In 2022 so far, there’s no such thing as a perfect flagship
Every year it’s pretty easy to name and celebrate the best phones of the year. In 2021, there were a lot of absolutely stellar flagships to choose from, with my personal favorites being the Apple iPhone 13 Pro, Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra, or the OPPO Find X3 Pro. Now, in 2022 though, it’s hard to find a flagship phone that doesn’t have its own issues. At least last year there was quite a lot of choice, but this year there’s one major problem that affects nearly every single smartphone — the chipset.
I’ve had several friends ask me for advice on purchasing a phone in the last couple of months, and there’s always been a sticking issue with whatever flagship I would recommend this year. The Galaxy S22 Ultra was a no-go because of Exynos and the OnePlus 10 Pro didn’t make sense when the OnePlus 9 Pro exists. The Google Pixel 6 Pro‘s Tensor still has some issues that need ironing out, and there’s a sequel expected later this year that’s presumed to fix a lot of those issues. As for the Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra… there’s still no successor, and that phone was rather incredible.
To be honest, the best flagship I can currently recommend is the iPhone 13 Pro, but if you’re a diehard Android fan (such as myself) then even that’s not really an option. How did we get here, and what’s the solution? It’s been a long time coming.
This year’s chipsets were rushed out the door
In fact, even if you live in a Snapdragon region, it’s also hard to justify. Samsung has had to throttle the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1’s performance in order to tame its thermal profile (which has partially led to the Games Optimization Service controversy), and it’s not the only company to have had to do so. In our recent review of the OnePlus 10 Pro, we identified that OnePlus was throttling the performance of the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 in all conditions, again likely in an effort to tame the beast that is the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1. Xiaomi is also having some of these heating issues on the Xiaomi 12 Pro, and the common thread here remains the processor.
As a result, if you’re looking for a flagship phone with good battery life and without the need to limit how it performs, you’re already going to have a difficult time. The Exynos 2200 is a no-go for many users, and the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 has a ton of its own issues. A no-compromise flagship that starts with a Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 already means compromise, and there’s no real way around that. It’s unclear if this year’s chipset problems are caused by Samsung Foundry or by ARM’s reference designs for the first Armv9 CPUs.
Looking back to the last generation
If you don’t care about limited performance, then the next step is to figure out what you do care about in a smartphone. The first recommendation that I would make is to pick up a flagship from last year. The Snapdragon 888 is a more-than-capable flagship chipset, and a lot of second-hand devices can be found cheap. Even newer devices can be too, as sequels are released and companies look to clear out stock. However, that’s then looking towards a 2021 flagship instead.
But let’s say that so far, you don’t care about the battery life or the performance. What’s left to care about? If you want a phone that just makes calls, sends texts, and can be used for light browsing, then you likely won’t care about a flagship then anyway. You’d be better served with a premium mid-range device or even something squarely mid-range, simply because these phones now offer quite some value in the age of $1200 flagships.
Every flagship in 2022 has major compromises
Generally speaking, as a year progresses, I switch between smartphones and have a favorite device or two that I like to return to. I’ve been frequently turning back to the OPPO Find N, but… that’s a last-generation smartphone. The Galaxy S22 Ultra is unusable for me, and the OnePlus 10 Pro is just… fine. Each flagship has a compromise which means I don’t want to use it for a long period of time. Between battery problems, incomplete camera systems, or performance issues, there’s not much really drawing me into using a Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 smartphone this year.
It’s hard to actually see a solution though. We’re halfway through the year and I can’t really think of any Android phone that I can wholeheartedly recommend as a blanket catch-all for every type of user. I find myself recommending phones from last year, or telling friends that they should wait and see what happens in the latter half of the year. In fact, in some years, some consumers may make year-on-year smartphone purchases — for example, upgrading to the OnePlus 9 Pro from the OnePlus 8 Pro. While the benefits were generally marginal, there was usually some improvement that could justify it.
This year, though, I’m not seeing it.
What does the future hold for Android smartphones?
The only hope currently is that the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 Plus is apparently being manufactured by TSMC, and maybe some of those problems will be alleviated. The Cortex X-2 is a power-hungry core though, and a new manufacturing process might not be enough to tame it. I think it’s pretty clear that the yearly release cycle that aims to promote innovation is stifling progress in a sense, as companies are rushed to release iterative improvements even at the cost of the quality of their products.
Currently, if you’re looking to purchase a new phone, my personal advice is to wait. Unless you really need a new phone, the latter half of the year might spell a more interesting smartphone selection. The phones released this half of the year have been good phones in their own right, but very few of them even differentiate themselves from last year. If you live in the US, then maybe the Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra is an appealing prospect, but that’s because it packs so much on top of the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 that it might just be worth it.
No matter what, it’s hard to find a phone that’s worth actually investing in. There are no scrappy underdogs with a “flagship killer” kind of deal, aside from maybe the Realme GT 2 Pro. Even then, that phone doesn’t have everything you would want in a phone, and it’s certainly not a premium flagship. If you have picked up a phone this year, let us know in the comments what you chose and why.