We learned a lot in 2020. About face coverings, about entertaining ourselves in our own homes, about staycations, and probably about making bread — or at least personally net carbohydrate profiteering off of someone who did. But in the realm of smartphones, one trend markedly stood out amidst a global economy (and frankly, just a globe) in turmoil: good, relatively inexpensive phones.
The OnePlus Nord, Galaxy S20 FE, and Google Pixel 4a shine brightest in the collective “value” Android smartphone cosmos right now here in the West, being from the three names most synonymous with the tech enthusiast circle in the handset space. They’re not the only phones that I could use as examples — in fact, plenty more exist — but all three make strong arguments for their respective (and impressive) feature sets, and do so at significantly varying price points. This certainly wasn’t the case 5 years ago, when “settling” for any phone under $600 or so gave you very few palatable options. Even among those, compromise tended to be a defining feature. For me, that really brings into perspective the fact that the smartphone value equation has become much more of a sliding scale, as opposed to a fixed point, and one which is now going to have a very different definition depending on what you might personally perceive as an important feature in a phone.
This certainly wasn’t the case 5 years ago, when “settling” for any phone under $600 or so gave you very few palatable options.
This is not a new trend, and not one which I’m especially clever to point out exists. But I think that 2020 is going to mark an inflection point for that trend, one which was shaped by global events smartphone vendors and customers had no real control over. I also think 5G will play a role in accelerating the relatively-inexpensive-but-good phone momentum, as the leading 5G modem vendor worldwide — Qualcomm — has more aggressively and rapidly deployed 5G on its chipsets below the premier tier than it did 4G. 5G has, for all its under-promising on speed, also proved to be a far less bumpy nationwide rollout in the US than 4G (minus mmWave 5G, which has been a struggle), with all three major carriers offering large swathes of disappointing-but-available low-band 5G coverage.
While I lament the fact that consumers are that easy to goad into purchasing something because it is One G Higher, this is what carriers will market relentlessly in their newest handsets for the foreseeable future. And with more 5G phone options at a wider range of MSRPs, carriers will have an easier time making that sale to price-sensitive consumers. Verizon, for example, currently has 22 5G-capable smartphones on sale, including some that are marked down so far as to be free or negligibly expensive — a full seven Verizon 5G handsets are currently $10 a month or less for new subscribers or lines. And they’re not bad phones: even relative no-name options like TCL’s 10L 5G we’ve found perfectly passable.
If you pressed me to define what makes, say, a Pixel 5 worth twice as much money as a Pixel 4a… I really couldn’t.
Another part of this changing dynamic has been the twin forces of commoditization and diminishing returns. For some time, we’ve watched less expensive smartphones inch closer and closer to their premium counterparts in terms of effective utility. But in 2020, if you pressed me to define what makes, say, a Pixel 5 worth twice as much money as a Pixel 4a — or a OnePlus 8 Pro worth nearly double a Nord, or a Galaxy S20+ worth $400 more than an S20 FE — I really couldn’t. That’s not just a function of cheaper phones becoming more capable (they certainly have), it’s a function of more expensive ones not becoming equally more desirable. It’s not even to say that innovation has slowed, so much as to say that the innovations we’re making really aren’t as impactful in terms of the actual smartphone user experience.
Given all these signals and emerging marketplace realities, 2021 could be something of a bloodbath for the premium smartphone tier. With 5G rapidly becoming cheaper to attain, fewer dollars in the pockets of most consumers, and an increasingly tough-to-define capability gap between the most expensive phones and their more cost-conscious cousins, a sea change may finally be arriving. In 2020, the Galaxy S20 might prove something of a canary in the coal mine — Samsung’s newest premium lineup has sold remarkably badly here. Google gave up on its ultra-premium smartphone efforts entirely in 2020. And Apple, long known for its expensive handsets, declined to introduce a 5G price hike on its latest iPhones. Smaller players like LG and Motorola have backed off from the premium tier in the US, too, more selectively introducing handsets to carriers who specifically demand them.
Unlike in years past, almost all of these phones are available to American consumers on American carriers.
We’re also seeing the change in ourselves and how we cover phones. For two years now, we’ve recommended Google’s cheapest smartphone as our favorite phone period. For the first time in memory, we very favorably reviewed Samsung phones not in its top-tier Galaxy S and Note lines (and far less favorably reviewed some in those lines). We saw OnePlus successfully reinvent its flagship-killer formula. And unlike in years past, almost all of these phones are available to American consumers on American carriers (save the Nord). You don’t have to settle for some garbage-tier carrier-branded smartphone anymore if you want to save some money and avoid paying the full cost of your phone outright. You have options. I can only see more handset makers trying to break into this emerging market in 2021 — that of the approachable, premium feature set, sub-premium price category.
Admittedly, like the year of Linux on the desktop, the year of the budget phone is always “next year.” I’m as guilty as anyone of pushing this line over the past decade, but in 2020, something really does feel different. Even among enthusiasts, excitement about the highest-end smartphones is dwindling (perhaps apart from the subgroup of folks getting hyped about foldables). Such people seem far more interested in what they can get at a given price point than what the very best thing on the market is. And even if the long-heralded reckoning for the premium smartphone doesn’t arrive next year, I still believe a rubicon has been crossed during this one.