htc one m9 review aa (34 of 34)

A massive HD display. Cameras with a high pixel count. A device loaded with several gigabytes of RAM, and a processor with multiple cores. For several years such attributes have been major talking points when describing flagship smartphones from high-profile electronic makers, but things are starting to change. Although it may not be the most lucrative line of business for some companies, the mobile sector is currently loaded with more hardware manufacturers than ever before.

Each year a handful of high-priced top-shelf devices are announced and treated to huge launch events along with major marketing campaigns. While most of these devices live up to the hype, there are plenty of viable alternatives flying below the radar of power users and casual consumers alike.

In the early days of Android, off the chart specs and frequent software enhancements were driving forces when purchasing a new smartphone or tablet. Spec sheets certainly still play an important part, but these days the playing field is much more leveled. Mid-range gear isn’t so mid-range anymore. And while I’m personally not a fan of OEMs cranking out dozens of smartphones each year, I do recognize the importance of being able to offer consumers budget-friendly handsets.

In the early days of Android, off the chart specs and frequent software enhancements were driving forces when purchasing a new smartphone or tablet.

But are today’s low-price smartphones enough to pull consumers away from the highly acclaimed mobile gear produced by the industry’s biggest players? Let’s talk about the current state of flagships versus mid-range devices.

Design and Style

Moto G 2014-18

A few years back, most smartphone makers would release flagship hardware with unique designs that made them stand out compared to other devices in their catalogs. However, things have changed over the past couple of years. Android heavyweights like Samsung, LG and HTC are now releasing mid-range and low-end handsets with design aesthetics almost identical to their respective annual flagship smartphones. While it’s most likely a cost effective measure, this new trend makes some premium handsets feel a little less chic.

Remember, casual consumers aren’t really looking for much. Believe it or not, a good looking phone with a large display is enough to coax most of them into making a purchase. This new industry trend definitely makes budget-friendly prospects look more appealing.

There’s no Need to Break the Bank

oneplus one aa (15 of 34)

While a device’s spec sheet and benchmark scores don’t move some people, others are obsessed with a device’s internal hardware before making a purchase. These individuals are always chasing the tech industry’s new hotness and they should also be aware of diamonds in the rough. Case in point: Motorola’s Moto G. While it may not pack the punch the same punch found in flagship phone, its hardware is more than sufficient for most users.

For around $180, you can score a 5-inch 720p display, a quad-core processor, an 8-megapixel shooter and an almost vanilla build of Android. Not too shabby at all. But the former Google company isn’t the only place offering low-cost devices with decent specs. Chinese phone makers like Huawei and ZTE are producing more budget-conscious handsets that won’t put a dent in your bank account. And even though it can be somewhat elusive, OnePlus’ aptly named OnePlus One offers a lot of bang for your buck as well.

A more recent example is the Asus Zenfone 2, a mid-range device that offers a speedy Intel processor and up to 4GB RAM, depending on the configuration. While it is priced aggressively, the Zenfone 2’s performance and even aesthetics are more in-line with what you’d expect from a flagship device. Sure, the phone isn’t perfect, but our very own Lanh Nguyen certainly was impressed by the performance of the handset in his recent review.

Another alternative for frugal tech fans obsessed with name-brand products, is buying last year’s model at a discounted price.

While these types of handsets may not be the highly marketed, celebrity endorsed smartphones plastered on billboards around the world, they definitely manage to hold their own. Another alternative for frugal tech fans obsessed with name-brand products, is buying last year’s model at a discounted price.

Similar to cars in the auto industry, new top tier smartphones are released each year. Some devices do exceedingly well, but there’s always leftover inventory to clear. For example, the HTC One M9 just recently hit the streets, however it’s not a complete departure from its predecessor. In addition to a reduced price tag, a flagship phone from the previous year will likely be running the latest version of Android, or eventually receive an update to it, making the software experience nearly on par with its successor.

What About Hardware Enthusiasts?

samsung galaxy s6 edge unboxing aa (16 of 20)

If your love for gadgets borders obsession and you don’t mind shelling out big bucks or committing to service contracts, there are some benefits to buying a brand new flagship device. While the aforementioned alternatives fit in with most budgets, some of them will lack amenities typically offered by big-ticket handsets. Items such as LTE network connectivity, NFC support and full 1080p or 4K HD video capture are among some of the more common features missing from budget-friendly smartphones — though even this is starting to be less the case. Most of these items can be gained by purchasing an older model flagship phone, however those come with a few drawbacks as well.

The general idea behind releasing new hardware is for companies to improve upon their previous efforts. This usually means unavoidable changes to industry standards. For example, Google recently pledged its support for the USB Type-C spec, saying that consumers can expect to see it on Android phones in the near future. Another undeniable benefit of buying a freshly released flagship smartphone is raw performance. A new phone typically means the latest and greatest in terms of hardware optimized for the most recent version of Android. 

The general idea behind releasing new hardware is for companies to improve upon their previous efforts. This usually means unavoidable changes to industry standards.

Final Thoughts

lg g flex 2 vs lg g3 aa (5 of 27)

The evolution of Android isn’t just a story of dessert-themed software. Over the last few years, mobile hardware has made numerous advancements, bringing potent components to low-cost devices. On paper, some of today’s mid-range smartphones sound like super phones from just a few short years ago. In some regards, mobile hardware has plateaued a bit and new flagship handsets might not be as appealing to casual consumers.

People who don’t mind service contracts can purchase flagship devices at a discounted rate, with the tradeoff being a 24-month commitment. In a sense, this approach is similar to buying a year old flagship device outright, but at a slightly lower price. This setup should work for most people, but some folks just want more. As for power users who don’t mind parting with extra upfront cash, a new high-end smartphone each year is doable, but certainly not exactly necessary. However, if early tech adoption is your vice, you may want to consider selling your old phone to pick up some of the expenses that come with purchasing a pricey new device outright. Just be sure to take some important precautions before shipping it out or trading it in.

Curious as to some of the best non-flagship devices out there that will deliver an excellent experience without breaking the bank? Be sure to check out our cheap Android phones roundup.