Good Phones at Any Price: The Best By-product of the Affordable Flagship

Good Phones at Any Price: The Best By-product of the Affordable Flagship

The affordable flagship has been a well-documented phenomenon that has given us a lot to talk about throughout the past two years. Setting their sights on flagship specifications, various OEMs have managed to offer more than anyone had expected on a budget.

Indeed, premium construction and top-tier internal hardware are no longer limited to devices at the upper echelons of the price spectrum. Today, you can find devices with the latest in processing power for the price you had to pay for a mere, underpowered mid-ranger a couple of years ago, with Snapdragon 820 devices coming in the form of phones like the Xiaomi Mi5 and the OnePlus 3. But that’s the affordable flagship — the kind of device we’ve wanted for so long, and that we are no longer quite as excited about after numerous surprises. In 2016, the affordable flagship is just one kind of product get giddy about in a sea of good smartphone opportunities. And these other offers have been, in many ways, enabled by the affordable flagship, but their reach has been (understandably) wider.

In the early days, if you wanted a good and no-nonsense Android experience, flagships were really your only viable option

We are talking about the current mid-rangers, with a price-range that is seemingly even lower than before. For as little as $200, you can now find devices with enough horsepower to satisfy the casual user, and many of them also come in a premium design. Today, the lower-end can actually feature a level of build quality similar to what we saw in 2015 affordable flagships, and in 2014’s most expensive devices.

While the construction of 2016 mid-rangers is not quite as well-executed as that of previous years’ more expensive devices, they are quickly getting there via phones like the Honor 5X and Honor 8, ZenFone 3, and various Xiaomi smartphones.

And the most surprising thing about this is that these devices actually offer decent user experiences. Back in the old days, a common saying about Android phones was that if you wanted a good one, you’d need a flagship phone. I am sure many of you have met, for example, a friend who disliked Android after having used a 2012 mid-ranger from Samsung. “But it’s a Galaxy!” they would cry, unaware of Android’s diversity and the many constraints mid-rangers brought back then, as Android software was not well-tuned for the low-end and the specs disparity within the spectrum were larger. Luckily, both the affordable flagship and the pack of powerful mid-rangers are putting pressure on all OEMs to up their ante and better the value they offer on their phones. But it also doesn’t mean that every manufacturer is adapting to the new pricing expectations, and even beloved names like Sony are seemingly incapable of netting a good balance with their latest slew of Xperia phones.

Those that have properly adapted, however, are slowly filling every hole in the price spectrum with a competitive – and sometimes surprising – device. If you start at $200, you get devices like the base-level Moto G4, the heir to the legacy that arguably helped kickstart the powerful mid-ranger trend. Since the original 2013 Moto G, this device line has increasingly adopted popular features, as well as functionality sent downstream by its flagship brethren of the Moto X line. Even with its improvements, the Moto G still has competitors with this more affordable bracket, like the excellent Xiaomi Redmi Note 3 with a more-than-modest hardware setup and insane battery life, or the Honor 5X which sports a surprising design for its $200 price-tag.


If you move up ahead, you can expect some more new feature additions and an overall upgrade. While we wait for newer devices to come up in this segment, there are a few options from early on in the year that still make for a good experience. For $250, you can start off with the Moto G4 Plus, which builds up on the Moto G4 with a fingerprint scanner and a better camera setup. It may not be the very best, but the friendliness of the Moto brand has appeal and pull over the average consumer, and even in the third world markets where better options exist aplenty (consequence of the very same trend the Moto G started), the device has its own set of fans. Then there are devices like the honor 8 up at $300 which are set to arrive shortly in markets — this one in particular packs a Kirin 950 in an exquisite-looking glass body. 

Once you cross the $300 mark, your options expand even further, as this segment sees plenty of yesteryear options become affordable and worthwhile experiences after price drops. The Moto X Pure Edition with its starting price of $299 these days offers a much more value-oriented package than back when it launched with its $399 price tag. The Nexus 5X is another value addition, with its purest of pure Android experiences and developer friendliness making it a popular choice for those seeking a no-frills device, and the low-base price is often reinforce by periodic sales & deals. Phones like the Alcatel Idol 4 are stand-outs in this category, as they offer a lot of features for fewer dollars than its competition. But if you don’t mind spending a bit more, just to get a device that also looks pretty while providing its smartphone experience, the HTC One A9 offers a stylish proposition.

Older low-end and mid-range devices often stained the Android Experience

But if specs are what you seek but you can’t really reach out for flagship prices, then devices like the, ZUK Z2 Pro, Xiaomi Mi 5, the OnePlus 3 and the ZTE Axon 7 are devices that you should look out for. These don’t need an explanation, you’ve probably heard about them and their specifications as well as overall design, all for  With the options available, the affordable flagship category is seeing some of its most fiercest competitions in recent times. And we certainly can’t complain, as this very competition has shaped the market to what it currently stands today. Phones beyond the $450 have started begging people to ask the question whether they really need to reach beyond these prices for an experience that stands at the top of the pack.

And if you don’t want an experience from the top of the pack – or if you can’t afford it – the bottom isn’t so bad either. The scenario now in the low end is in stark contrast when Android started off. Back then, a sub-$200 device would net you a very poor device with an extremely limited hardware configuration, one that would only last you a month painlessly, at most. There’d be issues and compromises left and right, to the point that the Android experience doesn’t remain representative of the Android experience. But now, if $200 (or even less) is all that you’ve got, you could snag yourself a Moto E from last year which makes for a good starter device.

The new Moto E3’s pricing for international markets is not finalized, but there’s a good chance it will fall around the $150 price range, for a product that isn’t bad at all. If you want a standout device, ZTE is disrupting the market with the ZTE Max Pro, launched recently for a super astonishing price tag of just $99 for a device that certainly does not appear this cheap on the spec sheet. Granted, you won’t get a flagship experience in this price segment, but the options definitely leave room for you to enjoy your Android experience. Google, too, recognized the importance of a proper Android experience at this price segment, which is why they created Android One for developing markets — often decent devices with a purer Android and better support than your average mid-ranger.

The affordable flagship did more to the market and the smartphone industry than just disrupt the pricing of its competitors. It led to a revolution that placed value devices at every price segment. The customer now judges phones in every segment by the features it is missing, rather than seeing what it sports — such is the shift in mindset caused by these performance-on-a-budget devices. They gave us options by their own release, and they gave us options by forcing everyone to become competitive. The end result is that the market as it stands now is greatly improved from that of yesteryear. And the future, my friends, is yet to come.

What devices under $500 have you considered, and why? Let us know in the comments below!

About author

Aamir Siddiqui
Aamir Siddiqui

I am a tech journalist with XDA since 2015, while being a qualified business-litigation lawyer with experience in the field. A low-end smartphone purchase in 2011 brought me to the forums, and it's been a journey filled with custom ROMs ever since. When not fully dipped in smartphone news, I love traveling to places just to capture pictures of the sun setting. You can reach out to me at [email protected]