falling by the month. At the same time smaller Chinese brands like Xiaomi, OnePlus and Honor climbs their own ladder and Nokia(HMD Global) is doing well in the mid-range market.

OnePlus announced a partnership with the Swedish carrier Telia (and their daughter-company Halebop) early 2018 and you can now step into a store to grab the OnePlus 6. The Swedish store Webhallen also distributes the OnePlus 6, but with a smaller stock. Both stores do so without adding to the price. Rumors also point to T-Mobile, the major US carrier, making an official deal with OnePlus to sell carrier branded models of the OnePlus 6T.
In reality this means that the OnePlus 6 is about as easy to get your hands on as the Samsung Galaxy s9/s9+ or the iPhone x. You can pick it up at a contract with reduced pricing and you can argue about warranty with a local store.

 It is hard to argue against the Value these so called budget-flagships bring. Especially when you consider the build quality and software experience being on par with, if not better than, full-priced models. 

It is hard to argue against the Value these so called budget-flagships bring. Especially when you consider the build quality and software experience being on par with, if not better than, full-priced models. 

Special Interest?

OnePlus main marketing focus have always been through word of mouth. They rely on us consumers telling our friends about their phones, and what is the first thing you mention? 

The OnePlus 6 costs $599 and have the
same internals as your average flagship from Samsung.
— Me, in a conversation with a colleague.

People are instantaneously interested. This isn't less true today than it was four years ago. If anything, people seem to actually believe in the value more these days. Talking about the phone with colleagues twice my age results with them being impressed with the price-point, not to mention how well built and slim it is.
To me this translates into that OnePlus is no longer the special-interest brand as it might have started as. However I do not want to accuse or put blame on the company, they obviously did not want to stay as a maker of small niche-products. I simply want to imply that the market might be more open to deviate from their previous brand-loyalty or expectation.

The competition

It is hard to talk about the budget-flagship space without mentioning the competition though. While OnePlus certainly holds a lot of value, Honor by Huawei is a lot more renown in Sweden. They have been around longer in the eye of the public and I still see people using the Honor 8 at work. Xiaomi is said to have started the budget-flagship back in the day, but compared to OnePlus and Honor they still have not officially moved into the northern European market. Honor, Huawei and Xiaomi still don't sell in the US and the current government seems hell-bent to keep it that way. OnePlus is available in all of these markets, not to mention climbing ahead of the competition in India as the top phone in the premium market.

Increasing Prices - What is The Long Game?

If you have been following OnePlus' history, you might be familiar with the constant that is increased pricing. The OnePlus One started at $299 for the 16GB version and since then the price have been sneaking up to $529 with the OnePlus 6's base model of 64GB. Now this might seem shady, it might even look like the company is trying to reach Samsung's pricing, and the argument can be made that OnePlus cannot push the price a lot further. Looking at Xioami though both companies seem to be going in the exactly same direction when pricing their flagships. 
Back in 2014, when the One was announced and released, Samsung's flagship the Galaxy s5 was priced at $649.99 off-contract. The Samsung Galaxy s9+ was priced at 839.99 on release.

Comparing both companies price-climb the OnePlus model have climbed $230 while the Samsung one have increased by $190. That is a $40 difference in price-growth over four years. 
Looking at how much OnePlus have grown during this time, from the small company with just a handful of in-house employees and zero profit-margin planned for their first year to a known underdog I'd say that those $40 are pretty much a non-issue.

Now, I might be biased. I might like OnePlus' current smartphone more than Samsung's, and I will admit that. But considering the fact that the base model Samsung Galaxy Note 9 is priced at $999.99, where is the value actually placed.

I am not trying to say that the Galaxy Note 9 doesn't offer more than the OnePlus 6. It certainly does, both in features, the S-pen, a bigger battery capacity, better water resistance, better speakers, and so forth. The list goes on. 
But considering the hard-earned cash that you need to consider spending the question is always what you, as an individual, needs from your phone.

Then there is your legacy manufacturers such as HTC and LG. Still pricing their flagship phones around the $800 mark. What do they offer that justifies the $270 price-hike? 

I am not saying that any of these companies offer a bad experience, neither am I saying that they are not "worth" their premium price-tag. I am just contemplating the question, for whom is the OnePlus flagship of 2018 best suited for? And what are you actually paying for?

The Smartphone Camera argument

camera.jpg

When reviewers talk about the cheaper Flagship phones they are usually quick to dissmis the camera. Now the OnePlus 6, Xiaomi Mi Mix 2s and Mi 8 as well as the Honor 10 have gotten a lot more love in this department. 
Looking at the average consumers needs though, people are impressed with the camera on my OnePlus 6. They were also impressed with the Mix 2s, which camera scores slightly higher than the OnePlus 6's. To keep telling stories I was at a smaller bar the other night with my fiancee, her sister, and her fiance. Of course, being at a bar people take photos right? His Samsung Galaxy s8, a phone that was celebrated for its camera just a year ago got bashed in comparison to the 6 in both quality and color-accuracy. 
With that being said, these budget-flagship smartphones does in my opinion preform very well even in the camera-department, especially this year. 

I have so much respect for the big publications of the smartphone world. My dream job would probably be with the guys at Android Authority, Techno Buffalo, or Swedroid. With that said I do not wish to discredit them in any way, but seeing as they test every big smartphone out there you come to expect the best of the best. 

The question remains though; where do you set the bar personally. 

Features - The need for standing out

Another common argument against these phones comes in regards to special features, sometimes called gimmicks. While Samsung and Huawei stock their UI's with every feature you could imagine, OnePlus keeps things simple. Xiaomi on the other hand delivers a UI feature-packed to compete with Samsung and Asus seems to be somewhere in the middle this year. 

For some people these extra features matter. Some People love them, and justify the extra value with the amount of features you can customize. Some People hate them, accuse them of filling up their phone with forced content and bloatware. Like previously this category comes down to personal preference. For me though, OnePlus offers Dash-Charging (sometimes dismissed as a feature) as well as the great addition of an Alert Slider and their Ambient Display. I have always liked the customization that is enabled in Android, but I prefer to be able to decide what to include, therefor I prefer OnePlus' minimalist approach, which lets me feel like I am in charge.

Samsung does have winning features though. I sincerely miss having Samsung Pay on my phone and even though I do not use my external phone-speakers a lot I would like the addition of stereo speakers. Wireless charging also counts as one of those flagship-features, kudos to Xiaomi for including it in the Mix 2s. 

Water resistance in the form of IP-ratings are still one of those things that still remain a premium flagship feature. But it still do not, and have not since Sony started implementing it, show up in manufacturers warranty policies. Of course, there is no way to tell how much effort you put in to drowning your phone. But as long as it states that I am on my own if the phone does get water damaged the categorized protection is just a marketing numer that gives some piece of mind.
The OnePlus 6 is marketed as water resistant, and just as with other manufacturers that payed for a rating saying it can be submerged, they recommend that you do not place the phone under water. 

Operating System - Manufacturer Skins

Every Android Manufacturer, apart from Nokia, puts their own touch to the Android Operating system. For the less tech-savvy Android user this is what might still create confusions as to what Android is and what Samsung uses. Touchwiz, as it is no longer called, is something that users put up with for years. Sure complaints have always been voiced, but Samsung did not need to do anything about it at the time. I agree that the Samsung Experience UI, or whatever they actually call it, have gotten a lot better. But in my opinion it still was not good enough on the Galaxy s8 early 2018. 
On that note Oxygen OS from OnePlus have gotten so good that the offerings from Samsung or LG is starting to become embarrassing. Tech reviewers mention it as the reason they use the 6 over Samsung's phones as a daily driver, and for me this also speaks to how big of an impact the camera differences actually hold in today's market. Oxygen OS is almost a feature in itself.
MIUI on Xiaomi's phones also get praised by their fans and I read that even ASUS' Zen UI have gotten a lot better and closer to the core Android experience this year.

But the real question is, do you need the stand-out features for $200?
Do you use half of them?

Exiting note

There are a lot of things to put into consideration when discussing the value of a smartphone. It is hard to put everything into perspective at once. 

Most people seem to agree that the $1000 smartphone price is ludicrous considering some people buy their car for the same amount of money (I mean, second hand crappy cars but still). 
But where is the sweet-spot for flagship pricing? 

What do you think?

Thank you for reading! This is my first post in the "discussional" form, and as such I would love feedback and/or opinions.

What are your feelings towards Budget-Flagships? 
How do you value your smartphone?

And lastly, what would OnePlus or Xiaomi need do next to appeal to you?