The Diminishing Returns of Flagship Phones During the Mid-Range Renaissance

Moto X Style, image by Motorola.

I gotta say, I’m not so sure there’s much reason these days to buy a phone that retails (unsubsidized) for more than $600. Merely a year or so ago, I wouldn’t have said this, as the most well-regarded and reliable phones were those such as the HTC One M8, the Galaxy Note 4, the LG G3, the Nexus 6, and of course the iPhones 6 and 6 Plus. All of them came out at prices over $600, and reached into the realms of $800–1000.

There were exceptions in the flagship realm: the 2014 Moto X was just under $600, and the OnePlus One blew minds at the low price of $350 or so – that is, if you could actually get one. The Nexus 5 was technically a 2013 phone, but at about the same price at the OnePlus One, remained a strong contender.

But generally, unless you wanted to take a chance on a crazy “flagship killer” with hit-or-miss service and a decent chance for receiving a lemon, or you were okay with using a year-old device, you had to spend at least $500, but more likely closer to $700 or $800, if you wanted a solid, well-made device. Goddamn that’s a lot of money.

But today? While the current crop of high-end flagships are great, they’re not so much greater than the new middle-range, which is in the midst of some kind of sudden renaissance, to make the extra few hundred dollars worth it for the general customer.

I recently wrote that last year’s flagship phones are usually a better bet than a current-generation mid-ranger, but that truism has been exploded entirely with a slate of recent announcements. Last week, Motorola announced its new flagship, the Moto X Pure Edition (or “Style”), which will start at $400, a hundred less than last year. (It’s also got a new Moto G, which competes competently for under $200!) OnePlus has a new Two, which is only a little more expensive than its last phone, under $400. Asus has its Zenfone 2 at $300, and Alcatel has its Idol 3 at $250, both of which have been widely heralded as excellent, far exceeding the expectations set by their prices.

The LG G4 looks gorgeous. The upcoming Note 5 will certainly be a powerhouse. The Galaxy S6 has a screen so gorgeous I could just die. And so on. But for most people, there’s almost no reason to get any of them instead of one of the sub-$500 phones in the previous paragraph.

Here are the exceptions: General consumers who simply can’t be bothered to learn something new, who will be so flummoxed by anything that’s not iOS, or are utterly entrenched beyond all measure into the Apple ecosystem (or just spent an enormous amount of money on an Apple Watch), they should still get an iPhone. They’re amazing, they’re beautiful, and are far more than the sum of their specs. (I played with a 6 Plus the other day, and I swear, its display seems sharper and appears bigger than it actually is. It’s a marvel.) But a lot of folks who think they fall into that easily-flummoxed category would actually be just fine with the stock-Android experience offered by something like a Moto X or Moto G. We still don’t know what the next Nexus (or Nexi) will be or how much it will cost, but if it goes the 2013 Nexus 5 route, it will also be an easy recommendation for this crowd.

Also, those who have a specific need for high-quality stylus work, clearly you’ll want the Note. (Though the Note 4 will remain a kickass phone well into the next year, so I’m not so sure how necessary the 5 will be, but we’ll see.) If you must have the absolute best camera possible on a smartphone, get an iPhone, a Galaxy S6, or an LG G4. By all means!

But for everyone else, I am becoming convinced that spending the additional $300 or $400 one would spend on a high-end flagship will yield ever-diminishing returns. Manufacturers are getting better at what they do, understandings of software interface and optimization are improving, technology is advancing, and the general consumer who needs an excellent phone simply doesn’t have to drop a fortune to own one outright. Whether or not they’re usually iPhone people, now’s a great time to doff the high end, save some cash, and still be happy.

Last Year’s Crown Jewels are Still Crown Jewels: Old Flagship Phones versus New Mid-Rangers

2014's LG G3 and iPhone 5S Photo credit: Janitors / Foter / CC BY
Unless you’re a smartphone power-user or obsessed enthusiast (like me), chances are you really don’t need to spend $600+ on a current-generation flagship device (currently speaking, phones like the iPhone 6 and 6 plus, the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge, the HTC One M9, and the LG G4). Your needs, and far more, will certainly be met by “lesser” devices that cost far less. At Pocketnow, Adam Doud poses the question as to which category of device is your best bet if you’re not going for the latest-and-greatest – a current-generation mid-range phone or a previous-generation flagship?

This seems easy to me. You get the previous-generation flagship. (Almost always, and I’ll get to the exceptions in a bit.)

Doud himself leans toward a previous-generation flagship mostly for the fact that usually these have better cameras than mid-rangers, and that’s as good a reason as any. Doud is also right that, with the exception of Apple and Google Nexus devices, a year-old flagship is not guaranteed to receive major software updates for very long, and a more-recent mid-ranger may be maintained a little longer. But if you’re in this market, I’d say latest-and-greatest software features are also not your highest priority. Chances are, you just want a good phone that will perform well for a long time.

And that’s really why you want to err on the side of a flagship, even an older one. Yes, the camera is likely to be superior, but so is almost everything else about the device. The one exception might be internal specs, such as the processor speed or RAM. But the reason last year’s flagships were considered as such is because they were the crown jewel of that manufacturer’s lineup, and got the attention befitting a crown jewel.

In a previous-generation flagship, you’re going to get a device that was fussed over by the top designers and engineers of their respective manufacturers. One can assume the best components and materials were used, and they received the most attention to detail and optimization. As long as the device in question isn’t some sort of major blunder, it’s going to still be a tight piece of technology.

A mid-ranger is much less likely to be so. It will have been designed from its outset to be less expensive, meaning it will use cheaper components, and probably receive less TLC from its manufacturer (unless they specialize in this kind of device, like Asus for example). Corners are likely to have been cut wherever feasible. Yes, it may have comparable specifications, but if we learn nothing else from a company like Apple, we know that specs aren’t everything.

Here’s where it’s not as clear: Motorola starts its flagship Moto X at about $500, and sometimes less when they run a sale, which straddles the price divide. They also make highly-regarded mid-range phones (the Motos G and E) at low-range prices. Also, the OnePlus One made a credible claim as a “flagship killer” at the decidedly-mid-range price of $300-$350. It would be hard to go wrong with a Moto X, though the OnePlus One had some issues, hardware-related and otherwise.

So it’s not entirely clear-cut. But on the whole, I would almost always recommend a year-old crown jewel over a brand new piece of cubic zirconia. Case in point: The LG G3, which I’ve previously heralded, is now just such an old-news flagship, and a brand new one can be had for $400 or less, and it’s an even better deal if you can get a used one in good condition. It’s still fantastic, it’s still powerful, and will remain so for a good long time.

(And I have a recommendation about where to get something nice that’s not $700.)

Unaligned Ports, Unhinged Punditry

I really respect Rene Ritchie at iMore. He’s a great reporter, an eloquent writer, and has a nuanced perspective of the larger tech world that few in the tech blogosphere even aspire to, let alone achieve. He really understands not just the technology, but how real human beings, the “normals,” use technology. Check out his review of the iPad Air from 2013, which I remember as one of the best tech reviews I’d read in a long time (and I told him so over Twitter). And overall, iMore is a very good site staffed with talented folks and stuffed with useful information on all things Apple. (I’m also a devoted MacBreak Weekly fan, on which he is a host.)
You know there’s a big “but” coming, right?

He has a piece that exemplifies for me the worst excesses of Apple apologetics, lauding Apple for centering and aligning the ports and speaker grill at the bottom of the iPhone 6 (which is fine), and shaking his head at Samsung for only centering but not aligning them at the bottom of the Galaxy S6.

Ritchie says:

Some people might not care. Like painting the back of the fence or finishing the underside of the cabinet, it’s a detail that only people who take tremendous pride in craft really care about. And, of course, people who look for just exactly that kind of quality.

That’s because it takes an incredible amount of time and resources to achieve it. It takes an incredible amount of planning and coordination as well. It also takes the willingness to not do something if you feel doing it right is important enough.

To align everything along the edge of a device takes designing and mounting the boards in a certain way, and the ports and speakers, and the buttons and jacks, and the grills and every other detail so they all line up at exactly the right place at the end. Painstaking is likely an understatement.

… [O]nce you know the back of the fence wasn’t painted, not only can you never un-know it, you can never stop wondering what else wasn’t given that same care and consideration.

The principle he’s talking about is totally sound. That attention to even the tiniest detail is also why I love Apple products. But this is off the deep end. The perfect-center-alignment that Ritchie is looking for is a matter of taste, and it’s entirely subjective as to whether it matters or is indicative of anything. To Apple’s designers, and to him, aligning everything that way is pleasing and worthwhile, and so they go to painstaking effort to achieve it. Samsung’s folks probably don’t feel the same way about that kind of symmetry. Or they do, and just made the choice to allocate their time and energy to other things.

It’s a fallacy to presume that this was an oversight or neglect on Samsung’s part, and not a mere difference of priorities. The Galaxy line, while not to my own aesthetic tastes, has obviously delighted many, many people with the choices Samsung has made. They like the things Samsung said “yes” to, such as the curved screen on the Edge model, the glass on the front and back, the superior camera, etc. Some of those same people are less than delighted by their decision to say “no” to a removable battery, for example, but I can bet that their delight is unhindered by Samsung’s saying “no” to utter pan-dimensional symmetry in the ports.

This kind of nit-pickery frustrates me, not just because it seems a bit silly, but it’s part of an attitude that implies not just an aesthetic but an almost moral superiority for one design approach over another. I know that this is not Ritchie’s intent by any means, but his piece feeds into this morass of a zeitgeist among Apple pundits that creates a perception of snobbery, whether fair or not, that turns so many off. I love Apple stuff, but I am woozy from it.

Samsung’s designs are not for me, and I do indeed vastly prefer Apple’s sensibilities to Samsung’s, but I also recognize that this is just a subjective preference, and does not imply that I am therefore a better person or smarter user of technology. I think, for example, Motorola’s designs of late for the Moto X and Nexus 6 have been just as striking as Apple’s.

Just in case, I checked to see if my Nexus 6 is “aligned” to Apple standards, and while the power and volume buttons on the side are indeed aligned, the headphone jack is not aligned with the SIM card tray on the top. So obviously, it’s junk, right? As a very happy user of this phone, I clearly don’t know enough to make my own technology decisions, and Motorola and Google obviously don’t care about design or their customers.

And I’m sure their fences are disgusting.

My grossly unaligned Nexus 6. The horror.

UPDATE: My friend Justin Sapp (designer of this site’s banner), made this for me. Enjoy:


Nexus 6, You’ve Burned Me For the Last Time [Updated]

Image originally from Phone Arena

*** UPDATE *** I have very much changed my opinion on this device. Please see here.

The Nexus 6, I have determined, is chintzy. I thought it was me, at first, but after having returned several units that had various problems (which has earned me the ire of Amazon, but that’s another story), I think it’s not me, it’s the phone.

One unit had discolored banding problems on the display. Two others got uncomfortably warm during normal use, and too damned hot when doing anything like watching video or playing a game, such that the glass of the display was almost painful to touch. A great deal of googling showed that this seemed to be an issue relatively few complained of, so I thought perhaps I had gotten a lot of first-batch units that had since been improved. Or perhaps the Android 5.1 update, not available when I tried the Nexi, addressed the issue. Or perhaps it was an issue with the AT&T-specific variant. Or perhaps it was just the blue ones.

So I gave it one last shot with a new-batch, unlocked, 5.1-running, white Nexus 6. And?

And it just gets too goddamned hot.

Plus, every unit had something somewhat odd about its vibration, each one had its own sound and quirks. Plus, they all hummed when charging (although the latest one hummed from the AC adapter, not the phone itself).

And the screen’s glass isn’t all that smooth, a little too much friction.

And the battery is not very good.

Neither is the camera.

But it’s fast and runs stock Lollipop! And it’s really big! Which I really like!

But still. I think despite the place they hold among Android nerds as the big-ass pure-Google beast-phablet, they’re just not made very well. Whatever decisions Motorola made to keep the thing affordable to manufacture, they cheaped out. LG did amazing work with the Nexus 5 in 2013, with a phone that was a joy to use despite its lame camera and battery. Motorola really just made a big stock-Android phone, but nothing to hang their hat on.

It’s a damn shame. I was ready to have quite an affection for the Nexus 6. I tried extremely hard to make that relationship work, to the detriment of others. I am finding I now feel closer to my Galaxy Note 4 after all.

Update, Next Day: Playing some more with it the next day, it still gets warm but it seems not as much. Perhaps this had something to do with it being its “first day” and running lots of setup processes? I obviously don’t know. And even the battery life and camera seem improved, and that may be due to the 5.1 update (which I thought I was getting on the Note last night, but alas, it was a small .0.1 update). I can certainly tell that the Nexus 6 is extremely fast now, with none of the UI lag that I sometimes get on the Note.

This may not be over. Perhaps it actually has burned me for the last time.

Forget the Ones and Sixes, Show Me the Sevens and E’s

New flagship Android phones are being announced at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, right now. There’s the new HTC One M9, which is a nice evolution of the One line, which is fine (but apparently now playing catchup camera-wise after two generations of a noble and failed experiment with “ultrapixels”). The Samsung Galaxy S6 is also coming any moment, with an all- or mostly-metal build and one version with the “Edge” side screens. That’s a yawn for me.
Here’s what does interest me (and it’s two very different things).

Screen Shot 2015-03-01 at 11.15.29 AMHuawei’s MediaPad X2: A high-quality, high-resolution mega-phablet/mini-tablet. A device with a 7-inch display and telephony functionality, the sheer size of which makes it debatable whether it’s a phone or a tablet. I’m comfortable calling it a phablet, which is a word I’ve embraced. Anyway, a giant-ass screen with lots of horsepower, a great display, and checking all the connectivity boxes, that’s a compelling product to me as a phablet convert. My current device is a Galaxy Note 4 (5.7 inches), which is great, but I still lust after larger-screened devices such as the Nexus 6 (5.9 inches, which just gets too hot for me to be comfortable with), the Xperia Z Ultra (6.4 inches), and Huawei’s own Ascend Mate 7 (6 inches).

The image on the right is my current phone next to the MediaPad, via GSM Arena. Swoon. Is a 7-inch phone even sane? I don’t know, but I’d like to try being that crazy.

Cheap, quality phones: Just before MWC, Motorola announced the Moto E (in about the most adorable way possible), which is a small-ish, good-looking, medium-resolution phone with more or less stock Android 5.0, and it starts at just $130 off-contract. That’s amazing. The Moto G, which is a very fine mid-range device, is only $180. Meanwhile, you have OnePlus’s current device, which is a full-fledged flagship powerhouse, starting at $300 off-contract. At MWC, I’m already seeing a lot of phones get introduced with good specs and low prices.

I subscribe very much to the idea that non-tech enthusiasts should not be using low-end tech, because low-end tech usually means more frustration and more additional work. That’s why Apple is usually so perfect for technophobes and normal humans, because their angle has always been to make the experience as frustration-free as possible (which is obviously at some risk of late). A couple of years ago, there was no way I could, in good conscience, recommend to anyone on a budget to buy a budget Android device. They were cheap-feeling, slow, and confusing.

No more. A relative of mine is ready to get a new phone, having used an iPhone 4S for years, and while she’ll likely go for the iPhone 6, I would have little qualms about recommending instead that she just grab a Moto G, get contract-free, and at the same time feel less anxious and precious about her device. Off-contract, iPhone 6 starts at $650, versus the G’s $180, which is about equal to AppleCare plus a deductible for a replacement if something happened to the iPhone 6. The Moto G as a phone costs as much as the insurance to replace a broken iPhone 6.

I like this trend. I like that people who aren’t as precious as I am about devices can now get a fully-capable, well-made device and not have to get stuck in a contract or shell out gobs of money. And that cheaper device is now actually pleasant to use, thanks to the advancement of the technologies involved, and to Android Lollipop.

Reunion at the Nexus: A (Smartphone) Love Story

Image from Google.

It was both a rebound relationship, and a practical one. Cynical? No, but not heartfelt. I had abandoned my beloved iPhone back in 2013 in order to remove myself from my cellular carrier, and the only economically feasible alternative that the new carrier offered was the Nexus 5. Black, matte, fast, solid. It wasn’t love, but it would do.

I couldn’t commit, though. I was distracted, I thought too much about the other phones I might have had. The camera was poor. I couldn’t get used to the width of the screen with my tiny hands, and I felt the colors of the display were too washed out, too, well, real. I couldn’t handle it. I left the Nexus 5 relatively quickly, and went instead for a first-generation Moto X.


The Moto and I were happy for a little while. It matched me in so many ways: it was cute, spunky, and just the right size, without being overbearing with bloatware or unnecessary extras or demands. It was good for a while.

But I really wasn’t ready. I see that now. I was still too attached to iOS and Apple, still in the thrall of the spell that Steve Jobs cast on me years ago. The novelty of change having worn off, I longed to return to the comfort and familiarity of iPhone. So I came crawling back, like I always had before.

And things were fine. We got along, we worked more or less in sync. But though I’d never say so, I was getting bored again. The new iPhones 6 were announced, and they didn’t have the undeniable gravitational tug on me all previous models had. They were beautiful, powerful, that was all clear, but I couldn’t become interested.

Meanwhile, on the other side of things, Lollipop appeared. A new look and feel to Android, more unified, cleaner, more, well, delightful. I was intrigued.

At the same time, iPhone and I started fighting more and more often. Its new operating system, iOS 8, was lovely, but buggy. Things that it promised it could do, it wouldn’t. It would offer up new features, and then fail to make them work, or not well enough. The problems themselves weren’t insurmountable, but they exacerbated what was an existing ennui, a worsening indifference, a deepening chasm.

One day, I felt it. I had moved on. Whatever iPhone and I had once had was over. It wasn’t its fault, and it wasn’t mine. But we had grown apart, and it was time to admit it.

But I didn’t know where I’d go next. I knew I wanted to be using Android for my phone (not my tablet, that’s still an iPad mini 2), but not what device I should use, nor what I could afford to get, as it would certainly have to be used or refurbished.

Though, aren’t we all both used and refurbished?

Image by HTC.

I eventually connected with an HTC One M8, which was beautiful and well-regarded. It wasn’t easy to make that connection, though, as the first three (yes, three) units I ordered were all damaged in different ways. Finally, I found a refurb that was in like-new condition for the right price (I was sent the wrong color, but I had given up at that point). Surely this would work! But as I’ve recounted in a previous post, it was not to be. There were far too many incompatibilities.

While this latest relationship was deteriorating, I began to think back. Remember that phone that handled things so well? It was a different size, sure, but better than other devices. It was well built, certainly. It was fast, and reports from other users said that it remained so a year after its initial release, as it was still being sold and marketed as a current-generation flagship device. And it would also be certain to get the update to Android, Lollipop, sooner than almost anything else. And that OS update would have positive effects on things like the camera, the battery life, and how much overall effort it took to fiddle and futz.

Of course, I was thinking about the Nexus 5, the phone I had abandoned so long ago. I was older, I had matured. So had the phone. Perhaps now we were ready to try again.

I found one at the right price and in the right condition. It arrived, and we got to know each other again, and it was great. It was a revelation.

The phone wasn’t just fast, but faster than I remembered. The camera was workable, better than I gave it credit for (though still not great). The phone felt good to hold, the screen looked gorgeous, and the expanded display size was a relief to my eyes. The OS was now familiar and fun, not a slog through new territory. And then Lollipop came over the airwaves, and made it even better. It was a beautiful thing.

But one important thing was very different this time. This time, it was red.

Very red. Bright-orange-pink red. Obnoxiously red. It was perfect.

Now, I still live in the iOS world with my iPad, and it’s a good friendship, one that suits me for its particular purposes. But it’s fun to also be in the Android world, to be experiencing both development arcs of these dominant platforms. Particularly for the purposes of this blog, but also my own enthusiasms and curiosities, I can be part of both ecosystems’ conversations.

How long will the Nexus 5 stick around? I can’t say, of course. Undeniably fascinating devices, current and future, await. The Nexus 5 is the right device right now, even though it’s a little older, catching up with the times, and trying its best. Just like me.