Last year’s flagship parts make this year’s “flagship killers”

Last year’s flagship parts make this year’s “flagship killers”

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It’s no mystery that 5G has a big impact on the prices of premium smartphones. Carriers see 5G as a marketing term they can tout even before it’s actually widely available, resulting in manufacturers being pushed to include a feature not many people can use. 5G and the many components that are needed to support it are undoubtedly raising prices of flagship phones, but we’re starting to see some OEMs balk at this trend. What might be considered a “flagship” just last year can now be considered a “flagship killer.”

Our own Aamir Siddiqui wrote a great editorial about how the Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 and mandatory 5G may have temporarily killed the idea of a flagship killer this year. In a nutshell, Qualcomm’s decision to not integrate a modem into the Snapdragon 865 SoC means that every company that wants the best processor for their smartphone must also purchase the discrete Snapdragon X55 5G modem. It’s not just the modem that OEMs are usually purchasing, though. The complexity of 5G has made many OEMs turn to Qualcomm’s entire modem-RF suite which involves a lot of different parts to support sub-6GHz and mmWave frequencies on many different bands. (Check out this Galaxy S20 Ultra teardown from Informa Tech just to see how complex it is).

Combine that with the push for 5G (led by carriers) and better display and camera technology necessitating more powerful processing, it’s no surprise that most OEMs have gone with the Snapdragon 865 simply because there aren’t many other viable choices. Hence we see the trend of flagship smartphones having higher prices in 2020, with a few exceptions like LG.

DeviceProcessorInitial Announcement DateStarting Price
LG V50 ThinQQualcomm Snapdragon 855February 24, 2019$999
LG V60 ThinQQualcomm Snapdragon 865February 26, 2020$950
Samsung Galaxy S10Qualcomm Snapdragon 855February 20, 2019$899
Samsung Galaxy S20Qualcomm Snapdragon 865February 11, 2020$999
Xiaomi Mi 9Qualcomm Snapdragon 855February 20, 2019 €449
Xiaomi Mi 10Qualcomm Snapdragon 865February 13, 2020 €799
Sony Xperia 1Qualcomm Snapdragon 855February 25, 2019$950
Sony Xperia 1 IIQualcomm Snapdragon 865February 24, 2020$1,200
Realme X2 ProQualcomm Snapdragon 855+October 15, 2019 €399
Realme X50 ProQualcomm Snapdragon 865February 24, 2020 €599
Red Magic 3SQualcomm Snapdragon 855+September 6, 2019 $479
Red Magic 5GQualcomm Snapdragon 865March 12, 2020 $579

Fortunately, another trend may be developing that will hopefully keep prices in line with last year.

We’re seeing more and more companies opt to use components that would be considered high-end just last year, and we’re even seeing companies experiment with opting out of the flagship “battle” in the first place. Google’s Pixel 5 is rumored to be using the Snapdragon 765 with its integrated Snapdragon X52 modem, which could lend to its rumored price of $699. Likewise, LG opted to use the Snapdragon 765G in its new LG Velvet smartphone. Realme, on the other hand, is going with last year’s flagship processor, the Snapdragon 855+, in its Realme X3 SuperZoom. While these smartphones may not be considered “flagship” by some as they lack the most powerful chipsets from the available SoC vendors, they are able to undercut the big dogs by eliminating the need to purchase a discrete component (the modem) and opting for less expensive connectivity components overall.

Out of the aforementioned examples, the Realme X3 SuperZoom is the most interesting to look at. Realme is using last year’s flagship Snapdragon processor, which was considered the best not that long ago, and it’s still more than capable of powering a “flagship killer.” The lack of 5G access is, frankly, not a big deal right now. The fastest 5G speeds, especially in the U.S., are not that accessible to many users yet.

The Realme X3 SuperZoom’s Snapdragon 855+ isn’t the only part that Realme compromised on to keep prices down. The X3 SuperZoom has a 120Hz LCD panel instead of a 120Hz OLED one, 12GB of LPDDR4X RAM instead of LPDDR5 RAM, and 30W wired charging instead of Realme’s insanely fast 65W “SuperDart” charging. These little sacrifices won’t make a big difference in how the phone performs, and it makes for a great “flagship killer” in 2020.

Companies like OnePlus made a name for themselves by coupling high-end processors with other decidedly mid-range components to create lower-priced “flagship killers.” Now, components have driven up OnePlus’ smartphone prices to nearly match if not exceed the flagships they were trying to topple. Meanwhile, companies like Realme are using last year’s flagship chips to undercut them, essentially becoming this year’s true “flagship killer” brand. In response, OnePlus may be going back to their roots by making more affordable smartphones again, and there’s a decent chance their first such device won’t have the flagship Snapdragon 865.

How do you feel about buying a smartphone with last year’s flagship specifications as a cheaper alternative to this year’s premium smartphones? Is that a sacrifice you’re willing to make, or do you need the best processor with concessions made in other areas?