If you’ve decided that a shiny new Samsung smartphone is for you and you want the best, which one do you choose? That’s a tough question.
The newly unveiled S20 range joins a crowded flagship line up, and it’s not clear which of the many options in Samsung’s range is the actual flagship. I’ve bemoaned the fact that manufacturers release too many phones before, but it seems the shotgun approach is here to stay. And it’s not just Samsung.
The big question is why? I asked four expert analysts for their opinions.
Reason 1: You’re using your phone longer
“The phone market is as competitive as it’s ever been. We’re also seeing lengthening consumer sales cycles – people are just holding on to their devices longer,” Tuong H. Nguyen, Senior Principal Analyst at Gartner, told Digital Trends. “And to top it off, phone technology has gotten so good, features in flagship models offer little differentiation from high-end, non-flagship models.”
The smartphone market is mature. If you buy a phone, you’re likely replacing or upgrading. It’s difficult for people to see the difference between what they have and what’s available. The stark contrast that existed in the jump from feature phones to smartphones is gone.
“The market and technologies are very mature – to the point that, for the average consumer, the difference between picture quality, or screen resolution, or color depth of last years’ phone versus this years’ is negligible,” suggested Nguyen. “Unless you compare them side-by-side, which consumers don’t do.”
Obviously, smartphone makers think the answer is to build more phones. Samsung released eight phones in its flagship ranges last year (S10, S10 Plus, S10e, S10 5G, Note 10, Note 10 Plus, Note 10 Plus 5G, and the Fold), and that’s before we mention the weird Samsung Galaxy S10 Lite and Note 10 Lite. But why?
“Initially, the large smartphone manufacturers (Apple, Samsung) would release the flagship models with two versions, with the main difference being screen size,” Malcolm Rogers, Senior Analyst at GlobalData Technology, told Digital Trends. “Huawei then began growing market share rapidly, and their flagship lines would include the standard version, a large screen size version, and a light version with fewer features.”
Apple and Samsung resisted the trend towards lower cost flagships at first, but the pressure from Chinese manufacturers grew. Eventually, Apple and Samsung relented and released more affordable phones, instead of letting Chinese competitors eat into that market.
I think the trend of introducing more models with small differences will continue.
If we look at the top five smartphone makers today, in order, it’s Samsung, Huawei, Apple, Xiaomi, and Oppo. The Chinese competitors are nothing to laugh at.
“In terms of strategy, it has worked to a degree. Apple and Samsung have managed to maintain most of their market share of shipments after the initial surges of Oppo and Xiaomi,” says Rogers. “I think the trend of introducing more models with small differences will continue as manufacturers try to fill every crevice and niche in the market to drive the last bits of adoption.”
Reason 2: Different regions want different phones
There are drawbacks to having lots of flagship phones, though. And not just confusion for potential buyers.
“Obviously it’s inefficient to have more models,” Jusy Hong, Director of Mobile Handset Research at IHS Markit, told Digital Trends. “However, it’s one of the ways to reduce risk. It’s getting harder to make a successful model.”
Manufacturers are hedging their bets and trying to please everyone. That includes not only buyers with different budgets, but people from many countries with varied expectations.
“Consumers show different preferences by different regions,” Hong explained. “A large size screen is more popular in APAC (Asia-Pacific) and China versus Western Europe, for example.”
Reason 3: Phone makers are selling 5G-only models
The roll out of 5G networks, which is gathering pace in some places, complicates flagship line ups. In 2019, Samsung’s answer was to offer 5G versions of phones like the S10 and Note 10 Plus.
“As we transition from 4G to 5G globally there will need to be some duplication of models that are 5G or 4G-only, given that 5G chips cost more,” Maurice Klaehne, Research Analyst at Counterpoint, told Digital Trends. “And some countries and carriers will only need a 4G device for now.”
While excitement over 5G is building, availability is localized at the moment. “For the US market there will likely be some more consolidation of devices as all major carriers now have 5G,” Klaehne said.
For example, the new Galaxy S20 range supports 5G out of the box. You can find 5G connectivity in most major U.S. cities now, though it tends to be limited to specific areas within them.
“Buying a 5G phone doesn’t necessarily mean you get to experience all the great features of the new network – especially if the network doesn’t cover where you live or work,” Nguyen warned.
As 5G coverage grows, we’ll see more 5G devices. Eventually, all smartphones will be 5G capable.
Reason 4: Phone makers need a phone at every price
If 5G isn’t yet widespread enough to be a major driver in the shopping process, and features are already at a level where they surpass many people’s needs, how do people choose their next phone?
“The biggest purchase driver of smartphone consumers is price,” Hong explained. “People choose their smartphone within their budget limit. That’s why Apple saw their latest iPhone shipment volume decline when they increased the price.”
To compensate, Apple and Samsung have unashamedly burst through the $1,000 barrier with their top phones, but have recently introduced more affordable models with some flagship features. While the iPhone 11 Pro Max is expensive, the standard iPhone 11 is indisputably mid-range.
“Flagship devices tend to cater to a certain niche of consumers – early adopters and tech enthusiasts. These buyers tend to have a good pulse on the “right” phone for them. For the rest of the market, I think a lot of it comes down to price,” Nguyen suggested. “Most of the devices available out there can do more than most consumers need. And if you’re buying within the same price band, it’s likely the device will be much better than the device you’re currently using.”
It seems there’s some wisdom in the idea that you should buy the best phone you can afford. Chances are good you’ll be happy with it.
Reason 5: Niche shoppers are gaining influence
“For consumers who want to get the most out of their smartphones and ditch the PC, the higher end flagships make sense. The same goes for people who are gamers or photography and video enthusiasts,” Rogers agreed. “However, I think a large swath of consumers use their smartphones to watch Netflix, check the news and social media, and make phone calls. These types of users don’t necessarily need the latest highest end model.”
Price isn’t going to be the only differentiator going forward. We may see manufacturers honing in on target audiences.
“I think there will be more specialized smartphone models in the future targeting niches such as gamers, [and] first-time smartphone owners like the elderly and children,” Rogers said.
Motorola’s VP of Design, Ruben Castano, told me the same thing when I asked him where smartphones are going over the next five years. We’re already seeing a wave of gaming phones, like the Asus ROG Phone 2.
“How much of this will be true differentiation in the actual specifications and form factors of the phones, and how much will just be marketing driven, isn’t clear,” Rogers warned.
Don’t expect phone line-ups to shrink any time soon
As flagships become prohibitively expensive for most people, the battleground may be shifting. Will Samsung release Lite versions of its S20 phones? Are the rumors about a smaller, cheaper iPhone true?
It’s looking as if the next battle for smartphone shopper’s dollars will be fought in the mid-range category.
“Another strategy I’d like to see more of is what Samsung announced at the end of 2018 — bringing more high end features to their mid tier line,” said Nguyen. “They’re already doing this, and I think this is a great way to garner brand loyalty among current users and well as entice non Samsung users. It makes sense because the mid-tier is the mass market, the bulk of sales volume.”
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