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Budget iPhones and premium OnePlus phones: Where do we go from here?

The smartphone world has turned upside down: an iPhone is now one of the best cheap phones. How will Android OEMs respond?

Published onApril 26, 2020

OnePlus 8 and 8 Pro in front of box

2020 has been a strange year for the tech industry. Events canceled, products delayed, doubt and fear about the long-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Among all this disruption, it seems fitting that Apple and OnePlus appear to have abandoned their usual strategies, each taking a leaf out of the other’s playbook.

Apple’s new iPhone SE looks to be a genuine bargain at $399. While the latest OnePlus flagship, the OnePlus 8 Pro, starts at $899. What’s going on? Has the world gone crazy?

If you cast an eye back at Apple and OnePlus over the last couple of years, neither move looks quite as surprising. The smartphone market has slowed for everyone, including Apple, especially at the premium end. Apple dipped a toe in budget waters already with the original iPhone SE. The iPhone XR and iPhone 11 massively outsold more expensive models. The idea that it would clean up with an even cheaper iPhone was persistent.

We must consider the simple fact that going from expensive to cheap is a much easier sell, especially when times are hard.

Meanwhile, OnePlus has been steadily increasing prices as part of its journey from brash industry outsider to top-level manufacturer. It has fought its way into US carriers, which is tough to do. OnePlus arguably already transitioned from turning out flagship killers to plain old flagships with the OnePlus 7 Pro. Although, we shouldn’t forget that the OnePlus 8 starts at $699, and the OnePlus 7T, which is enough phone for most people, is now $499.

Umm, is the $499 OnePlus 7T a better choice than the OnePlus 8 series?
OnePlus 7T uisng in hand

Only time and sales will tell for sure who got their strategy right, but Apple is clearly winning more praise. You have to feel a little sorry for OnePlus. Every review of the OnePlus 8 Pro talks about it being expensive, and it is, but it comes very close to matching the Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus feature for feature and costs $300 less. Perhaps OnePlus is becoming a victim of its own marketing, or maybe this move is ill-timed.

We must consider the simple fact that going from expensive to cheap is a much easier sell, especially when times are hard.

Apple iPhone SE 2020 White

The iPhone SE has been hailed as the right phone at the right time. People who want an iPhone, but can’t afford one will buy the new iPhone SE, but it’s not without compromises. It has the body of an iPhone 8, a design that was already dated when the iPhone 8 came out. Big bezels and Touch ID immediately mark it out as an older device. While an iPhone 11 can pass for its more expensive siblings with people who don’t follow phones that closely, the new iPhone SE cannot.

Though it’s not new or modern, the design isn’t completely charmless. This is a svelte form that can be used one-handed with ease and will slip into any pocket. It’s also a form that millions of people who’ve never tried Face ID are familiar and comfortable with.

The same A13 Bionic processor as the 11 Pro, wireless charging support, an IP67 rating, and the latest iOS offset a relatively small screen and a single-lens camera. Especially when you consider that most people buying an iPhone SE will be switching from an older phone. They’re not going to compare it to phones boasting the latest OLED screens or multi-lens cameras.

Is Apple stepping in and beating Google and OnePlus at their own game here?

Many are citing the Pixel 3a as the closest thing Android has to offer, but it lacks the processing grunt, wireless charging, and waterproofing. It’s also not as compact and has a similarly dated look. The Samsung Galaxy S10e is probably a better comparison, but it’s still slightly more expensive over a year after its early 2019 release. Whatever way you slice it, the iPhone SE looks compelling. Good performance at a low price is traditionally something you associate with Android. Is Apple stepping in and beating Google and OnePlus at their own game here? If you praised the Pixel 3a, then you have to be impressed by the iPhone SE.

Samsung Galaxy S10e vs Google Pixel 3

By contrast, the OnePlus 8 Pro may be the wrong phone at the wrong time. What niche does it serve? Who’s looking for another beefy spec sheet with a high price tag to match? OnePlus is obviously hoping to steal away some Samsung customers, but with S20 sales reportedly low, this could be a flawed ambition. It’s unlikely OnePlus will entice any of Apple’s premium customers to give up their iPhone 11 Pro Max, unless maybe they’re keen to try out 5G.

You can tick off the OnePlus 8 Pro’s flagship features one by one: Snapdragon 865, AMOLED screen with high refresh rate, 5G, multi-lens camera, and so on. Funnily enough, the only standout is wireless charging, which OnePlus resisted for years. Even with the unparalleled 30W rate, is that enough sway a purchase? Ultimately, there’s very little to set this phone apart from its competitors. It’s not different, it’s not affordable, and it seems to be alienating some of the fans.

Related: Imagine, for a second, if Android OEMs released an iPhone SE-style phone

A big part of the new iPhone SE generating so much excitement is the lack of an obvious competitor. Samsung didn’t release an S20e this year. The Pixel 4a will surely compete on some fronts, and you can bet there will be a few other attempts, but it’s going to be tough to match Apple’s new iPhone.

One of the most promising contenders is the long-rumored OnePlus Z, though we know little about it. For now, the aging OnePlus 6T is the closest OnePlus phone in price and it’s tough to recommend over the new iPhone SE. The importance of that A13 Bionic processor isn’t just the speed it offers, which you may dismiss as overkill. Consider also the support for Apple’s latest AI, the advanced HDR and Portrait mode in the camera, and the very latest security. Then there’s Wi-Fi 6 and Gigabit LTE support, which are often absent from the chipsets in similarly priced Android phones. The A13 is also less power-hungry than older chips and leading to real longevity. Long term support and swift software updates for years to come are a major strength of Apple’s iPhones and a major weakness of most Android phones.

Will the OnePlus Z be able to match the iPhone SE?

815 votes

Much depends on who buys the iPhone SE. Is Apple selling to owners of older iPhones who have been turned off upgrades by climbing flagship prices, or is it going to tempt some Android phone owners over the wall? Android OEMs have been fighting each other in this space for years, but just as OnePlus began to vacate it, Google proved the segment was ripe for an overhaul with the Pixel 3a.

Now that Apple’s muscling in, manufacturers like Motorola, who’ve made budget phones their bread and butter, could be in serious trouble. Hopefully, competition from the iPhone SE will spark some fresh ideas and better value phones from Android OEMs. On the other hand, once people climb into Apple’s walled garden, they often find it tough to climb back out again.

OnePlus 7 Pro vs OnePlus 6T vs OnePlus 6 (3)

Although they appear to be going in opposite directions, both Apple and OnePlus are expanding their line-ups to hit more potential buyers at different price points. As sales continue to decline, this may become a necessity for every phone seller. Apple now has the widest line-up of iPhones it has ever offered.

The mistake OnePlus has made wasn’t releasing a high-end phone, so much as neglecting the cheaper end of the market. With the iPhone SE redefining what a sub-$500 phone looks like in one fell swoop, a lot is now riding on the OnePlus Z.

OnePlus 8

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