The reaction to the Redmi K20’s price shows there’s still a place for a POCO F2
In the middle of 2018, information first surfaced about Xiaomi working on a new flagship smartphone featuring the Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 SoC. What made this information interesting was the fact that Xiaomi intended this phone to be launched in India under a new sub-brand called “POCO“. At that stage, Xiaomi’s flagship Mi series had failed to capture the hearts of the Indian audience, so Xiaomi’s decision to grant a “flagship” product to a new sub-brand was rather brave and ambitious. The POCO team had an uphill task ahead of them, as they had to compete in a price bracket where Xiaomi phones had not managed to break into, especially in regions like India. And with the launch of the POCO F1, they set out to make smartphone history. Now, Xiaomi is back with the Redmi K20 series, but is the magic still there?
The Magic of POCO
In a lot of ways, the POCO F1 recreated the same magic that OnePlus brought with the OnePlus One, the self-described “flagship killer” of its days. The OnePlus One featured high-end specifications but some very obvious compromises. However, its aggressive pricing made those compromises easier to swallow, and you had very few options that came close to offering the same value-for-money as the OnePlus One. Highest end processor? Check. Plentiful RAM and storage? Check. Decent build quality? Check. Cost half as much as other flagships? Absolutely check. The same checks applied to both the OnePlus One and the POCO F1, as both of them brought meaning and substance to the phrase “affordable flagship”. This meant that you could experience premium, flagship-level performance without needing to break the bank, much to the rejoice of customers who had to otherwise settle for mid-range performance at those same price points. For a launch price tag of ₹18,999 (~$275 at current exchange rates) for the 16GB variant and ₹21,999 (~$320) for the 64GB variant at launch, the OnePlus One “Flagship Killer” was an excellent deal that let you make your peace with its compromises.
OnePlus followed up on the success of the OnePlus One with the rest of its device lineup, slowly creeping up on price until the present day when its latest flagship, the OnePlus 7 Pro, is no longer associated with the word “affordable” but with the word “flagship“. OnePlus’s price creep essentially left behind a vacuum in the “affordable flagship” space, and the launch of the POCO F1 attempted to capitalize on this very empty space.
Much like the OnePlus One, the POCO F1 was not a perfect device. But much like on the OnePlus One, the POCO F1’s compromises were easy to digest. The first device from Xiaomi’s new sub-brand used polycarbonate as the primary material of choice in an age when even budget devices came with metallic bodies. You also got an LCD panel versus the AMOLED displays that other flagships came with (in POCO’s defense, the panel they used was a decent LCD, so this isn’t a true compromise). You also lost on other smaller features that other flagships came with, such as OIS and water-resistance. On the other hand, you weren’t spending nearly as much money as you would have on the competition. You even got a camera that was very good for the price tag, having nearly won MKBHD’s blind camera shootout. The POCO F1 “Master of Speed” was launched with a price of ₹20,999 (~$305) for the 6GB/64GB variant, ₹23,999 (~$348) for the 6GB/128GB variant, and ₹28,999 (~$421) for the 8GB/256GB variant.
The POCO F1 reinforced Xiaomi’s lead in India and made it a more recognizable brand on the global stage. In about three months of its release, the POCO F1 sold 700,000 units globally, a number that indicates that the product was rather well received. Xiaomi has not shared further sales figures for the POCO, but we have no reason to believe that the phone performed poorly at all. So it is only natural to expect Xiaomi to release a successor for a product lineup that showed such promise.
The Redmi K20 Pricing Controversy
With the launch of the Redmi K20 and Redmi K20 Pro, Xiaomi officially embraced the “Flagship Killer” title with open arms. Dubbed the “Flagship Killer 2.0” by the company themselves, the Redmi K20 pair presents itself as no-compromise flagships but with aggressive pricing that only Xiaomi can manage. The Redmi K20 is obviously the lower specced sibling of the duo, but it still retains the same design and build of the Redmi K20 Pro. While the Redmi K20 Pro is powered by the high-tier Qualcomm Snapdragon 855, the Redmi K20 features the upper mid-tier Qualcomm Snapdragon 730. Other advantages of the Redmi K20 Pro over the Redmi K20 include a higher storage capacity option, the Sony IMX 586 versus Sony IMX582 for the rear 48MP sensor, and a comparatively faster charging solution on the Redmi K20 Pro. The Redmi K20 is priced at ₹21,999 (~$319) for 6GB/64GB and ₹23,999 (~$348) for the 6GB/128GB variants, while the Redmi K20 Pro is priced at ₹27,999 (~$406) for 6GB/128GB and ₹30,999 (~$450) for the 8GB/256GB variant.
Curiously, the pricing of the Redmi K20 series has caused an uproar among a vocal set of Xiaomi’s online audience. According to many who agree with this particular opinion, the pricing on the Redmi K20 was expected to shake up the Indian smartphone industry, but the “high” pricing of ₹21,999 (~$319) for the base variant left a lot to be desired for this set of consumers. Consumers infuriated by the pricing decision went ahead and even created a Change.org petition to ask Xiaomi to reduce the price of the Redmi K20 by ₹2,000 ($29), stating that “Redmi K20 is literally very overpriced for specs! For 22000 we get 6+64 which is a lot less storage!” Even considering the media coverage the petition has received, only ~3,500 people signed on in agreement, which is a low figure compared to the number of devices Xiaomi usually ends up selling in India.
The negative sentiment from this set of consumers did create enough buzz for Xiaomi to release an official statement:
— Manu Kumar Jain (@manukumarjain) July 18, 2019
Critics of the Redmi K20 have been quick to point fingers at the Qualcomm Snapdragon 730 as evidence of a “compromise” against the flagship experience that could have been provided by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 855. But in doing so, they are seemingly limiting themselves to the differences that would be apparent based on the naming conventions adopted by Qualcomm and a rather literal interpretation of the word “compromise“. The Snapdragon 730 comes with several features that we see on the Snapdragon 855, such as a tensor accelerator for improvements in AI applications, and integrated AI functionality within the ISP as well. While there is a difference in terms of pure performance numbers as the benchmarks would show you, the Snapdragon 730 is still marketed as an upper mid-range chip from Qualcomm. It’s the third most powerful Qualcomm SoC as Mr. Manu Jain claims, so the real-world performance difference between the 855 and 730 in daily usage scenarios would be hard to spot.
In our opinion, both the Redmi K20 and the Redmi K20 Pro have been priced aggressively. The Redmi K20 series is Xiaomi’s first attempt at a true flagship within the Redmi lineup, featuring a multitude of “first”s for the line. The devices share the same DNA, as Manu puts it, meaning that you get the same excellent build on both phones, with no apparent gimping of the regular variant in favor of the Pro. Tushar was impressed by the Redmi K20 Pro in his first impressions — and since the phones share the same exterior, the statements made in those regards are true verbatim and without any qualifications for both the Redmi K20 and Redmi K20 Pro.
According to the general sentiment from critics, the primary competition for the Redmi K20 comes from the Realme X that was launched two days prior to the Redmi K20.
The Realme X offers several features that the Redmi K20 does, but there are a fair few differences too, which in our eyes, justifies the price difference between the two products from the competing brands. The Qualcomm Snapdragon 710 is also inferior to the newer Snapdragon 730 in many ways, much more than the difference in Qualcomm’s naming convention would suggest. So while the two products compete in neighboring price segments and will thus compete against each other, both are not equal substitutes for the other, so the price differentiation is bound to exist. And judging the Redmi K20 harshly merely because the Realme X offers more RAM and storage is a poor assessment of smartphones and their underlying experiences.
The POCO Pressure on Redmi
The biggest pressure point on the Redmi K20 series is arguably the precedence set by the POCO F1 and its success. We have seen a similar occurrence in the case of the OnePlus One as well. The OnePlus 2 was constantly judged in the shadow of the value that its predecessor brought to the table, and there is a case that could be made that the OnePlus 2 would have been received better had the OnePlus One not existed and if the Snapdragon 810 had not been as bad. (Mario has already talked about this in the past).
With the Redmi K20 series, Xiaomi is deviating from the philosophy that they had followed for the POCO F1. The Redmi K20 Pro represents Xiaomi’s attempt at a no-compromise flagship experience tailored for the Indian market. So the smaller compromises that do exist on the Redmi K20 Pro, such as the lack of OIS and wireless charging, are essentially non-issues for its target audience. It’s a different approach to a smartphone, and this dictates the decisions taken.
For the POCO F1, there were larger and more apparent compromises such as the display technology and the polycarbonate build. These two make up some of the more expensive upgrades that have been incorporated within the Redmi K20 series, and a shift towards better and more premium technologies is bound to come at a literal cost. The POCO F1 was not a no-compromise flagship — it compromised, but it compromised well. The Redmi K20 series and the POCO F-series are two different branches that follow different philosophies, so it isn’t entirely fair to adjudge the Redmi K20 as “overpriced” and dissolve all of its upgrades merely because the cheaper POCO F1 existed a year ago.
Xiaomi is also partly to blame for the pre-launch hype they tried to generate for the Redmi K20 series. The “Flagship Killer” moniker seemingly induced an expectation of a sub-₹20,000 (sub-$300) pricing on the base variant, as the Change.org petition clearly attests toward. Further, the pre-launch Alpha Sales for the Redmi K20 series allowed users to pre-book the device without knowing its pricing. Naturally, the average consumer would pick up the POCO F1 as their baseline for pricing expectations since they do not have any other cues to go on.
While pre-booking a device is not a novelty, pre-booking the first device in an unknown series is a risky move. Consumers who found themselves confounded by the disparity between their expectations and the reality would grasp at straws to redeem their unfavorable situations, however possible. Xiaomi does provide a way to back out from the alpha sale by providing equivalent amounts back to consumers in their carts, but we were unable to discern if there was a way to get a total cash/bank refund of this amount directly.
The Curious Case of the Missing POCO F2
Amidst all the Redmi K20 pricing drama, one question still remains to be asked: where is the next POCO?
The answer to this question is a less exciting: “We really don’t know”.
About this time last year, we had begun hearing rumors about Xiaomi working on the POCO F1. A large number of unverified rumors never make it to our front page because of the prudence that we practice, so even though the first reports from our end came in later on, we did have a rudimentary idea of the existence of a device that would end up as the POCO F1. But so far, for the POCO F2, we have not encountered any credible information that would point towards its existence. There were rumors that the Redmi K20 series as was launched in China, would end up with a POCO rebranding in India, but we all know how that turned out.
Further, POCO’s existence as a sub-brand within Xiaomi did not come with well-defined boundaries. Xiaomi’s sub-branding game only became more confusing when Redmi itself graduated into a sub-brand. Prior to the launch of the Redmi K20, one could pin Redmi towards the budget and early mid-range, POCO towards the affordable flagship segment, and Mi towards the high-end and more experimental devices. But the Redmi K20 series essentially intrudes upon the space occupied by POCO, and one would inevitably end up cannibalizing the other in some form.
To compound the situation, news has also emerged of Mr. Jai Mani leaving his role as POCO India’s Head of Product. While no official announcement has been made by POCO or Xiaomi, Mr. Mani’s Twitter bio mentions him as “ex-PM @PocophoneGlobal and @XiaomiIndia”, which confirms his departure.
Mr. Mani has been a key driving factor behind the decisions taken on the POCO F1, so his departure, coupled with the other changes mentioned above, does raise questions about the existence of the POCO F2 and POCO as a separate sub-brand. Xiaomi has remained non-committal about a response to the POCO situation, so the situation could shift in either direction.
“The” POCO F2 gives way to “a” POCO F2
A key takeaway from the Redmi K20 pricing controversy is that there’s still a place for a POCO F2. The POCO F1 had everything you needed and nothing that you didn’t. Again, the compromises it made to the idea of a “flagship” were deemed necessary by both the company as well as consumers to make it “affordable”. While the regular Redmi K20 is aggressively priced in our opinion, it isn’t affordably priced in consumer opinion. Consequently, there is a vacuum left behind where the POCO F1 existed, one that isn’t entirely being filled in by Xiaomi or its competition. This vacuum would only be filled by a POCO F1 or OnePlus One — a device that correctly assesses the priorities of the market and delivers a flagship-like Android experience in an acceptably compromised package. Will we still get one this year?