Of disruptors, flagships, and price points

How challengers in the smartphone space are setting the new agenda

What makes a smartphone a flagship phone?

Just the other day, during a weekly chat over drinks, the GadgetMatch team found ourselves in a conundrum.

While a few years back the answer was simple, these days, the imaginary lines that separate phone classes are getting murkier. That’s especially true in 2016, a year where up-and-coming brands are disrupting price points by introducing the same kinds of phones for less.

Companies like ASUS and OnePlus both offer smartphones that can compete with the best of 2016 at almost half the price. No buts, no ifs, no compromises.

The only thing separating the cream of the crop are features that are great to have but otherwise completely unnecessary: a 4K display, like most high-end televisions; water resistance; and modularity. But when it comes to high-end essentials, the disruptors have it all.

Next week, I’ll be off to New York to cover the launch of the Samsung Galaxy Note 7, the latest in a trio of high-end phones by the world’s largest smartphone manufacturer. If its little brother, the Galaxy S7, is any indicator, expect the Galaxy Note 7 to be one of the best smartphones 2016 will see.

The Note 7 has everything that makes the S7 great: a gorgeous design, weatherproofing, expandable storage, a top notch camera, a built-in stylus, and, possibly, an iris scanner for security.

I haven’t settled on my favorite phone this year yet, one that’ll I’ll keep and use everyday for a year. But in my quest for the best smartphone technology has to offer, the Galaxy Note 7 is sounding like the perfect candidate.

My current daily driver, for all of two weeks, is the OnePlus 3. One of those disruptors I’ve been talking about. The OnePlus 3 is a gorgeous $400 smartphone: all metal, with rounded edges and an ultra-slim frame.

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It’s just the right size; runs one of the best Android skins I’ve used; and comes with almost all the bells and whistles I look for in a phone: fast charging; fast fingerprint scanning; and a great camera. The only high-end features this phone doesn’t have are water resistance, a 2K display, and a rich ecosystem of compatible apps, accessories, and companion devices.

But I’m okay with that. In fact, the more time I spend with the OnePlus 3, the more I tell myself, this is actually a phone I don’t mind using daily. Scratch that—this is a phone I actually enjoy using. All of a sudden, my world is turned upside down. Maybe I don’t need a $700 phone? My current $400 phone costs significantly less, but it makes me happy.

Late last week, in Vietnam, another disruptor, Taiwanese tech brand ASUS announced two new smartphones, the ZenFone 3 Laser and ZenFone 3 Max. While ASUS has a phone that competes directly with the OnePlus 3, the equally impressive ZenFone 3 Deluxe, the two just-announced phones compete at another, much lower price point. But they too are disruptive.

Also last week, we were given an opportunity to take these yet-to-be released devices for a dry run. Our verdict? Both of them are significantly better than their predecessors. Our only dilemma, how to classify them. Are they midrange phones or budget phones? Between their specs and price tags, it’s hard to tell.

Which brings us back to the question, what makes a smartphone a flagship phone? Or, for that matter, what makes a budget phone? A midrange phone?

When everything was much simpler, the answer had to do with design, choice of materials, and specs. But now, even those at lower price points, some smartphones are designed well, made from premium materials, and come with impressive specs and features. Now that the playing field is somewhat equal, it all boils down to price.

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For disruptors OnePlus and ASUS, it’s a question they both currently face, weeks before for their upcoming launches in the Philippines. I expect both their flagship offerings to come in at around P20,000 ($420). With both phones equally matched in terms of specs, whichever is more affordable is likely to win.

But it’s not just about these two phones. What about the flagships whose popularity they intend on disrupting?

At around the same time both the OnePlus 3 and ASUS ZenFone 3 Deluxe are supposed to go on sale, so should the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 for about P40,000 ($850). The Galaxy S7 is slightly cheaper, about P35,000 ($740).

Bleeding-edge tech comes at a premium, but I wonder, if for the casual consumer, it is worth it. Will there come a time where users, spoiled by the promise of a premium smartphone experience for less, reject the idea of any expensive phone?

Maybe we’ve hit the nail on the head. Maybe a flagship phone is about a premium experience.

I own another phone, a second daily driver, the iPhone 6S—a smartphone so great, that on paper has never competed head-to-head with all the other greats in terms of specs, but nevertheless continues to impress.

Case in point: the budget ASUS ZenFone 3 Laser has 4GB of RAM, twice that of the premium iPhone 6S. What Apple does, however, to justify its higher price points, is that it controls all the moving parts so that the internals can take a step back and users can focus on the usage experience instead.

The challengers to Apple and Samsung seem to have caught on that principle. When you unbox the OnePlus 3, enclosed is a letter from OnePlus co-founder Carl Pei. His message is simple: “Never settle.”

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The thinking at ASUS isn’t very different. ASUS CEO Jerry Shen tells me the ZenFone is about “empowering luxury.” It’s about perfecting the smartphone experience and making it possible for everyone to afford this experience.

In a world where the common belief is you get what you pay for, it is intriguing to find that premium doesn’t have to cost so much. And while I appreciate how tech companies innovate with curved displays, super-fast charging, and the like, perhaps the biggest smartphone innovation of 2016 is something less tangible.

Perhaps it’s about premium experiences we can all afford.

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