Xiaomi, Huawei, Oppo, and a bunch of other Chinese manufacturers pump out cheap handsets at amazing pace. More often than not you get a phone release every week, with new gizmos like the in-display fingerprint sensor, bezel-free design with no notch, and extruding camera mechanisms. And they often come at a fraction of a flagship’s cost. Doesn’t that mean flagships are obsolete anymore?
…Not really. In fact, here are some big reasons why you should go with a flagship - even if you have to save up a little bit more.
Having experienced both worlds, I think I could comment a lot about why these cheap phones have no appeal when it comes to software.
Chinese manufacturers try out weird things. And that means, the software needs to account for them too. In a fast-changing ecosystem where menus and buttons move around for no apparent reason, where new features quietly pop up and old features quickly fade away, users get disoriented fast with the software. They expect things where they left them to be, and not hidden behind seven layers deep in menus when they flash a new update. In flagships, like Samsung and Apple, most menus are completely stabilized now, and are unlikely to shift in the future. That’s because these companies have the incentive to allow users to be familiar with their devices. Chinese OEMs, on the other hand, do not care to familiarize users, because they know their phones will break or people will get tired of them before a new update comes out. Why bother on people that spend literally $200-500 on your device, when you have a new one coming out anyway? It’s not like they will get mad, since it is cheap after all.
Plus, some of these “customizations” can get downright annoying real fast. One thing Chinese OEMs do is to kill background processes at random. Sounds good, right? I mean, they’re trying to save battery life for you! Well, that’s not entirely the case. Sometimes, these background processes include music and messaging apps. How annoying would it be to lock your phone, sit in a subway, and listen to that music you like - only to have it cut off because the OEM decided screen-off would be a good time to cull the process list. Sometimes, it can even cause you to miss important events. Think Calendar and sleep-tracking/alarm apps. That would be pretty disastrous, missing your next meeting or the alarm clock not firing at the right time.
But why do they have this “feature”? Well, in China, there is no Google ecosystem, and that means no Play Store. Developers need to upload their apps to other platforms such as 360 and QQ or even their own websites. Because nobody is policing what their app does, these developers could get malicious or lazy. They could decide to mine Bitcoin on unsuspecting users or lazy-code a infinitely running background task that drains the battery. The solution Chinese OEMs came up solved the problem - but was ugly by nature.
That’s not all, though.
Most phones don’t last over two years - unless it’s a flagship.
People use their phones for a long time. Typically, users keep flagships for up to two/three years, and then upgrade when their contract expires or their device breaks or something else comes up. This is not the case with cheap phones, as you will see in a moment.
Since flagships cost a lot of money, manufacturers typically pack in a lot of premium material, such as glass and metal. Now, one could argue that these materials are delicate, and glass breaking/metal scratching could prompt customers to buy new devices sooner. However, I disagree, since people might also think that a repair would suffice if they crack the back or scratch the metal cover.
But take this thought process to a budget phone, and suddenly, things don’t add up. Shattered the screen? Replacements cost $70, why are you spending $70 on a $200 phone? Why not just get another budget phone? There’s a lot of incentive to switch phones once the old phone malfunctions or breaks down - in the case of budget phones. Plus, since manufacturers just have to cut costs when it comes to manufacturing these devices, a lot of materials used are of poor quality. Plastic, poly - you get the idea. And what if they cut costs in the actual components inside the phone? What if you have a crappy antenna that shorts out after six months of use? Or bad solder joints that cracks after a few weeks and causes instability? What if you’re stranded and your phone acts up?
You could probably understand where I’m going with this. You could save costs in the short-term by buying cheap phones, but in the long run, the quality of premium devices will greatly benefit you. Think about it. If it’s reliable, I would probably pay a pretty dollar to buy a flagship, rather than buying crappy handsets that break down every few months/years. A stack of pennies could quickly become dollars.
Let’s get back to what I was saying earlier, about manufacturers using different qualities of components. To shave costs, Xiaomi, Oppo, and other manufacturers use bad batches from factories to expand their margins. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean the components are bad - they just don’t meet the standards for the component design. They’re still perfectly usable - but less stable when it comes to extreme conditions.
Let’s take GPS, for example. On cheap handsets I tested, the GPS unit had a hard time locking onto my exact position. When it finally latched onto the GPS satellites, the receiver kept malfunctioning, and placed me on top of buildings and oceans when I was standing perfectly still in the middle of a sidewalk. This was on multiple budget phones, so I know it wasn’t just a bad apple I had. On a flagship device, it not only latched onto my location within seconds, the accuracy couldn’t be matched by the budget devices.
Frustrations like these could easily add up. That bad CPU chip? Could easily add a couple more minutes to your daily phone usage in the form of lags and lockups. Bad display unit? Bad touch responsiveness and ghosting. Not to mention dead pixels sometimes. Bad camera units? Hard time autofocusing, and images could come out blurry when the preview is perfectly fine. The list goes on and on. You could see that they all work - but minor annoyances could quickly become big problems.
4. Software updates
Flagships are well cared for. They receive updates for a long, long time. For iOS, the oldest phone supported right now is the iPhone 5S, released almost 5 years ago. On Android flagships, manufacturers typically update their devices and bump the major Android version two or three times. (For example, the S8 released with Nougat, is now on Oreo, and is slated to receive Pie. The S7 released with Marshmallow, bumped up to Nougat and Oreo, and will probably stay there because it has already received three Android versions.)
Budget phones? Not so much. You would be extremely lucky to see even one version bump.
As with all flagships, since there are lots of people buying these devices, there’s a huge community you could stand by with your device in hand. Want a new Android version? The community probably already has a custom ROM in store. Maybe discussions on how to tweak performance? Already a thread on Reddit or a tweet on Twitter. iPhone broke and you’re worried they won’t honor the warranty? Ask everybody else with the same experience.
With budget phones, you get pretty much a weak community with a low chance of custom ROMs or discussion.
Budget phones still have their place - for people who don’t care about the latest and greatest features and want to switch out their phone every couple of months, for young and old people, etc. But for the majority of people, I still stand with my point that people should seriously consider thinking twice before rushing to buy a cheap phone.