Opinion post by
The tech sphere gave $1,000 smartphones a bad rap in 2018. Despite being only about $100-$150 more expensive than most of their competitors, the price tag reaching four digits dominated the conversation every time a device launched with it, including the Huawei P20 Pro, Samsung Galaxy Note 9, and the iPhone X. Samsung struck again with a $1,200 Galaxy Note last year, but now we’re staring down the barrel of $1,400 for a smartphone not only from Samsung, but also from Huawei and Oppo as well.
$1,000 was expensive, but $1,400 is even more difficult to swallow.
In defense of $1,000 smartphones
It is easy enough to defend the existence of $1,000 smartphones, because generally speaking, $1,000 smartphones brought the goods. Look at the Samsung Galaxy Note 9, for instance. The phone had top-of-the-line specs, all of the extras (headphone jack, microSD card slot, etc), a large battery, an excellent screen, an excellent camera, no notch, stereo speakers, S-Pen, and the list goes on and on.
We also have the benefit of hindsight. The device received most available monthly security updates and went from Android Oreo to Android Pie and then on to Android 10, the latest stable Android to this day. It also went from One UI 1.0 to One UI 2.0. The phone had a solid two-year run in terms of software updates.
$1,000 was expensive, but you could argue that such a price tag was reasonable.
Now, I’m not telling everybody that they should have spent $1,000 on a smartphone, and obviously $1,000 isn’t cheap. Here’s the kicker, though. The Pixel 3 XL went for $900 when it launched that year. The LG V40 also launched at $900. The $1,000 Samsung Galaxy Note 9 was only $100 extra. In my opinion, the conversation about whether that extra $100 was worth it was blown entirely out of proportion compared to the gaps we see now.
Where are the $400 in improvements?
I believe this conversation matters more now than it did two years ago. Many other OEMs haven’t breached the $1,000 barrier yet. There are only three smartphones that even attempt to punch at the $1,400 price tag, the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra, Huawei P40 Pro Plus, and the Oppo Find X2 Pro. We’ve seen what Samsung had to do to justify the $1,000 Galaxy Note 9 and that was to deliver a nearly flawless phone with no compromises. What do you get for the extra $400?
You get an extra camera sensor, a 100x zoom feature (though only 4x is optical), and 5G, along with a 5,000mAh battery. The P40 Pro Plus and Oppo Find X2 also have a lot of flashy camera features, along with a solid range of specs. None of these phone is a slouch and they all deliver excellent experiences.
Camera zoom and 5G don’t really justify a $400 price bump from last year’s most expensive Galaxy S phone.
However, there are phones with 5G for less than $1,000 and even Huawei only charged €999 for its P30 Pro (about $1,130) and its 5x optical zoom. The LG V60 comes with a 5,000 mAh battery along with 5G, and it costs, at the most, $999 and it’s even less if you buy it somewhere other than Verizon.
In other words, it was easy enough to justify a phone being $100 more expensive than its top competition when the execution was nearly flawless. However, that gap has now ballooned to $200 to $600 depending on which flagship phone you compare it to. Why isn’t this price delta dominating the conversation now that it’s ballooned to nearly six times what it was two years ago?
Pricing is out of control
The problem deepens when you look at Samsung’s other devices. The regular S20 goes for $999, a $100 jump from last year’s iteration. The S20 Plus (with 5G), which most people will want, is $1,199. Samsung dropped the budget-friendlier Galaxy S10e, so there is no flagship Samsung product for people who want something good at a reasonable price. Predictably, the strategy doesn’t seem to be working; sales of the S20 family are already way lower than the S10 family at the same time last year, though the decline could also be blamed on the COVID-19 pandemic.
Buying a $1,000 smartphone in 2018 was at least satisfying. The same is not true in 2020.
Samsung’s most affordable flagship costs as much as its highest-end flagship did two years ago. To be perfectly honest, the buying experience couldn’t feel more different. When I purchased the Galaxy Note 9 in 2018, I knew I was purchasing a phone in the upper echelon of what an Android smartphone could possibly offer. Looking at the regular S20, I see Samsung removing features to get it to the $1,000 price tag. Sacrificing features to reach a $1,000 price is a weird sentence to type, and an even stranger thing to do.
It’s not a good feeling to buy a smartphone for $1,000 and know you had to compromise to get there. That same price bought you a top-tier phone not even two whole years ago. Technology moves quickly, but not that quickly. The improvements simply aren’t there.
The right outrage at the wrong time
Two years ago, the internet lost its collective mind at the first $1,000 smartphones (that weren’t some weird crossover with some luxury car company). In reality, it was just a modest price bump over the competition. Frankly, the outrage over smartphone price gouging should be right now. With other major flagships still going for around $1,000 if not a little less, the price gap between Samsung, Oppo, Huawei and the competition is higher than it’s ever been and only continues to climb.
The huge price increases come with some questions, the most important of which is whether or not this price gouging is ever going to plateau. Of course, $1,000 smartphones are expensive, but it was a nice, round number and acted as a good ceiling. At this point, the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra launched at $20 more than the Galaxy Z Flip, so flagships have already risen enough in price to compete with the already expensive foldables market. When does it stop?
At $1,400, you can buy a high-end Android phone and a decent 4K TV with HDR with money left over. Is it really worth the price for one smartphone?
At $1,400 for a smartphone, you can realistically start comparing it to other consumer tech. You can get one of the best TVs around, the LG B9 OLED TV, for less than the cost of a Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra. You can get a perfectly reasonable, mid-range gaming laptop with VR-ready specs, modern ray tracing graphics, and a 9th generation i7 processor for $1,299.99.
Of course, world events have an effect on all of this as well. It’s even more difficult to justify such a large expenditure when we’re staring down the barrel of a potential economic recession thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. Speaking of that, the US government approved a measure to give most Americans $1,200 to help keep the economy from falling into chaos. That aid is less than the cost of a Galaxy S20 Ultra or an Oppo Find X2 Pro. I got a chuckle out of writing that.
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At the end of the day, a smartphone’s value is a personal preference. Some people have no problems forking out top dollar for top tech. However, I believe we have reached a point where the price increase no longer justifies the extras. I can get two thirds of the S20 Ultra’s biggest features on the LG V60 for up to $600 less. Optical zoom is awesome, but it’s not that awesome, even for spec chasers like me. Asking $100 extra for a flagship phone that delivers the goods over its rivals is perfectly reasonable. On the other hand, $600 extra is too rich for my blood. I’ll pass.