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Why cheap phones are getting better and expensive phones aren't

AndroidPIT OnePlus X vs Honor 7 9
© nextpit

There has been an interesting trend in smartphones over the last couple of years. The gap between the best and the worst has decreased dramatically. Low-cost handsets have been creeping closer to high-end performance, while year-on-year improvements to premium devices have been, well, marginal. But why is this happening?

androidpit ui comparison hero
This is why cheap phones are getting better and expensive phones aren't. / © ANDROIDPIT

The illusion of innovation

Part of the reason for this lies in manufacturers' desire to provide appealing innovations. Innovations that matter. Game changers, if you will. Each year manufacturers try to ensure their new phones offer new and exciting features, but they always seem to fall short of the mark.

A recent example is finger-scanning technology. This smartphone feature has become popular over the past few years, but its usability isn't perfect yet. Reliability is a key flaw, as is security. And, sadly, this not-quite-there innovation represents possibly the most significant of recent smartphone advancements. 

What other trends can be observed at the high-end of the market? We've seen big increases in display resolution, and we now have smartphones with 4K screens. However, these provide the same function (that is, showing what is happening on screen) as phones with lower-resolution displays, like 720 x 1,280 pixels. It's not a new (or important) feature, just an improvement on what was already there.

androidpit samsung galaxy s6 edge plus edge lighting 2
Sorry, but, this doesn't justify the cost of what is, just a smartphone. / © ANDROIDPIT

Smartphones have barely changed in any meaningful way since their inception. Look at the capabilities of the first Android phone, the HTC Dream, from 2008. It had a touchscreen, Bluetooth, GPS, microSD card support, Wi-Fi and a rear camera. Since Android phones added the second camera, other improvements, such as the software provided by the “revolutionary” Galaxy S6 Edge, have been almost embarrassingly unimportant.

Smartphones can run apps, take pictures, access the internet, send messages, make calls and beep at us, as could phones from five years ago. None of these features has changed to a degree that makes these older phones significantly less useful than a modern phone. 

Security is an issue for older devices, of course, and camera quality is worse in older phones, and they may not run the latest apps. But for all the supposed innovations that modern flagships add each year – 4K resolutions, dual-sided displays, curved displays, finger scanners, heart-rate monitors – they aren't adding vital functionality. They just make phones seem a little cooler and shinier than they were before, that's all.

Honor 7 0
The Honor 7 offers all the functionality you need for a low price. / © ANDROIDPIT

The evolution of the essentials

Instead of trying to produce new and exciting features to fuel their marketing campaigns, budget-oriented devices have relied on a different approach: doing the essentials, and doing them well.

It’s for this simple reason that budget devices are becoming more interesting, and are improving at a faster rate, while the premium range of handsets tread water. Is it any surprise that HTC struggled to sell the HTC One M9? It launched at a price more than twice that of other phones that worked the same and were just as capable.

htc one m9 2
This is the HTC One M9. / © ANDROIDPIT

I’m often the butt of jokes at the AndroidPIT office because of how I sing the praises of phones like the OnePlus X and Asus ZenFone 2 and express disappointment at expensive, award-winning flagships.

But these budget phones are doing everything you need, and doing it well, for an incredibly low price. The low-end is evolving at a different rate than the high-end because there is a clear understanding that the phone must improve and deliver essential features.

ANDROIDPIT xiaomi MI 4C 12
This is the Xiaomi Mi4C. / © ANDROIDPIT

If you wish to spend a lot to have the latest and greatest stuff, that’s your prerogative and there’s nothing wrong with it at all. Just don’t be so sure that spending more money gets you better experience: it doesn’t, not necessarily.

Until manufacturers realize that focusing on improving the core experience and/or providing real, useful innovation will make the high-end impressive once more, Android's low-end will continue to thrive. But, honestly, I'm more than happy about that. 

Do you agree or disagree? Spout off in the comments. 

The best smartphones under $1,000 

  Editor's recommendation The best iPhone The best camera phone Value for money The best foldable The most affordable
  • $799
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  • $999
  • $599
  • $999
  • $499
Picture Samsung Galaxy S24 Product Image Apple iPhone 15 Product Image Google Pixel 8 Pro Product Image Nothing Phone (2) Product Image Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 5 Product Image Google Pixel 7a Product Image
Review: Samsung Galaxy S24
Review: Apple iPhone 15
Review: Google Pixel 8 Pro
Review: Nothing Phone (2)
Review: Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 5
Review: Google Pixel 7a
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Scott Adam Gordon

Scott Adam Gordon

Originally from the UK, Scott graduated in Popular Music Studies at Newcastle University and attributes much of his success there to his beloved Samsung Galaxy S2. His current aim is to write cool things about Android. And he loves it.

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  • 1
    Christopher Campbell Dec 8, 2017 Link to comment

    I feel its cause Android & Android Phones are all trying to be like Apple & iPhones, taking away what made Android great.
    A1. New/Large OS with Bloatware and Small Storage Phones doesn't allow apps to be moved to SDcard
    A2. Phones are built without SDcard Slots
    A3. New OS gives you the ultimatum of using the Internal Memory or SDcard instead of Apps to SDcard

    B1. Specs of New phones are never quite great
    - The Battery is Non-Removable while the Price is High
    - The GPU is low-end and not better from the last successors
    - The CPU is Strong, but the RAM is 2GB rather than 3-4GB
    - The Internal Storage is Low and The OS doesn't have Move Apps

    C1. No Landscape Keyboard phones, Just Candybars with Big Screens

  • 2
    Scott Ireland Feb 20, 2017 Link to comment

    I bought a Samsung Galaxy S7. Over priced garbage, if you ask me. It does nothing more than my awesome Motorola Moto X did. I Only switched because my new carrier didn't support the old phone. (sales gimmick). Samsung=garbage. I wish I would have saved my money and bought an LG for a 5th the price.

    Mohd ellithy

  • Stephen Roach 2
    Stephen Roach Nov 18, 2016 Link to comment

    I just bought a Blu vivo 5 Refresh last week only paid 200$ for it I couldn't be happier 1080 p fhd display 5.5 Android m 13 mp shooter 3 GB of RAM 32 GB of rom fingerprint scanner and it's a well designed mostly metal framed phone .

    Mohd ellithy

  • 2
    Sparsh Mishra Feb 6, 2016 Link to comment

    Guys.. High end mobiles are a status symbol for the manufacturing companies.. People buy samsung or apple products by seeing the success of their flagships.. And guys.. Those mobiles are meant for those people who can afford them.. You cannot expect a millionare or someone rich to buy a Ford Focus over a luxury Audi or BMW... Same goes for the smartphones...
    Yes indeed they have a big gap between budget phones and their high end phones.. But they are high end because their hardware and software has been brought to perfection.. Try running Asphalt 8 on a budget phone and you will end up with frame drops and glitches.. But throw it on an high end phone and that will handle it easily.. This perfection and the brand name results in the high cost of these devices.. :)

    Stephen Roach

    • Michael Bryner 2
      Michael Bryner Jul 23, 2017 Link to comment

      I run Asphalt 8 just fine on my Samsung Galaxy J3 Luna Pro and it is a $100 phone. Jeez, people. Also, people that buy and can afford those high priced phones do it to make them not buy one every 6 months or longer. They last years before getting another. People that can't afford get cheaper for the budget. Not rocket science on who buys what.

  • 5
    Your Friend Jan 27, 2016 Link to comment

    The cell phone industry is changing in that the new phones are no longer subsidized. Most people aren't going to pay $700 or $800 for a new phone. A lot of consumers don't like paying monthly payments of $25 for a purchase or lease because that puts the payments somewhere around $75-90 per month. Therefore, I think the days of the high end flagships are over. That's why you're going to see better & better phones at a lower price point. I'm all for it. I predict you'll also see phone sales drop dramatically. People that have older flagship phones that work great will not be getting new phones, they'll just continue to use their current phone - why not?

    Mohd ellithyStephen RoachTrenton MatthewsDan CaloinescuKathy Ruth

  • Teacher Tiant 5
    Teacher Tiant Jan 25, 2016 Link to comment

    guys, I know that mid-range phones are making a comeuppance in all, but are we gonna act as if 2k screens are not gorgeous and flagships with higher benchmarks aren't most capable of tackling functions that we would otherwise expect of our tablets...When a tablet or desktop isn't readily accessible? There are some advantages, right? :s Great write up, by the way...

    • 10
      Edward Amarille Jan 29, 2016 Link to comment

      What exactly would you consider an advantage? And is it worth the trade off in price? 2k and 4k screens do look beautiful, but is it really so much better than 760/1080 that you are willing to pony up 3x the cash? Is that 21Mp shooter so impressive that you are willing to pay $700 for it? Is a half second difference in response time between a snapdragon 810 and snapdragon 410 really that bad?

      But there is also another thing about most budget phones that give them a slight advantage over flagships. Most budget phones are unlocked out of the box. That means I can jump from T-Mobile to straight talk then over to at&t all in the same day if I want. Can your carrier subsidized ( sorry, "financed") flagship do that?

      Everyone wants to say the old mantra of " you get what you pay for", but honestly when it comes to the current crop of " budget" devices, I don't mind paying $200 for a 6 inch phone that can do 90% of what that $800 note 5 can do. That extra 10% of gimmicks just isn't worth $600 to me.

      Mohd ellithyMichael Bryner

      • PATTERZ 9
        PATTERZ Jan 30, 2016 Link to comment

        Well said.

        Mohd ellithy

  • 49
    storm Jan 24, 2016 Link to comment

    Cheaper phones are getting better because they're being optimized for the core functions of a smartphone on the constrained hardware choice. They tend to be sold direct and unlocked. Flagship phones are the biggest victims of bloatware and junkware from the maker and carrier. That's where you find the gimmickry and flash that costs money but offers no real benefit. And customers with more money than sense.

    Mohd ellithyTrenton MatthewsKathy RuthPATTERZ

  • 5
    Ryan Damper Jan 23, 2016 Link to comment

    Very true, I think we have reached a plateau except with battery life, if we could get the current functions with 3-5 days battery life I would be over the moon.

    Mohd ellithyDan CaloinescuKathy Ruth

  • 3
    ReviewWiz Jan 23, 2016 Link to comment

    The trend will continue. However, I want to make a point if I may, I think 4K displays on a device smaller than 10 inches really doesn't make sense. The trade off between resolution and battery is not worth it.

    Mohd ellithyDan CaloinescuEdward AmarilleKathy Ruth

  • Elisa 5
    Elisa Jan 23, 2016 Link to comment

    I agree. I own a Blu studio 6.0 LTE and I am perfectly happy with it.

    Mohd ellithyTrenton Matthews

    • 2
      Trenton Matthews Jan 24, 2016 Link to comment

      I myself own a BLU Life One X 2016, and I truly and "amazed" at what I get for 99.00 USD at the time, now 149.00 USD.
      Even though Marshmellow will come later for it, Lolipop 5.1 on this thing is smooth! Yes, the battery is faster at charging when the phone is off vs when its on, but that "power saving" feature. My it lasts for some time!
      At least a day an a half, if not more.

      Mohd ellithyKathy Ruth

  • 1
    Marla A. White Jan 23, 2016 Link to comment

    SAVE 50% ON ALL APPLE STORE PRODUCTS. Use apple store gift cards bought at half price to save 50% on all apple store purchases. www [DOT] jay-deals [DOT] com/product/apple-store-gift-card/ 50%-off all apple store gift cards to buy iPhone 6-6s-6plus, iPad pro, macbook pro, Macbook Air, and more.

  • Kishore Godithi 2
    Kishore Godithi Jan 23, 2016 Link to comment

    Agreed. My moto G 3rd gen with more than 220 apps & 2 launchers installed, it is as smooth as any high end device, thanks to pure Android & hardware + software optimisation while some highend mobiles with bloated software start to lag, this seems to be a master piece at such an economical price.

    Mohd ellithyEdward Amarille

  • 2
    Mayank Purohit Jan 23, 2016 Link to comment

    Flagship launched, wait 1 year, get it for 50% or even lesser. Android M. Is having nothing over kitkat versions. I mean developer got solutions for that as well.

    Scott Ireland

  • Christopher Tilley 6
    Christopher Tilley Jan 23, 2016 Link to comment

    I agree completely, I had the 2014 Moto G which did a great job and was reasonably priced. I wasn't impressed with the minimal improvements to create the 2015 Moto G and ended up getting the Nexus 5x mainly because of the camera.
    It's a very good phone but I think is £100 or so over priced for what you get.
    I don't think that any of the flagship phones really offer value for money.

    Edward AmarillePATTERZ

  • Tico 6
    Tico Jan 22, 2016 Link to comment

    I agree 💯% with this. I cannot understand why the phones have to be so expensive.

    PATTERZRahul paul

  • William Kimbark 10
    William Kimbark Jan 22, 2016 Link to comment

    Agreed. And I am very excited that the gap is closing. I hated having to spend a ton of money on a phone. Will definitely appreciate keeping an extra $200-$400 in my pocket and having a phone that does it all still.

    Teacher TiantPATTERZTico

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