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Is the Pixel 6 the only true affordable flagship now?
It seems that we were spoilt for choice not too many years ago when shopping for affordable flagship smartphones. The industry was awash with handsets from HONOR, OnePlus, Xiaomi, and others that offered the bulk of what you’d look for from a premium experience but without the hefty price tag. $700, and often even less, used to net you several decent options to pick from in the late ’10s. The ASUS Zenfone 6, OnePlus 7 Pro, and Xiaomi Mi 9T Pro, are just some of the rock-solid phones that launched below this price in 2019.
Read more: The best affordable phones you can buy
The success of these not-quite-flagship handsets helped prod Apple and Samsung into launching their more affordable options. 2020’s $400 iPhone SE and $699 Galaxy S20 FE offered exceptional value for money and were reviewed very well. However, Apple’s model is perhaps more of a classic mid-ranger than an affordable flagship, and the iPhone SE 2022 model is built in the same vein.
Fast forward to 2022 and the industry is comparatively bereft of options. Samsung’s Galaxy S21 FE was a little too late to market and has ended up in the shadow of the marginally more expensive Galaxy S22. A $100 difference isn’t enough to make the latest FE as compelling as its predecessor, but the Galaxy S22 still isn’t quite cheap enough to be truly affordable. Samsung hasn’t bridged the gap as well as it did the first time around.
Traditionally affordable brands have repositioned to chase either the budget or premium segments, leaving a gap in affordable flagships.
Samsung isn’t the only company missing the mark here, Chinese brands that kickstarted this whole product segment are missing the form they found in previous years. For instance, there’s no sign of a OnePlus 10, only the more expensive Pro option has been unveiled so far. This leaves last year’s OnePlus 9 as the company’s sole affordable flagship. It’s a decent enough phone, if not a little gimmicky, but buying a year-old handset with only two more scheduled OS upgrades isn’t great value. Not to mention that OnePlus’ ever-increasing prices are well documented, so the 10 may not even be a steal if it ever arrives. At the same time, the company is reprioritizing towards the budget end of the market with the so-so Nord series.
Similarly, the new Xiaomi 12 costs $749 and, while it charges super-fast, that comes at the expense of arguably more useful water resistance. The Xiaomi 12X is cheaper at $649 but you’ll have to settle for Android 11 and a weaker processor. That’s not a great trade-off especially when Xiaomi is coy about software updates. When it comes to HONOR, the Magic 4 Pro is too expensive while the HONOR 50 is too compromised by its budget focus. Meanwhile, realme is more interested in the affordable market these days, although 2021’s realme GT was a decent if not slightly flawed effort at a value flagship. Not to say there aren’t good phones to be had here, but amazing affordable flagships they are not.
There are lots of good $600-700 phones, but none promise an amazing affordable flagship-like experience.
Part of the reason these phones just aren’t as attractive as they may have been in the past lies squarely with the Google Pixel 6 — arguably the only true affordable flagship worth your money so far in 2022.
The Pixel-perfect package
Google’s Pixel 6 certainly doesn’t have it all for $599. It’s not the fastest to charge nor does it have a swanky 120Hz display, for example, which you will find on the Xiaomi 12. And the less said about the fingerprint scanner the better. However, the phone doesn’t mess around with gimmicks and tricks, it nails the flagship experience where it matters. Although lacking a telephoto lens, the camera is better than pretty much every other phone in its price bracket. Everyone demands gorgeous photos these days; it’s one of the few features that continue to separate ultra-premium flagships from the rest of the market. Google’s software smarts and custom silicon allow it to play with the best without spending a fortune on expensive camera hardware.
Read more: Google Pixel 6 review – Worth every penny
Likewise, the phone boasts an IP68 rating and wireless charging, two hardware features that are staples of the $1,000 crowd. IP ratings are not cheap to obtain, hence why OnePlus and Xiaomi often expense with official certification in favor of generic “splash resistance.” But peace of mind is an often overlooked aspect of the premium buying experience and something flagship and increasingly mid-range consumers expect from their purchases.
No gimmicks. No tricks. The Pixel 6 does what you want at a price you can't beat.
Equally as important, the phone isn’t busting at the seams with bloatware and ads. Google’s software experience might not be perfectly polished, but its Pixel skin is still built to be useful rather than sell ad space. Perhaps most importantly, the Pixel 6 is not just another throwaway smartphone — it’s built to last. Google promises the same three-year OS and five-year security updates as it does for its more expensive Pro model. How often have we seen brands forget about bringing speedy updates to their non-Pro models? The phone will still be good to use in 2026, a fine commitment. Only Samsung rivals Google’s update pledge for affordable Android smartphones. The rest of the industry needs to catch on, stop flooding the market with cheap models that are quickly forgotten about, and embrace that even affordable handsets should be made to last.
The only problem with the Pixel 6 is availability. Although Western audiences are well catered for (chip shortage permitting), Google could do better at branching out its retail channels into markets where the affordable nature of the Pixel 6 would surely shine. With that in mind, there’s certainly room for competitors that give the Pixel 6 a run for its money. But, at the moment, it’s difficult to see which manufacturer could rival it.
So far in 2022, the Google Pixel 6 stands out as the only obvious buy for those in the market for an affordable flagship smartphone. There are no gimmicks or tricks, just a robust hardware package, excellent camera experience, and an update commitment that ensures you won’t regret the purchase after just a couple of years. That’s something no one else is currently offering for a very reasonable $599 price tag, wouldn’t you agree?