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The U.S. market for phones is boring and terrible

I often get queries like “which is the best phone for around $600?” or “what’s the best budget phone under $300?” Before I start my research to answer, I find myself asking if the person posing the question lives in the U.S. or Asia. For the former, it’s easy to list the few options that are available here, with the pros and cons in tow.

For folks based in Europe or Asia, I need to open a dozen browser tabs to do a spec comparison, because that’s how many options are on the table at any given price bracket. The difference in market dynamics is stark, but ultimately, it’s the customer who stands to lose the most. Here are the three key reasons why that’s the status quo, with some baffling unbalance to the value aspect.

Value for money? That’s funny!

Let’s start with the OnePlus Nord N20 5G, a sleek budget phone that costs $282 and is up for grabs in the U.S. OnePlus made a big deal about offering an OLED panel on the phone, a decision that came at the cost of a high-refresh-rate screen. The rest of the specs sheet includes Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 695 SoC, a 64MP main camera paired with a couple of barely meaningful 2-megapixel snappers, and a 4,500mAh battery with 33-watt fast charging support. It’s a fairly well-rounded package, but far from OnePlus’ best effort.

OnePlus Nord CE 2 5G camera module.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

For roughly $310, OnePlus itself sells the Nord CE 2 5G elsewhere that offers an AMOLED display with a 90Hz refresh rate, a MediaTek Dimensity 900 system on a chip ticking alongside 8 gigs of RAM, and a 4,500mAh battery with support for much faster 65W charging. Plus, it comes equipped with a more capable 8-megapixel ultrawide camera and happens to be easy on the eyes as well.

Things get even more interesting in the budget segment. For about $370, the Mi 11i Hypercharge offers a 120W fast charging adapter in the box, a 120Hz OLED display, a fairly capable Dimensty 920 chip from MediaTek, and a 108-megapixel camera. No phone available in the U.S. market comes even close to the value on offer here.

Even in the sub-$300 price bracket, 90/120Hz refresh rate, OLED screens, high-resolution cameras, and super-fast charging are commonplace. And if two phones are neck and neck at a price point, at least you can pick the one that looks better and suits your style. For phones sold in the U.S. market, finding a device that can offer a combination of even two of those qualities without making serious compromises is hard to come by. The availability of options keeps brands on their heels, which means they keep innovating and refining their phones without nuking the wallets of buyers.

The choices are extremely limited

The iPhone 13 Pro and Galaxy S21 Ultra held in hand.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The U.S. smartphone market is extremely skewed toward two segments: The high-end phones hovering around $800 and the midrange class that covers the $350 to $500 ballpark. The flagship segment is strictly an Apple-Samsung duopoly, with a resurgent Google now trying to make its presence felt with the Pixel 6 series as an alternative choice for customers. Motorola is trying to leave a mark with its Edge series phones at the top tier, but the high asking price robs them of a fighting chance.

But that kind of segmentation doesn’t exist elsewhere, especially in Asia. Instead, the market is brimming with phones that target key parameters at various price points. Need a 2021 flagship for cheap in 2022? The OnePlus 9RT gives you Snapdragon 888, 65W fast charging, an optically stabilized 50MP camera, and the fluid OxygenOS experience for roughly $550. For about $570, Xiaomi’s 11T Pro will also throw in 120W charging and a 108-megapixel camera.

At approximately $450, the Realme GT 2 Pro offers nearly the same innards as the OnePlus 9RT, but in a much better-looking package. Then there are phones from Oppo and Vivo, which offer a terrific camera experience with loads of tricks and capable hardware at a lower price point than what Apple and Samsung command. The software experience is somewhat of a hit-or-miss here and the update situation is also a bit shaky. But at the end of the day, there are choices at almost every price point for shoppers.

OnePlus 10 Pro, Realme GT 2 Pro, and Oppo Find X5 Pro camera modules.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

If you want a phone with top-tier silicon and don’t necessarily care much about cameras, there’s a phone for you that will pass on those cost-cutting benefits to your wallet. The likes of iQoo focus on offering top-of-the-line performance. Vivo makes phones with solid camera chops. Oppo tries to balance eye-catching design with reliable hardware, while Xiaomi and Realme undercut every brand at nearly every price point.

What if you do care about cameras? Digital Trends writer Prakhar Khanna showed off how a $237 Redmi Note 11 Pro Plus can stand toe-to-toe with a $1,200 Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra in a camera shootout. Only one of those phones is available in the U.S. Want to guess which one?

Of course, some sacrifices have to be made, but that also gives the smartphone buyer more choices as to what they want in their phone and the aspects they can live without. There’s plenty to choose from, and that’s always a sign of a healthy pro-consumer market.

Brand priorities are to blame

A key reason that the U.S. smartphone market is starved of value-for-money phones is market prioritization by brands. Take for example OnePlus, the only “alt” smartphone brand that is currently trying to sell phones on either side of the “golden” value-centric price bracket between $400 and $500 in the U.S. The best case study would be the freshly launched OnePlus Nord N20 5G. It’s a great phone for the price, if I am asking a tech guru in the U.S. In Asia, Latin America, and Europe? Far from it.

OnePlus could absolutely trounce the competition with the OnePlus Nord CE 2 5G in the U.S. at nearly $300, or the OnePlus 9RT going for around $550. Instead, the company has decided to maintain a separate N line of Nord phones in the U.S. that offer a significantly underwhelming experience. In doing so, OnePlus is not only missing out on a runaway success and some sweet market share, but also robbing smartphone buyers of a better package by selling vastly different phones to buyers on either side of the Atlantic Ocean.

OnePlus Nord CE 2 5G camera seen from the back.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The mainstream Nord series phones are actually sold in the European markets as well, which makes the U.S. market strategy even more bewildering. The departure of LG was an open invitation for OnePlus to fill the void, and given the current state of the budget phone segment in North America, OnePlus most likely will succeed. Just not in the thumping fashion it could have done if the company was not complacent given the lackluster competition.

Motorola’s new G-series midranger phones are decent iterative upgrades, but at their asking price, it is hard to pick them over the likes of Samsung Galaxy A53, iPhone SE 3, and the Google Pixel 5a. TCL, despite offering some compelling phones, continues to remain an afterthought for buyers, part of which can be blamed on brand reputation compared to more established names. Even Samsung keeps its value-centric Galaxy M-series phones away from U.S. shores because they might eat into the sales of Galaxy A phones that are sold at a higher profit margin.

The carrier conundrum

Verizon banner splashed across iPhone screen.

“If you want to succeed in the U.S., you will do so on the shelves of T-Mobile and Verizon,” Digital Trends editor Adam Doud wrote following his interview with a TCL executive at CES 2022. It makes a lot of sense. Carrier certifications don’t come cheap. For Chinese brands that already sell phones at extremely low margins, maintaining affordability and competitiveness in the U.S. market will be an issue. Selling a phone in partnership with a carrier means making profit concessions, something brands like Xiaomi and Oppo have avoided by adopting a direct-to-consumer sale model without any carrier partnerships whatsoever in markets like India.

Even if a new entrant manages to ink a few carrier deals, they won’t stand a chance against the onslaught of attractive deals and discounts that the likes of Samsung can afford. There’s not much that regulatory or antitrust bodies can do here, which essentially leaves any newbie brand headed to the U.S. shores, on its own. A starting point will be selling flagships, as the high-profit margin will allow a brand to absorb the concessions it has to make for carrier partnership. But a market entry would also entail a high advertising budget, and it can only be sustained in the long run with a lot of money to spare and a willingness to remain patient.

How to fix it

What the U.S. market needs is an influx of more smartphone brands, especially those from China. This would heat up the competition, ultimately driving down the prices of phones while also offering more choices with better hardware on the table. But the true test of commitment will be joining hands with carriers, which is going to be a carrot-and-stick deal. Plus, carriers will also have to show willingness and embrace new brands in the face of swet deals offered by big dogs like Apple and Samsung.

Until that happens, buyers will have to pay top dollars for a flagship that is either from Apple or Samsung. A few brave will souls give their money to OnePlus or Google. But for budget phone buyers, they’ll have to live with devices that cut some serious corners and sleep on innovation.

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